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
Urban Queer Life
1900 to 1920
Gladys Bentley Shines
1920s to Early 1930s
1930s to 1950s
1941 to 1945
Early Gay Rights
April 27, 1953
Want to Learn More?
Interested in LGBTQ+ life during the early twentieth century? Check out these resources. Some are available to everyone, but others might require payment or an institutional login.
PBS American Masters
National Park Service LGBTQ History Theme Semester
National Museum of American History Blog
Paid or Restricted Resources
Leisa D. Meyer
Based on the book by Allan Bérubé
Estelle B. Freedman