From the end of the nineteenth century on, homosexuals were put firmly “in the closet.”  The “Closet” is a metaphor for “silence” about one’s forbidden sexual identity and one’s forbidden sexual longings.  Fear of social disapproval and, perhaps even criminal prosecution, created generations of closeted individuals, mostly males, who lived unauthentic lives in hiding. Some men (and women) lived in cultures so conservative or sexually repressed that they were confused about why they were unhappy in perfectly suitable marriages.  And many of these men actually married and had children to secure the door to the “closet” and satisfied their desires for male love through male prostitutes and furtive encounters and double lives. In the very conservative post-war period, the American government purged homosexuals, both male and female, from the military and the government after World War II.

The late Eve Kosofsky Sedwick’s famous book demonstrated the conflicted and “incoherent” legal, social and political attitudes towards homosexuals. “The closet,” she stated, “is he defining structure for gay oppression in this century. Indeed, since Epistemology of the Closet was published in 1990, Congress has passed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the “Defense of Marriage Act,” both of which are probably unconstitutional, and the state of California and thirty other states, the majority, have outlawed same-sex marriage. As Sedwick wrote,

The most obvious fact about the history of judicial formulations is that it codifies an excruciating system of double binds, systematically oppressing gay people, identities, and acts by undermining through contradictory constraints on discourse the grounds of their very being…I want to argue that a lot of energy of attention and demarcation that has swirled around issues of homosexuality since the the end of the nineteenth century, in Europe and  the United States, has been impelled by the distinctively indicative relation of homosexuality to wider mappings of secrecy and disclosure, and of private and public, that were and are critically heterosexist culture at large, mappings whose enabling but dangerous incoherence has become oppressively, durable condensed uncertain figures of homosexuality. “The closet” and “coming out,” now verging on all-purpose phrases for the potent crossing and recrossing of almost any politically charged lines of representation, have been the gravest and most magnetic of figures. 

During the war men and women had left their small towns and were thrown into the company of other men, a companionship that was close and intimate. The same was true for women in the military. Part of the desire to “return to normal” was connected with relocated gender roles to the strict pre-war conditions, and the stigma against homosexuality was profound by the Fifties. However, many self-realized homosexuals, men and women, never returned to their home towns and found like-minded communities in the cities where they began to form underground sub-cultures.  Although they were in the closet, homosexuals were also living in the real world and were well aware of the social and political movements of the Sixties and of the Counter-Culture.  Equally important to the emergence of homosexuality was the Sexual Revolution.

The Sexual Revolution was a social outcome of a period of economic abundance in which it was no longer necessary to exercise restraint of any kind.  One could delay entry into the work force and prolong youth, one could spend money in a consumer economy, and one could experience sexual pleasures of all kind, all now thought of as a natural and inalienable right by the Sixties.  With everyone else enjoying Free Love, there was no need to stay in the closet and homosexuals began to claim their long repressed identities.  The result of this long pent-up need was “the shot heard around the homosexual world,” known as “Stonewall.”  Stonewall refers to a gay bar for transvestites on Christopher Street where the police would conduct harassing raids of gay employees and transvestite customers, until a three day riot staring June 28, 1969.  The homosexuals struck back and fought the police and the days of rioting that followed became the symbolic beginnings of the Gay Liberation Movement.

The new word for the new liberation was “gay.”  The term “gay” had been an underground word for homosexuals for decades, but its original meaning referred to women who were immoral, perhaps even prostitutes. “Gay Paree” or gay Paris did not mean homosexual Paris but Paris where extra martial sexual pleasure was easily obtainable.  The term “gay” was a slang reference to sexually available women well into the twentieth century.  Perhaps because men who were homosexual had been forced into the arena of public sex, the term “gay” moved from a female to a male society.  Whatever the reasons, “gay” was attached to “liberation” in the 1960s and took on a political agenda for homosexuals. Like people of color, homosexuals had been hunted and oppressed, denied equal rights; and like people of color, gay men and lesbian women began the long struggle for social and political equality that continues today in the sixties.

The position of the gays was militant and confrontational and focused on asserting a specific identity that was open, out of the closet, proud, and distinctly homosexual.  The gay position was quite different from their predecessors in homophile groups in the previous decades.  The homophile communities promoted homosexuality as non-threatening and strove for peaceful assimilation into the heterosexual community.  By stressing homosexuals as an asset to the community, the earlier groups, such as the Chicago Society for Human Rights, Mattachine Society, and the Daughters of Bilitis, hoped to be accepted. Even the term “homophile” is a mild one, implying an opposition to “homophobe,” or one who hates homosexuals.  “Homophile” suggests an interest in homosexuality, such as an individual who is interested in French culture might be termed a “Francophile.”

In contrast to the earlier movements, Gay Liberation had no desires to be appreciated or assimilated.  The gays wanted to assert themselves as a political force, demanding their right to live their own lives on their own terms.  Far from being a mental illness, homosexuality was an essential and innate characteristic that one was born with.  There was nothing shameful or sinful about being gay.  Homosexuality was not a disease or an affliction of which one could be “cured.” Despite the fact that Sigmund Freud had declared homosexuality to be a “mental illness,” by 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of psychological disorders. Starting in 1967, homosexuality began to be decriminalized and in 1986 the Supreme Court upheld the decriminalization of sexual behavior between consenting adults.

The fight for civil rights for gays and lesbians has been a long and hard one. The first significant gay liberation movement was GAA, or the Gay Activists Alliance, founded post-Stonewall. The Alliance dissolved in 1981 as the result of internal fictionalization. However, in the face of the growing AIDS crisis, another powerful organization was founded, GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Against Defamation. Under the administration of Ronald Reagan, civil rights and public health came together, as gay men began dying in frightening numbers from AIDS. Because the government and the pharmaceutical industry refused to act to save the lives of American citizens, this new group, along with ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, staged many demonstrations in an attempt to raise public awareness about the literal dangers of discrimination.

From the sixties on, cultural attitudes towards gays have been led by legal and social changes coming from America and gay liberation became a global phenomenon. However, some parts of American and some parts of the world was more conservative than others. the Middle Eastern and religious fundamentalist cultures in both American and Asia reject any claims to the legitimacy of homosexuality.  That said, in the twenty-first century, the “closed” cultures have fallen further and further behind the mainstream “open” cultures and the younger generations have no objections towards homosexuals.

The prejudices against homosexuals seem to be local, contained in certain parts of the globe, certain sections of America, and specific to the older generations, to less educated and lower class individuals. Although gay and lesbian couples have become part of the American landscape, these individuals know that they cannot live in freedom in some locales and that their children are not safe in many states. On the other hand, most observers believe that the denial of basic social and economic rights to homosexuals will fade as the older generations are replaced by the young generations who are a few decades from  coming into power.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

[email protected]


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

15 + 2 =