Empowerment through Marginalization: The Trajectory Of Gay Identity and Rights in the U.S.


Throughout history there have been several mandates and laws that have been passed on human rights including the U.S Constitution adoption of the Bill of Rights that gave laws to individuals and states protected within the Constitution,. The 14th amendment which prohibited slavery and put in the Equal Protection Clause, and the 19th amendment that prohibited and discrimination against women. From these amendments have bred movements in Civil Rights for African Americans and other minorities, rights for the disabled, rights for gender equality, and presently the rights of gay individuals. Since their passages they have each spawned movements in the 50’s-80’s that have rocked the nation and have changed the political, legal, and social landscape of the United States. The movement for equal human rights has not waned. The issue at hand that is currently being decided by Supreme Court is on the marriage rights of gay individuals. The gay rights movements have roots back in the early 50’s as they have fought alongside others for equal rights as well.

Margot Canaday’s investigation into how governmental, legal, and social efforts to marginalize homosexuals, commencing in the 1950s and focusing on immigrants that identified as gay individuals. She potently suggests the unintended effect of mobilizing this population and encouraging the senses of social and political identity has fueled gay rights activism today. On one, level, Canaday is examining a highly specific cultural and political matter likely to merit close consideration at any period in the nation’s history. Variation in sexual orientation, after all, is typically a subject that both challenges and reflects the norms and ambitions of all societies, which then respond in ways in which cultural perceptions influence legislation and public policy. On another, however, there remains the extraordinary fact of this issue is arising in an era unlike any other in U.S. history, in that the 1950s were a watershed decade. The post-war nation was essentially undergoing radical shifts in its identity as a whole in which racial, gender, and class divisions were dramatically emerging. The very concept of citizenship was being reexamined and redefined and largely through resistance to oppression from populations beyond that of homosexuals. Consequently, in Canaday’s approach in exploring this trajectory of gay status, she inevitably calls into play similar courses occurring among similarly marginalized groups.

There remain undercurrents to Canaday’s subject warranting deeper analysis. While the factors going to today’s gay social and political identity do indeed reflect patterns and circumstances common to other movements of the era, there is nonetheless a crucial difference, and chiefly because, with the possible exception of women’s rights, no population is more potentially unsettling to the status quo than that of gays. It is, simply, a population perceived, unlike all others, and the perception usually embodies an aspect of threat to society. As the following will explore, the gay rights movement has evolved in ways that reflect other such efforts to acquire true citizenship. At the same time, and as will be seen, the fundamental nature of homosexuality is such that the governmental issues Canaday explores reflect other factors contributing to the oppression, and consequently to the gay community as mobilized by the oppression. Ultimately, Canaday’s conclusions are valid. Today’s gay rights activism owes its existence to the nation’s efforts to contain it, just as the gay movement mirrors aspects of other marginalized populations. The identity of that movement, however, is precarious because the removal of the oppression has eroded it, an unexpected consequence of the course Canaday traces.

Background and Parallels

           As Canaday makes evident, and supported by a wealth of evidence, the mid-20th century was a strikingly volatile period in terms of U.S. policies on citizenship for gay men and women. “In the 1950’s, the Senate conducted a massive investigation into “sex perverts” in the federal government resulting in Eisenhower’s executive order barring homosexuals from federal employment, countless firings, and even more security investigations.” (Canaday 355) Obviously, such a social and political environment does not arise spontaneously, and the U.S. in particular it is an interesting template as to how gay identity was and is viewed by Western cultures. The attitudes during that time are reflected in the policies and legislation that it passed. Her argument is based on the passage of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act that contained two anti-homosexual provisions. The first was that homosexuality was treated as behavior, and barred immigrations that exhibited this behavior. The second provision was that “the homosexual was a type of person; it barred immigrants based on the status by excluding homosexuals as persons “afflicted with psychopathic personality.” (Canaday 353) This status as a template is reinforced by the evolution of American society itself, which inevitably goes to the formation of policy.

