Bil Browning

Video: Coming Out in the 1950's

Filed By Bil Browning | February 22, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: 1950s, coming out of the closet, elderly gays and lesbians, gay elders, gay history, LGBT community

What a fantastic project! The newly formed Pye/Harris Project was founded by 94-year old Edgar Pye, whose sixty-year life partner Robert Harris died in 2006. In Mr. Harris' honor, Pye created the project to show young gay people that a simple life of commitment and dignity can be used as a powerful political statement in and of itself.

The group put out a video this week that features a handful of teens interviewing some of our elder spokespersons about their experiences coming out in the 1950s. This is good stuff and you won't want to miss it. It's 14 minutes, but you'll sit glued to your computer screen the entire time.

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I didn't come out in the 50s because I was only just born in '53. I DID come out at age 19 in 1972, however. 1972 was much more like the 1950s than it was like the 1970s! In 1974 the APA changed its diagnosis of homosexuality per se is a mental disorder. The gay subculture consisted of bars and bushes. And homosexuality was against the law. There were no gay center or gay books or newspapers. We were still completely invisible, except for the left radical brand new gay activists out of NYC.

The '50',s, '60's,and '70's also were times when the newspapers regularly had stories about regular government employees being fired either for being homosexual, or for suspicion of "being part of a homosexual ring". The term "ring" was often used by the government and the press, as a subversive term. Stories like these were really intimidating to gay readers, who feared coming out to anyone. Of course military, police jobs, anything with a security clearance in private industry or in government precluded gays from passing. We were deemed "security risks", and called "susceptible to blackmail." School teachers, even college professors in many states, were also vulnerable to firing for being homosexual.

No one was "out". Rather, out homosexuals were called "avowed" homosexuals. My friends often joked in the '70's and '80's that they don't remember ever taking their homosexual vows. Avowed was a ridiculous term from the government and press. The term suggests a stubborn decision not to change ourselves back to be like the mainstream.

These circumstances were the reason for the first item on the gay agenda of the '60's and '70's to simply be "coming out." Considering the times, it was a huge and scary step for everyone. Everyone knew instances of guys who "came out", only to return to the closet eventually, having been beaten down by society, their job, or their family or friends. usually this was accompanied with a move to a city far away, to start over, to be re-invented as straight again. These guys usually lived lives of misery.

The gay press played a vital role in defining the community. The Washington Blade was among the first and the best. After Stonewall, bars became less harassed year by year. Pride celebrations were immensely important, to demonstrate to ourselves both our numbers, as well as our diversity within the community. It was easy to think that there were not too many gays until you saw the mobs that assembled for the original Pride celebrations in different cities. Of course, the national marches marked incredible, heady progress. It made us feel powerful as a community, that eventually, we would achieve equality.

Gay bookstores also were important. They sold every type of publication for gays from porn to philosophy, which only a few years earlier had been considered criminal to mail or to possess. There were many such prosecutions by state and federal authorities, until the famous "Fanny Hill" case decided by the US Supreme Court in 1966.Even though I was only just starting high school, I went with three friends and we all split the cost of $2.75 to buy the book and read it. Of course, I wished that it had not been "straight", but I got my money's worth. This case paved the way for the gay publications to start the huge industry that it now is.

Although there are dozens of important issues facing the gay community today, I think that the ones that will have the biggest impact on the most number of gays, and which will change the societal perceptions currently against us the most are: 1) opening up the armed forces for gays to serve openly; 2) opening marriage equality for all people; 3) enacting ENDA, or legislation like it. to protect all members of the GLBTQ communities in their jobs, and in hiring.

As simple naive farm kid from Missouri I was being processed out of the military in 1966 as a homosexual. It was such an unthinkable series of events that I was a bundle of nerves. It looked as if the worst possible thing could become a reality. I might get a Dishonorable or worse an Undesirable Discharge. Either would be with me for the rest of my life. I read in Playboy that there were 2 organizations in San Francisco that were working for the rights of Homosexual men. They were the Society For Individual Rights (Sir) and the Mattachine Society. I had visions of a powerful organization with dozens of smart lawyers anxious, ready and capable of proving that I had rights and that it was wrong to wreck my life just because the military had the power to do so. Two wonderful groups were ready to stand by me and defend me. Both organizations were listed in the phone book. One never answered and I must have written the other number wrong because a woman answered. I checked and redialed the number. Again a woman answered. I explained why I was calling and indicated that I really needed help. “We can’t help you honey. That’s not what we are working on” she growled. Only then did I realize that it was not a woman but a man sounding like a woman. All hope was gone. I was alone again. For some stupid reason I meekly said “Thank you” as I hung up. The military decided that I was more undesirable than dishonorable and kicked me out with that label. It was difficult for several years, but I met others with broken bones as well as broken spirits. The military just played with my mind. Undesirable. What amazing power can come from a word.

Thanks for sharing Bil! Really awesome stuff!