Jonathan Rauch on the History of LGBTQ Erasure

Over the years, Jonathan Rauch’s prolific work has delved into many provocative political and cultural topics. The openly gay author, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has been a strong proponent of same-sex marriage and a gallant critic of attacks on free thought.  His newest contribution to The Atlantic, “The U.S. Should Apologize to Gay People” (26 January 2024), is a riveting piece of journalistic research, exploring the ways in which the U.S. government led a campaign to erase LGBTQ people from public life.  

Rauch’s investigation exemplifies a genuinely dialectical approach to the study of history. By that I mean, Rauch is concerned with exploring the full context that shaped and was shaped by political, cultural, economic, psychiatric, and social institutions, all working in tandem toward the oppression of LGBTQ people in the United States. He traces the ways in which these institutions became reciprocally reinforcing preconditions and effects of one another, leaving a tragic wreckage of individual lives in their wake.

The author reminds us of a time when “the U.S. government fired homosexuals, the military discharged them, and police arrested them.” But this well-known history sheds little light on the systemic policies that “were not discrimination of any ordinary sort.” Rauch admits that even he had “not fully appreciated” the full historical scope involved. He’s very clear that “[b]ecause society targeted what it identified as ‘homosexuality,’” he uses that term throughout his essay, even though it applies broadly to “[p]eople who today would identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or gender-nonconforming,” all of whom were targeted. He writes:

Beginning in the 1940s and continuing for more than six decades, the United States waged a campaign of legal, social, and psychological obliteration against its homosexual population. … The campaign was initiated by the federal government but recruited all of society. The pressure could be felt everywhere. It found you not only at work, where you could be fired, or in bars and clubs, where you could be arrested, but also on the street and in public spaces, where you could be harassed or assaulted; in a doctor’s care, where you might be deemed mentally ill; at home, where you saw gay people ridiculed and pathologized on TV. …

The goal … was not merely to disadvantage homosexual people; it was to erase homosexuality from every corner of public life. … Some of what America did to its LGBTQ citizens would have been right at home in places such as prewar Germany, Communist East Germany, and any number of repressive states today. … The campaign stands, at its peak, as America’s purest national experiment with totalitarianism. Although not the cruelest or deadliest of America’s historical oppressions—no populations were decimated or relocated; no people were enslaved—it stands apart in its use of every governmental and social channel to eliminate the very thought of “deviance.”

Whereas totalitarianism is typically thought of as “centrally planned and imposed,” in the United States, “a decentralized system of mutually reinforcing repressions” had much the same totalizing effect. Rauch recognizes how various structures, institutions, and practices across American society fortified one another. “Official acts of persecution, executed loudly over many years, could not fail to echo in the culture at large; and indeed, they created a permission structure for blatant prejudice. Mass media amplified the message that homosexuality was disgusting and terrifying.” This “entire system of erasure was backed by violence,” as LGBTQ people were all too often singled out for street bullying, threats, and assaults. Moreover, the psychiatric profession provided “both legitimacy and impetus for the eradication of homosexuality,” becoming “the most soul-crushing cog in the repressive machine.” The psychiatric use of electroshock therapy, lobotomization, and other gruesome techniques to tame sexuality were matched by coerced resignations and blackmail in the private sector and interrogations, arrests, and prosecutions in the public sector.

Rauch continues:

The arrests, the raids, the firings, the networks of informants, the coercive investigations, the surveillance, the obliteration of privacy, the abuse of medicine, the drumbeat of street violence, the disruptions of social gatherings and family life—each element of the regime supported and amplified the others. Only by standing back and seeing the regime whole does one appreciate how all of society was bent toward repressing every aspect of homosexual life, wherever it might appear. The goal was to suppress not just deviant activity but deviant expression and even deviant thought. That was what made it literally totalitarian.

Rauch’s investigation in this remarkable essay is staggering in its scale. He examines how interlocking structures of oppression amounted to a virtual “declaration of war” on homosexuality. Some of the battlegrounds in this war could be found in the actions of various commissions, Congressional and Senate hearings, agencies as diverse as the Foreign Service, Civil Service, and FBI, and the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and State. It extended even into the Oval Office, when, “in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower issued his infamous Executive Order 10450, one of America’s most grotesque civil-rights violations, declaring ‘sexual perversion’ to be a security threat. The effect was to authorize all federal departments and agencies to root out and terminate sexual deviants. … [H]omosexuals were fired automatically, without excuse or exception.”

This federal effort was met by state and local “enforcement of anti-homosexual measures,” which involved systematic “surveilling, entrapping, arresting, harassing, exposing, and prosecuting homosexuals at previously unknown rates.” Targeted by laws prohibiting “solicitation, indecency, lewdness, loitering, and obscenity effectively criminalized the mere act of flirting, socializing, or hanging out.”

In 1973, even after the American Psychiatric Association had “removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, … the damage lingered for decades.” In that very same year, Rauch explains,

Farrall Instrument Co. of Grand Island, Nebraska, proudly advertised a line of devices for home-psychiatric treatment of male homosexuality. The ‘Visually Keyed Shocker’ showed alternating slides depicting conventionally attractive women and men (‘stimulus scenes’). The latter were accompanied by an electric shock. If you were a latent homosexual and desperate for a ‘cure,’ you could buy one for $600 or more.

In a moment of poignant self-reflection, Rauch, who was 13 in that year, tells us:

This was the world I grew up in … Everything I saw and heard conveyed that something was wrong with me, and that I must keep it secret, especially from the people I loved and depended on. So warped was my inner world that, until I was 25, I could not bear to face the blatant truth about myself and managed to believe that I was asexual, some kind of freak who could never love anyone (a story I told in my 2013 book, Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul). In that respect, though I never owned a “Visually Keyed Shocker,” I administered a full course of self-erasure in the privacy of my mind.

Many years later, on January 9, 2017, Secretary of State John Kerry posted an official apology on the State Department’s website, “for the department’s relentless, decades-long persecution of homosexuals. By January 23, the page was gone, removed in one of the first acts of the incoming Trump administration. The government was sorry for two weeks.”

That such acts of erasure continue prompts Rauch to call on the United States to join the governments of the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and others, which have apologized for “past abuses of homosexuals.” He further demands “restitution to living victims of government arrest, firing, or military discharge.” This is most assuredly not “pandering to modern grievance culture.” In Rauch’s view, it is the righting of a systemic injustice in accordance with American ideals.

The author warns us that as today’s “conservative activists crisscross the country seeking to wipe homosexuality and transgenderism from school libraries, from history classes, and from other curricula,” there is an eerie similarity to the campaigns of yore. His words are timelier than ever as illiberal assaults on LGBTQ people are heightened throughout this nation’s increasingly toxic culture wars.

My discussion here, which quotes liberally from Rauch’s important essay, offers only a fraction of its unsettling contents. I urge folks to read every single word of this raw historical reckoning.

You can access the article on the site of The Atlantic. It is also archived here.

Some Facebook discussion of this entry can be found here.

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