March-April 2003: Witch Hunts in America

Published in: March-April 2003 issue.


Is humanity doomed to suffer periodic outbursts of fratricidal madness in which those in power suddenly decide to persecute a vulnerable minority? Witch hunts, inquisitions, pogroms against Jews and gypsies, racist lynchings, the Holocaust itself—Western history is pocked with such outbursts from the Middle Ages down to very recent times. Gay men and lesbians have been the target of these sudden spasms of malevolence on many occasions, some of which are documented in this issue.

Witch hunts against gay people are essentially a 20th-century phenomenon, ushered in by the introduction of “the homosexual” as a recognized social type in the late 19th century. To be sure, there had always been random persecutions of (mostly) men for committing “sodomy” upon man or beast, but it was only with the emergence of this social category, grounded in the new science of psychology, that there erupted systematic attempts to purge gay people from the community.

And it didn’t take long for this to happen. Two incidents described here occurred around 1920: the Newport Sex Scandal, which involved the entrapment of local homosexuals by Navy decoys; and a student purge at Harvard that resulted in two suicides—and both reflect the novelty of the concept as the authorities grappled with what exactly they were looking for, what constituted bad behavior. Both actions were carried out by a large institution concerned that its members were being “corrupted” by the presence of homosexuals, and both relied on the preferred inquisitional method of all witch hunts, the use of intimidation to get those captured first to name names.

A now infamous incident occurred at Smith College in 1960, a final hiccup of the McCarthy Era, when several male professors were arrested for possession of gay pornography. It’s striking how far things have come since the two earlier incidents, which devolved into graphic descriptions of alleged sexual acts, reminiscent of the classic witch trials (Salem, et al.), in which every lurid detail was wrung from the victims. Now the mere possession of mildly dirty pictures is being taken as evidence of a permanent homosexual orientation—and as grounds for being publicly tried and humiliated, and fired from one’s job.

The notorious Boston/Boise affair of 1977—what is it with New England and witch trials?—started out in the usual way but went quickly off the rails when it provoked a backlash on the part of the newly organized gay and lesbian community. While homosexuality as such was no longer being prosecuted, an aggressive D.A. decided to start rounding up gay men and charging them with statutory rape; 24 were ultimately tried for having sex with a minor. The use of this legalistic surrogate for what was clearly a gay witch hunt worked in the short run, but in time it became clear that, while most of those arrested probably were gay, the case for statutory rape was fabricated out of whole cloth.

Since the 1970’s, pedophilia has become essentially the only crime capable of triggering an old-fashioned witch hunt—hence, the daycare panic of the 80’s, the Internet stings of the 90’s, and perhaps the current assault on Catholic priests. The one major exception is the U.S. military, which has been purging soldiers just for being gay or lesbian for more than fifty years. By now this process has become totally bureaucratized, especially under “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” where it all comes down to the utterance of a few magic words to x number of witnesses. I guess this represents progress since the Newport trial in 1920, what with all that talk of blowjobs and bodily fluids. Today’s military takes the antiseptic approach of basing its purges on mere speech, on the statement that one partakes of a certain identity.

This drift toward an increasingly abstract definition of immorality should give us pause as we enter a period of unusual instability and danger. Witch trials thrive in such times, and always they involve the search for identities, for types of people selected for some easily recognized—or easily imagined—characteristic, the kind that can be reduced to a single word.