November 01, 2014

From One to Windsor: Sixty Years of the Movement for LGBT Rights

Jacob Richards

In 1954, as Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), and the growing civil rights movement made racial equality an increasing part of the national conversation, the idea of equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people was far from most people’s minds. If anything, the public discourse about LGBT people at this time focused on increasing rather than decreasing repressive laws and policies. Industrialization and urbanization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had enabled the emergence of communities of people whose desires placed them outside the gender and sexual roles of traditional heterosexual family units. Although these communities had long faced legal and societal oppression, the 1950s saw an upsurge in vilification and legal harassment fueled by a national panic about “sexual perverts,” a phrase that was often code for homosexuality.

The McCarthy Era “Lavender Scare” drummed up fears about LGBT people in the federal government or other official positions, viewing them both as intrinsically immoral and a security threat at risk of blackmail. Thousands of federal workers were fired based on accusations of homosexuality, and the witch hunts soon spread to state and local governments. The military, which had already engaged in systematic attempts to screen out gays and lesbians in World War II, upped its efforts to root out “sexual deviants” in the ranks. The FBI and the Post Office investigated and tracked LGBT people, often disclosing the information they uncovered to employers, who would promptly fire their LGBT employees.

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