Back in the late 1930s, in the wake of a series of heinous child sex murders, a sex crime panic swept across the U.S., making no distinctions between benign sexual and gender variation and violent acts of sexual attack. Here in Michigan ten years later, G. Mennen Williams appointed the Governor’s Study Commission on the Deviated Criminal Sex Offender, which called for heightened punishments for all sex crimes and lumped homosexuals in with sexual predators.
Mainstream psychiatry of the 1950s viewed homosexuality as a mental disorder and the federal government purged gay and lesbian employees during the Lavender Scare. While the decade saw the emergence of the nascent homophile movement to speak for Americans that increasingly saw themselves as part of a minority, queer people were so demonized that the small organizations could only begin to chip away at prevalent negative understandings.
Two cultural artifacts of the early 1960s convey the societal fear toward homosexuals that was so endemic of the era.
A 1961 “educational” film called Boys Beware, produced in conjunction with the Inglewood, California Police Department, presented homosexuals as being on the prowl for vulnerable teenage hitchhikers. The ten-minute short was widely screened in classrooms across the country, helping to shape and distort attitudes for a generation. Teachers were particularly targeted as threats. William Wyler’s drama The Children’s Hour, also from 1961, starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as headmistresses of a private girls school who are subjected to an unspoken accusation of lesbianism, a scandal that ultimately destroys their lives.
The 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City helped spark a new mass movement of resistance. During the 1970s, gay liberation and lesbian feminism urged lesbian and gay people to come out of the closet. Real life queer people became increasingly visible in families, classrooms, and workplaces.
When, in 1977, singer Anita Bryant launched her “Save Our Children” cam paign, she resorted to the same old trope of needing to protect minors from being recruited into a “deviant lifestyle” by predatory homos. She succeeded in getting a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida overturned.
As Bryant extended her efforts to other cities like St. Paul, Wichita, and Eugene, she also galvanized gay people to fight back. In Michigan, activists from around the state gathered in Lansing in November 1977 to launch the Michigan Organization for Human Rights and helped to forestall an anti-gay backlash here. A year later, a campaign in California led by Harvey Milk and Sally Gearhart turned back the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned homosexual teachers. Even Ronald Reagan came out against Briggs.
Once more, enemies of queer visibility and acceptance have turned to the stereotypic image of sexual predator for their fear mongering. The demonizing of trans people as a special danger to girls in public restrooms proved effective in Houston last fall in an off-year ballot measure to rescind the city’s LGBTQ rights ordinance.
History testifies to the resilience of negative sexual and gender stereotypes that portray queer folk as vicious threats. Unlike the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, however, the negative stereotypes do not go unchallenged. If the menacing predator remains part of the anti-LGBTQ toolkit, it has become a tired tactic whose utility may finally be in decline.
(Tim Retzloff teaches history and LGBTQ studies at Michigan State University.)