The Historians’ Case Against Gay Discrimination
Two historical propositions important to the legal analysis of discrimination of the LGBT community: (1) no consistent historical practice singles out same-sex behavior as “sodomy” subject to proscription, and (2) the governmental policy of classifying and discriminating against certain citizens on the basis of their homosexual status is an unprecedented project of the twentieth century, which is already being dismantled.
In colonial America, regulation of non-procreative sexual practices – regulation that carried harsh penalties but was rarely enforced – stemmed from Christian religious teachings and reflected the need for procreative sex to increase the population. Colonial sexual regulation included such non-procreative acts as masturbation, and sodomy laws applied equally to male-male, male-female, and human-animal sexual activity. “Sodomy” was not the equivalent of “homosexual conduct.” It was understood as a particular, discrete, act, not as an indication of a person’s sexuality or sexual orientation. Not until the end of the nineteenth century did lawmakers and medical writing recognize sexual “inversion” or what we would today call homosexuality. The phrase “homosexual sodomy” would have been literally incomprehensible to the Framers of the Constitution, for the very concept of homosexuality as a discrete psychological condition and source of personal identity was not available until the late 1800s. The Court in Bowers v. Hardwick misapprehended this history. Proscriptive laws designed to suppress all forms of nonprocreative and non-marital sexual conduct existed through much of the last millennium. Widespread discrimination against a class of people on the basis of their homosexual status developed only in the twentieth century, however, and peaked from the 1930s to the 1960s. Gay men and women were labeled “deviants,” “degenerates,” and “sex criminals” by the medical profession, government officials, and the mass media. The federal government banned the employment of homosexuals and insisted that its private contractors ferret out and dismiss their gay employees, many state governments prohibited gay people from being served in bars and restaurants, Hollywood prohibited the discussion of gay issues or the appearance of gay or lesbian characters in its films, and many municipalities launched police campaigns to suppress gay life. The authorities worked together to create or reinforce the belief that gay people were an inferior class to be shunned by other Americans. Sodomy laws that exclusively targeted same-sex couples were a development of the last third of the twentieth century and reflect this historically unprecedented concern to classify and penalize homosexuals as a subordinate class of citizens.
Since the 1960s, official and popular attitudes toward homosexuals have changed, though vestiges of old attitudes – such as the law at issue here – remain. Among other changes, the medical profession no longer stigmatizes homosexuality as a disease, prohibitions on employment of homosexuals have given way to antidiscrimination protections, gay characters have become common in movies and on television, 86 percent of Americans support gay rights legislation, and family law has come to recognize gays and lesbians as part of non-traditional families worthy of recognition. These changes have not gone uncontested, but a large majority of Americans have come to oppose discrimination against lesbians and gay men.