What Was It Like To Be LGBT In The 1950s?
by Belinda Dronkers-Laureta on May 11th, 2016

Keeping Families Together

The Asian And Pacific Islander Family Pride Blog

July 12, 2013

What Was It Like To Be LGBT In The 1950s?


During a recent meeting, a participant introduced us to the Pye/Harris Legacy Project. Ed Pye and Bob Harris were a loving couple for fifty-eight years. Their life together ended in 2005 when Mr. Harris died. Mr. Pye passed away in 2012 but not before he co-founded the PHLP to continue their lifetime of working and giving. One area of interest to the PHLP is “equal treatment and rights for the gay and lesbian community.”

PHLP plans to make four videos collectively called the “Coming Out Series.” Two have come out already and the person who introduced us to PHLP was kind enough to send us those. You can also watch them on YouTube, just enter the titles Coming Out In the 1950s and Coming Out In the 1960s.

The 1950s one is fascinating. This generation—two high school students and a college sophomore—asks people from two, three generations ago what it was like to be gay or lesbian back then. They wonder how much more difficult it was to find other gay people, when today, though much easier, it can still be difficult. How would you identify another gay or lesbian person? Hand-signals? Secret codes? Special eye contact? How would you meet? How were LGBT communities formed?

The answers are both stirring and sad. Stirring because they are a marker of how far our community has progressed, sad because they are a marker of the anguish and despair people suffered at a time when it was illegal to be gay or lesbian. One respondent said: “I knew I was gay but had no opportunity to express that fact.” Another told of searching for friendly lesbians and not finding any. A third recounted how in college he was booted out of ROTC, because he filled out a questionnaire admitting to having “homosexual tendencies.” He was honest, but it outed him.

The 1950s is referred to as a reign of terror, a cruel period when people were treated cruelly. Gay and lesbian people were arrested, fired, thrown in jail, committed to mental institutions, subjected to electro-therapy. Police raided known gay bars and, according to one responded, also lesbian bars but the latter nowhere near as frequently. The police would swoop in, load patrons on buses, book them, throw them in jail, only drop the charges and let everybody go on Monday. But the damage was done because the three San Francisco newspapers published the names of all who were arrested and many were fired from their job as a result.

What do you do when you think you are different from everybody else and who you are is illegal? That question of community or lack thereof was for us the most depressing to hear.

Question: “How did you built a group, create a sense of community?”

Answer: “I have never felt a sense of a gay community.”

Question: “What advice would you give young LGBT people?”

Answer: “Create a community where you can feel completely safe, find a place to meet and where you are accepted . Hold each other to the very highest of expectations. Establish core values of acceptance not just tolerance. Tell as many friends as you can, friends you can tell and still keep as friends.”

Finally this: you cannot learn about anyone from watching media images and reading propositions. You have to be and participate.

Belinda and John Dronkers-Laureta are board members of Asian & Pacific Islander Family Pride www.apifamilypride.org

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