In the 1950s, it is estimated that tens of thousands of gay people were arrested each year, guilty only of the crime of being present in such bars. Every state criminalized sodomy and, as immigration policies barred homosexuals from legal entry, homosexuality was as well grounds for deportation. Between 1947 and 1950, five thousand individuals lost their governmental or military positions because they were recognized as homosexual (Andersen 17). The evils of generalization notwithstanding, it may be reasonably asserted that the U.S., in forging its own status as a nation, developed a social construction adhered to as essential for its survival and progress. The legislation pushed for more barring of homosexuals in public offices, and out the legal and political system, by firing gay workers, and dismissing thousands in the military. The war on the homosexuals in the 50’s helped to push the notion of the “perfect family.” This construction was, and largely remains reliant upon the central role of the heterosexual family, for from this unit emanates the many functions enabling a complex and well-ordered society. In the family as affirmed by the culture, all the mechanisms are in place to further social, economic, and cultural expansion and health. As the children must be cared for, the home must be properly maintained. For this to occur, there was then the traditional dependence on the wife and mother as domestic caregiver, and the role of the male as provider. “The dominant political and cultural ethos of the decade held that homosexuals posed a serious threat to the American way of life.” (Canaday 355)

However this condemnation on the homosexual lifestyle in the 1950’s only expanded the homosexual subcultures around the nation. Although the push for anti-homosexual legislation was more evident as the government viewed homosexuality as behavior, became a threatening notion due to the ability to not be confined in one population but could be potentially widespread. The push for anti-homosexual legislation was mixed in the polity of the fear of communism and foreign subversion, all this helped to push time immigration reform that included the anti-homosexual provisions. This is a construction by no means confined to the U.S.; heterosexuality and the implacable promotion of the family are the mainstays of most cultures, as has been the case traditionally. Nonetheless, there is a distinctly emphatic aspect to it in the U.S., which may be a reflection of a hyper-masculinized – and consequently heterosexual – ideal necessarily removed from European cultures perceived as decadent and/or unstable.

The passage of the immigration reformed used explicit language that included that first included the barring of “homosexuals and sexual perverts” but after review took homosexuals out instead relying on the term of, “psychopathic disorders.” Senate noted, “This change of nomenclature is not to be construed in any way as modifying the intent to exclude all aliens who are sexual deviates (homosexuals).” (Canaday 357) Some did not think that legislation clearly included the barring of homosexuals as they felt that they would be able to come in the country undetected, however opponents felt that the broad term clearly was able to pinpoint homosexuals and sexual deviants. It is inescapable that, when heterosexuality is viewed as the natural state of being, other sexualities must be perceived as deviant. This is an element to the gay struggle for rights distancing it from all other movements, even if those movements face cultural obstacles of other kinds. Various races have been socially seen as innately inferior. These perceptions, however, as insidious and pervasive as they are, are removed from the concept of deviance, which reflects very much a kind of moral condemnation. American culture has been so insistent upon this aspect of deviance in homosexuality, in fact that there arose the interesting transfer of the identity of sexual orientation itself. More exactly, as heterosexuality is the natural norm, it was then widely believed that homosexuality was a choice, and one made to promote deviance. This then evolved to encompass homosexuality as not a choice, but an illness, and simply because only the presence of a mental disorder was viewed as accounting for so abnormal a “choice.”

This element of sexual orientation held to be an actual illness profoundly alters both the social essence and trajectory of gay identity and gay rights. Canaday correctly employs the prism of 1950s immigration policies to illustrate this impact, but the impact must be emphasized by virtue of its extraordinary distinction. Immigration policies of the time, in fact, may be seen as merely symptomatic of the greater social – and consequently political – response to homosexuality. With the passage of the 1952 Act, the bill barred individuals who acknowledge or were found to be homosexual, they would them be sent to the PHS official where they were interviewed and issued a Class A certification to the INS. With these immigrants could be deported if they were found guilty of crimes of moral turpitude specifically homosexual acts. This is most notable in the case of the United States vs. Flores-Rodriquez, where a Cuban immigrant that was arrested during his visit to New York City for disorderly conduct, where he returned to Cuba. Applying for his visa, he told the officials he never been convicted and was granted his visa. Coming back to New York City, he was arrested again for disorderly conduct, and his case was brought to light by the INS. They ordered him to be deported on the grounds that he did not disclose his conviction for homosexuality. (Canaday 361) Although his conviction was before the Act and that his evidence was indeed of a homosexual nature, the court upheld his deportation. The problem lied in what was considered “moral turpitude” although lenient in their attitudes toward homosexuality, Washington D.C was not. Yet, the judges agreed that the law hampered uniformity. (Canaday 364) The cases brought through the courts at that time were having a hard time upholding the provisions of what counted as moral turpitude and the psychopathic disorder that was placed on homosexual acts and homosexuals.

