LGBTQ+ Generational Problems: The Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, and Baby Boomers

The above image is from Hugh Nini’s and Neal Treadwell’s book, Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love, 1850-1950, and is likely from the 1910s-1930s. Nini identified they are reading a magazine called ‘Adventure’ which was published from 1910-1971.

Every generation of gay men has faced the difficulty of: if my family finds out I am gay, will they reject me? or if I come out, will my family accept me? These questions are a near-universal fear even when someone has liberal parents or even gay parents. In the seven generations since 1900, each generation has faced its unique problems. Although some of these problems may be shared by several generations, each generation has its own fundamental issue which it faced. The seven living generations of Americans are usually defined as the following although some disagreement still exists within the dates: 

  • The Greatest Generation (born 1901-27)
  • The Silent Generation (born 1928-45)
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-64)
  • Generation X (born 1965-80)
  • Millennials (born 1981-97)
  • Generation Z (born 1998-2010) 
  • The burgeoning Generation Alpha (born 2011-25)

The Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation, those who fought in World War I, World War II, and Korea, faced what became known as the Lavender Scare. It mainly refers to gay men who worked in the federal government, and meant they were marked for life as a homosexual. 

In 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War, the State Department had begun campaigns to rid the department of communists and gay men. Before the Lavender Scare and post-World War II, gay men from rural towns had begun to congregate in cities where they could keep their anonymity. However, this newfound peace and community were disturbed in 1947 when the United States Park Police created a Sex Perversion Elimination Act primarily targeting these communities in parks. At least five hundred people were arrested, and police charged seventy-six. The fear of communism led to a hysteria attacking all communities which were different.

The fear of communism was first seen from 1917-1920 in the First Red Scare which followed the 1917 Bolshevik Russian Revolution and the subsequent wave of Communist revolutions throughout Europe and beyond. The Second Red Scare (1947-1957) was popularly known as “McCarthyism” after Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthyism coincided with an increased fear of communist espionage that resulted from increasing tension in the Cold War. This fear was compounded when several high-ranking U.S. government officials confessed to being spies for the Soviet Union. By the time of this Second Red Scare, interrogations of one’s sexuality had become routine in the 1950s’/1960s’ federal workplace. Questions like “Do you identify as a homosexual or have you ever had same-sex sexual relations?” became commonplace as employers attempted to root out gay employees. The U.S. government feared that gay diplomats or intelligence operatives were particularly susceptible to blackmail by communist agents. This period became known as the Lavender Scare—a period of interrogation and firing of gay civil servants. The prohibition of gays working for the government continued through the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

The Lavender Scare made being publicly gay difficult. Although gay men were largely closeted before the Lavender Scare, being publicly gay during the 1950s was challenging and near impossible without significant consequences. Not only were gay federal employees fired, but many others were also fired for “guilt of association,” knowing someone who was gay. Because of the resulting stigma within the federal government as well as in larger public culture, many of the federal investigations and resulting firings lead to dismissed employees’ suicides—most of which were later covered up by federal interrogators. Several gay people later stepped up to challenge the federal government’s “sexual perversion” components including civil servant Frank Kameny who took his case to the Supreme Court. Although Kameny lost, a few federal courts began ruling in his favor by 1969. More gay rights organizations also developed such as the Mattachine Society (1950), and the Daughters of Bilitis (1955) founded by lesbians. The Lavender Scare’s effects, however, were long-lasting.

The Lavender Scare not only broke up and quieted the cities’ queer communities which were afraid of federal employment discrimination and potential hate crime, but it also resulted in a largely conservative, homogenous culture within the government. While most federal organizations eventually overturned their policies on gay and lesbian discrimination, the FBI, NSA, and the State Department banned gay men and women into the 1990s until President Bill Clinton officially overturned these rules in 1995. Later, as recent as 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry apologized to the LGBT community on behalf of the federal government’s Lavender Scare interrogations, stating: “I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community.”

Baby Boomers continued to face discrimination in the federal workplace, but they appeared to be making some strides. The late 1960s and 1970s saw the beginnings of the gay liberation movement which had its spark in events like the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot (1966), the Stonewall Riots (1969), and the American Psychiatric Association vote to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses (1973). Before these events—that led to Kathy Kozachenko becoming the first openly gay American elected to public office (1974) or Harvey Milk winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (1977)—being gay, or committing sodomy, was criminal in most states. The sexual revolution of the 1960s did not extend to the gay community. Even when things began to change in larger cities, there was a backlash. On June 24, 1973, someone burned down the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. Thirty-two people died, and at least 15 were injured as the result of fire or smoke inhalation. Until the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, in which 49 people were murdered, the UpStairs Lounge arson attack was the deadliest known attack on a gay club in U.S. history.

In 1977, singer and conservative Southern Baptist Anita Bryant led a successful campaign with the “Save Our Children” crusade to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida. Bryant faced severe backlash from gay rights supporters across the U.S., but to little avail. The gay rights ordinance would not be reinstated in Dade County until December 1, 1998, more than 20 years later. On November 27, 1978, former city supervisor Dan White assassinated Harvey Milk. White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to only seven years in prison. The late 1960s and 1970s were a period of ups and downs for gay men and women in America. By 1980, there looked like there would be real change as The Democratic Rules Committee stated it would not discriminate against homosexuals. At their National Convention on August 11-14, the Democrats became the first major political party to endorse a homosexual rights platform. Then tragedy struck; the gay men of the Baby Boomer generation saw their world come crashing down. On July 3, 1981, the New York Times printed the first story about a rare pneumonia and skin cancer found in forty-one gay men in New York and California. The CDC initially referred to the disease as GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency Disorder. When doctors found the symptoms outside the gay community, Bruce Voeller, a biologist, and the National Gay Task Force founder, successfully lobbied to change the disease’s name to AIDS.

This three-part series of posts is not meant to be an exhaustive look at the problems faced by generations of LGBTQ+ individuals. Furthermore, this first part largely focuses on gay men.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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