Coming Together, Forced Apart

The first half of the twentieth century was an uncertain time for LGBTQ+ people.

Early decades saw queer communities forming in cities like New York and Chicago, where it was possible to congregate discreetly in bars, literary societies, and at drag balls. Underground queer entertainment venues eventually gained popular attention during Prohibition, elevating queer celebrities like Gladys Bentley and Josephine Baker to mainstream success and launching the so-called “Pansy Craze.”

But as the Great Depression hit, queerness became policed more closely than ever. Media outlets and law enforcement sensationalized information about sex crimes, which they blamed on “sexual deviants” like gay men. To combat this hysteria, politicians passed sexual psychopath laws that placed queer people—including those who hadn’t committed any crime—in psychiatric institutions.

During World War II, soldiers who engaged in homosexual behavior were issued “blue discharges,” which stripped them from benefits guaranteed to veterans by the G.I. Bill. But at the same time, the war gave queer people the opportunity to explore their sexual and personal identities in single-sex environments far from home.

This tension between visibility and oppression continued after the war. Homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitus helped increase queer political activism, but their efforts were often cautious. Newspapers treated queerness with a mix of curiosity and repulsion, as evidenced by the press circus that surrounded Christine Jorgensen becoming the first American to undergo gender confirmation surgery in 1952. And during the Lavender Scare, government officials became preoccupied with uncovering homosexuality and expelling queer people from federal employment.

Throughout the early twentieth century, queer communities developed hand-in-hand with systems of power that sought to dominate them. Oppression created a shared sense of identity and purpose among LGBTQ+ people—and in coming decades, its overthrow would define queer life.

Names, Dates, and Trends to Know

A city skyline with buildings clustered together

Urban Queer Life

1900 to 1920

While New York might be the best known queer metropolis in the US, cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. all had gay and lesbian communities in the early twentieth century.

A Black woman in a white suit and tophat smiles onstage

Gladys Bentley Shines

1920s to Early 1930s

Born in 1907, Gladys Bentley was one of the Harlem Renaissance's most celebrated entertainers, playing in queer speakeasies like the Clam House and mainstream venues like the Cotton Club.

A stately red building with rows of blue windows

Pathologizing Homosexuality

1930s to 1950s

Sexual psychopath laws were rooted in the idea that "deviant sexuality"—including homosexuality—was a mental illness and merited treatment in psychiatric institutions.

Two women look at one another while laying in adjacent bunks in a barracks

Wartime Connections

1941 to 1945

World War II provided young LGBTQ+ people the opportunity to meet others who were like them—and some relationships that developed during the war continued after returning home.

A hand holds a Mattachine Soceity flyer describing the presence of queer people in the United States

Early Gay Rights


Founded in Los Angeles in 1950, the Mattachine Society aimed to unite LGBTQ+ people as a community and educate the public about queer life in order to counter oppression.

An executive order bearing a presidential seal and Eisenhower's signature

Legalized Discrimination

April 27, 1953

During the Lavender Scare, government officials claimed homosexuals were a threat to national security, leading President Eisenhower to ban them from federal employment with Executive Order 10450.

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