Turning again to other movements arising in the later 20th century, they are essentially free from this particularly damning stigma. Even as African Americans confronted violence as an expression of social hostility, the threat perceived in this regard is different. Blacks were seen as challenging white authority and as seeking to acquire rights their inherent inferiority denied them, but they were not seen as ill. They were not seen as inherently damaged or grossly immoral. Women more echoed the gay rights struggle, in that their assertions of independence violated deep-seated beliefs as to gender roles. Here, as with race, concepts holding to innate inferiority were challenged and more specifically in a way touching upon inviolable male prerogatives. Even this gender component, however, does not place early feminism in the same field as the fight for gay rights because even the most ardent feminists were not viewed as mentally ill.

Gay Oppression and the Gay Rights Evolution

As Canaday documents, potent social and political forces in the 1950s were acting to delineate homosexuals, and in a manner creating a lessened status. That this process of actually constructing homosexual identity through legal and social exclusionary policies began earlier, however, is important. As the courts began to fill up with cases that challenged the provisions, one notable quote from Dr. Rieder who represented, Boutilier (Boutilier v. INS 1967), “homosexuals can be as honest, courageous, contributory to society and trustworthy as heterosexuals.” (Canaday 381) The terms of deeming homosexuality as a psychopathic disorder were being contested on the ground by even Justice Warren as he deemed that not all homosexuals were psychopaths. In cases where many immigrants were arrested they had only had thoughts of committing homosexual acts, yet they put up for deportation. This notion was particularly troubling and was disapproved in most corners of the political and judicial system. “To deny persons otherwise qualified as citizens the privilege of citizenship on the basis of homosexual behavior per se, is to deprive our nation of important human resources as well as to commit an injustice against them.” (Canaday 381) Long before homosexuality would be diagnosed as a mental illness, the government had already determined it to be an unquestionable form of immorality, so it seems likely that the moral association both infused the later definition and exacerbated harsh policies then and in the future. The push in the court cases for seeing homosexuals as good citizens, help push the agenda of gay activists in spawning the movement as seeing gay individuals as regular citizens. According to Canaday, “In attempting to regulate homosexuality among immigrants, the Congress, administrative agencies, and especially the courts both reflected large cultural currents and helped to consolidate this notion of homosexuals as potential citizens.” (Canaday 383)

Canaday’s integrity is then all the more established, for she makes the necessary effort to place her subject in its historical and global contexts. More to the point, the earlier chapters powerfully reinforce the virulent attitude toward homosexuality arising within the newly developing world power. It is then tempting, and by no means unreasonable, to link an American impetus to establish itself as a power both larger and different from European models with its federal-level commitment to prevent homosexuals from entering its borders. Canaday is by no means alone in noting how as the century moved on, governmental and social components within the society were more consistently seeking to define homosexuality in a manner limiting individual rights and affirming the ideology of its being inherently perverse. A duality of intents and policies may be seen, yet one nonetheless reflecting a widespread conviction of immorality. More exactly, the cultural perceptions abundantly enabled legal persecution. When interracial couples fought for their rights to marriage Congress initially was later contested by gay and lesbian individuals. “Over the course of the twentieth century, the stigma of unnaturally, which had for so long, haunted interracial couples, had come to surround gays and lesbian, too.” (Pascoe, pg. 299, 2010) As taken back by the similarities, officials were confused in the legislative meaning, more importantly if they could be streamlined in affording gay individuals the right to marry. This only propelled the notion that gay and lesbian should be provided the right to marry as heterosexual couples and interracial couples.

It is, in no uncertain terms, extraordinary to comprehend how any such population could have worked toward the acquisition of equal rights in such a climate. It may be argued that this monolithic ideology then generated the development of homosexuality as a mental illness; when a behavior or thing is deemed unthinkable to the mainstream population, the only rational explanation for it is a disease. In reaching something of an apex in the 1950s and 1960s, American society uniformly and stridently held homosexuality to be a gross aberration and, illness notwithstanding, an immoral threat to the nation.

More precisely, there then exists a certain kind of circumstance unique in terms of social evolution; namely, when oppression is at its most consistent and pervasive, the oppressed group is most encouraged to resist. It is in fact interesting to speculate as to how the gay rights movement would have evolved had the federal policies and social condemnation been less forceful. As it happened, however, the extremes of bias in policy served, in a sense, as any form of extreme pressure act on a physical substance: it creates a more defined element because it is both isolating and compressing the object unrelentingly. It is reasonable to assume, for example, that gay men and women permitted to maintain their jobs and conduct their relationships if not openly, at least in ways not generating overt persecution, would be far less inclined to fight for recognition as equal citizens. Abject denial, however, and in forms occurring even when the orientation is discreetly in place, leaves the individual with no recourse. Such oppression, in plain terms, leaves the individual with nothing to lose, so the impetus to struggle is unfettered.

