Twentieth Century Witch Hunt

            As a soon to be graduate of the Cooperstown Graduate Program I can say that I’ve been filling out a lot of job applications, hoping that some museum somewhere will give me a chance. Yet with all of these job applications never have I had to check a box stating my sexuality, nor have I been asked in an interview, “Are you or have you ever been a member of a lesbian relationship.” [1] In the 1950s and 60s though, this was the norm, especially in government jobs. It was a 20th century witch hunt and lesbians were the target.

            In the 19th century, women loving women was common and even encouraged as an important social institution among the middle class. It was referred to as romantic friendship and was not indicative of a sexual relationship, but rather a close personal intimacy between two women. As Lillian Faderman says in her book, Odd girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, there were definitely levels of intimacy between these women, some of them of a more sexual nature. Over time, however, late 20th century sexologists emerged decrying love between two women to be unnatural and abnormal, the culmination of which was the “witch hunt” of the 1950s and 60s.

            Sexologists, mostly white middle-class medical men, labeled women who loved other women to be “sexual inverts.” Those who had sexual relationships with other women were labeled “congenital inverts.” [2] It was this 19th century obsession with taxonomy that created a deep-rooted fear of homosexuality in American culture that resulted in another marginalized group who had to fight for, and are still fighting for, basic human rights and acceptance.

            As fear of Communism ran rampant in the 1950s the notion of same-sex love became increasingly feared because it “presented an uncomfortable challenge to the mood that longed for obedience to an illusion of uncomplicated ‘morality.’” [3] The solution was similar to that of McCarthyism; target, blacklist, and tyrannize anyone who was merely suspected to be a homosexual. However, as lives were upended it was amidst this charged political and social climate that lesbians banded together and created a subculture with more clearly defined notions of identity, in particular, an identity that went against the prescribed mainstream definition of what it meant to be a lesbian. Over the next two decades, resistance against unfair and tyrannical treatment against homosexuals grew within homosexual communities until it became no longer acceptable to be an object of the 20th century witch hunts.

Stonewall Inn
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

            In 1969 something remarkable happened. An ordinary police raid of a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village resulted in the first public and violent resistance by citizens of the gay community as a reaction to their “marginalization and oppression.” The Stonewall Riot, as it became known, lasted three days and formed the basis for “change in the politics of the LGBTQ community.” [4] As riot veteran and gay rights activist Craig Rodwell remembers “A number of incidents were happening simultaneously. There was no one thing that happened or one person, there was just… a flash of group, of mass anger.” [5]

            Even now in 2012 our country is still divided over the basic civil rights of all people, no matter their sexuality. While homosexuality is more largely accepted in society and the mass witch hunts for gay and lesbian people are over, there is still a long fight ahead before we attain equality for the homosexual community.


[1] Faderman, Lillian, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in

 Twentieth Century America.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Katz, Jonathan and David C. Ward, Hide Seek: Difference and Desire in American



[5] Wright, Lionel, The Stonewall Riots – 1969 — A Turning Point in the Struggle for

 Gay and Lesbian Liberation,

4 thoughts on “Twentieth Century Witch Hunt

  1. I’ve done quite a bit of pondering about the challenges that lesbians face in our society. I had multiple male friends who were “out” in high school and college but not a lot of women friends who were comfortable coming out. I wonder if coming out as a lesbian is more challenging at a younger age because of the media perpetuated notion that women who are bisexual or lesbian are doing it to attract male attention. So many stereotypes are employed to degrade, rationalize, and “fix” the LGBT community. When will people learn to accept others the way that they were born?

    1. I was always bothered by the people that thought you could fix gay people by “therapizing” it out of them, or sending them to summer camps for people who are confused about their sexuality. So wrong.

    2. I agree, Cate. I also have multiple guy friends who were open about their homosexuality in both high school and college, but knew of no female classmates who were openly “out.”

  2. I agree with Cate’s line of thinking. The “feminist” association and name calling/stereotyping that comes with being a proud lesbian is still very much alive in the 21st century. It is no wonder the difficulties woman have in being open about their sexuality. Many of the stereotypes described by Faderman still exist amoung older audiences; the only hope is that our generation can continue moving forward in acceptance.

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