The last American minority continues to struggle for equal rights, but that's no cause for sadness. This week, gay and lesbian communities across the globe celebrate what it is to be part of a group that has been around as long as human beings have walked the Earth.
Although many historic cultures accepted and aknowledged same-sex relationships as a fact of life, including the ancient Greek culture which regarded male/male love as the highest form, the word "homosexual" was not coined until 1869 by Hungarian physician Karoly Maria Benkert. Even after identifying a societal group with the name, it took many years for the term to become widely used to define the minority of a group of people in society that preferred relationships with members of their own sex.
Alan Virta, head librarian of special collections at the Boise State University library, said, "It's only around the year 1900 that you start getting this identity as a group of homosexuals. It [the idea of a type of person who preferred the same sex] really didn't filter down to the public for years, but you start getting this ball rolling with a sensational trial like Oscar Wilde [tried for 25 counts of gross indecencies and conspiracy to commit gross indecencies] in London in 1895. That was the Michael Jackson, O.J., Scott Peterson trial of the century, all wrapped up in one. It was on the front page of the Idaho Statesman. It really started to bring to the conciousness of people the idea of homosexuals. It was also about this time that the medical profession began to talk about homosexuals."
The Roaring 20s, a time of decadence and prosperity, created an urban environment where homosexual men and women were comfortable expressing their lifestyle within their social groups, often through the theater and dance of the day. Cabaret and drag shows flourished during this time. But in Boise, homosexuality was not accepted at all.
"The first big [homosexual] trial in Boise was in 1920," Virta said. "At the main trolley station [the current corner of Capitol and Bannock], two guys got busted for allegedly getting together in the restroom. The trial transcipt is interesting because it gives a glimpse of what gay cruising was like in 1920. Idaho Power, which owned the electric railway, was getting suspicious of activity in the station so they drilled a hole in the ceiling and caught the pair red-handed. One of the guys was an upholsterer, a working-class guy, and the other was a prominent rancher who happened to be active in politics. He was assistant secretary of the Ada County Republican Central Committee." The first trial ended in a hung jury but the second saw both men convicted.
After World War II, the mass migration of people across the U.S. began a process of social networking that led to the creation of communities and the first gay bars. Virta said that in the 1940s and '50s there were no gay bars in Boise, but that one older gay man he interviewed who lived here during that time said there were certain bars they could be comfortable in.
In the 1950s, America searched for scapegoats and conducted it's own inquisition, ferreting out Communists-homosexuals being persecuted along with them. Homosexuals were purged from government jobs and in 1953, President Eisenhower issued an executive order banning gay men and women from employment from all federal jobs. State and local governments followed suit and by the mid-50s, with FBI investigations and vice squad raids, thousands of homosexuals were arrested in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Wichita, Dallas, Memphis and Seattle. But perhaps the most vicious anti-gay witch hunt in the nation occurred in Boise, Idaho.
A short news item in the December 1955 Time Magazine said, "Boise, Idaho, the state capital, is usually thought of as a boisterous, rollicking he-man's town, and home of the rugged Westerner. In the downtown saloons of the city a faint echo of Boise's ripsnorting frontier days can still be heard, but its quiet residential areas and 70 churches give the city an appearance of immaculate respectability. Recently, Boiseans were shocked to learn that their city had sheltered a widespread homosexual underworld that involved some of Boise's most prominent men and had preyed on hundreds of teen-age boys for the past decade."
In the 1960s, author John Gerassi came to Boise to investigate the incidents 10 years earlier. In his book The Boys of Boise, he documented this dark episode in Boise's past in which many prominent and powerful men in the community were prosecuted for homosexual activities. Some were run out of town. Some committed suicide. Some men, powerful enough to avoid prosecution, were never outed and not officially known to this day.
Out of this nationwide persecution during the 1950s and '60s, many homosexual men and women began to organize politically. Influenced by and organized like militant black civil rights groups, these "homophile movement" organizations protested against police harassment and picketed government agencies. On Friday evening, June 27, 1969, New York police staged one of their frequent raids on a Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. This time, the patrons fought back and three days of rioting in the area ensued. This event ushered in a social change that defined and established the gay rights movement. The following year, 5,000 homosexual men and women marched in New York City to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
The social acceptance of homosexuals in communities began to change across the country. In 1974, the American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off of its list of mental illnesses. Many communities wrote sexual orientation into their civil rights statutes. States began to decriminalize homosexual behavior. Religious organizations engaged in debates over the morality of homosexuality, and many opened their doors to the homosexual community.
But progress by the homosexual community inspired protests and reaction by those who remained bigoted. In 1977, Anita Bryant led an anti-gay movement in Florida, the same year that six female Boise police officers, fired for allegedly being lesbians, won back-pay and benefits from the Boise Police Department. During the 1980s conservative and religious forces banded together against the gay movement. Stigmatized by the AIDS epidemic, the community faced new challenges in the courts over rights to medical privacy, health care coverage and civil rights. Today, the homosexual community still struggles to fight for the rights enjoyed by all other Americans.