Within this process then arises the pivotal component of identity, and this in itself presents challenges in comprehending the course of gay rights. A black man is a black man, and a woman is a woman; their identities within the culture, no matter the placement of them, do not in any way suffer from a lack of defining qualities. It is different for homosexuals because the identity is based only on sexual orientation, and how that orientation has generated a culture largely based only on fighting oppression. This is, in fact, an immense issue within gay politics for, just as with post feminism, greater freedoms for gays has translated to a questioning of innate identity. This is certainly rational, but it is nonetheless a foundation fundamentally reactive in nature. It does not exist to affirm, but to deny, and this does not present an identity of itself. This then leads to an inevitable conflict, in that success in the movement reveals a lessened definition of the population or individual. It is ironic but, as the gay movement has made incomparable strides, the result is the diffusion as evident in opposition of gays to same-sex marriage legislation. With increased empowerment comes the necessity of maintaining the identity fought for, which is diminished with the advances to equality.

Canaday is certainly correct that the widespread persecution of homosexuals did indeed forge a potent identity, and one which would defy the very persecutors who shaped it. This is seen importantly in the movement for the passage of Proposition 8, dubbed Prop 8 that prohibited the right for gay and lesbians to marry. (Wadsworth, 2011) When first proposed it was passed and then it was struck down by the courts, however, appealed again it was upheld and sent to the Supreme Court where a political/legal and social battle is brewing on whatever the decision may be. The gay rights movement in finding their gay identity has largely been decided by the court as first, unnatural, pervasive, a psychopathic disorder, and moral turpitude that is confined to not a person but a behavior. Homosexuality has transcended through the legislation of the 1950’s-1990’s until in the present where many gay pride movements have pushed until Congress has recognized their validity. Wrapped in intersexuality of identity, the complexities of the gay movement of more evident in ever in the number/type of individuals the movement has fueled. “Categories of social identity are not only often inseparable from one another, but also historically constructed, mutually constitutive, institutionally complex, and therefore often in tension.” (Wadsworth, 2011) The conundrum is interesting, but hardly unexpected; in isolating and condemning, a kind of empowerment must evolve because the persecution creates an irrefutable commonality within its target, and common interest is a highly suitable substitute for group identity.

The larger issue, however, is whether or not such an “identity” can survive following the progress it achieves. The enormous obstacles faced by African Americans aside, this is a population still equipped with an identity, and one deriving from multiple and important elements. There is racial culture, both African and American, apart from that generated by resistance to oppression. The identities of women are multifaceted and exist fully independently of social constraints defining them as post feminism seeks to explore. For gays, however, identity has been so consistently reliant upon and equated with, persecution that the lessening of the oppression presents an issue. If, for example, the gay man or woman asserts that their identity is unique as a gay person because they are inherently different, they are in effect affirming the ideologies that so long belittled them. This then adds another dimension to Canaday’s work, in that national oppression did not only create the gay culture it sought to contain, but it created one dependent on the identity of being oppressed.


Homosexuality within the mainstream society is a vastly complex affair. Canaday and others, gays have mirrored other populations in needing to struggle for rights, and particularly within the 20th century. The gay movement is unique to the extent that only feminist issues are comparable, for both go to profoundly basic ideologies of gender roles within the culture. In the past U.S. policies have been passed to subjugate and persecute gays. Ironically the fight to identify as normal, good citizens had propelled them into a movement that showed that gay and lesbians were of equal citizens as the rest of the population. Legislation born out of ignorance and hatred helped propel many movement throughout history including the Women’s Suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, and presently equal rights (marriage) for gay and lesbians.

What ensues, however, is a conundrum as unique as the gay movement, in that nearing equality translates to a lessened identity. It is entirely possible that a gay cultural identity unto itself may be understood in time, but this may only occur when equality is fully in place, and the society is free to investigate how orientation may provide forms of identity. In the meantime, several points may be safely asserted. Gay rights activism owes its existence to the nation’s efforts to contain it, just as the gay movement of the 1950s and beyond reflects aspects of other marginalized populations. The identity of the gay movement today, however, is precarious because the removal of the oppression has eroded it, an unexpected consequence of the course Canaday traces. The longer the struggles continue, the more dimensions of meaning and conflict are exposed. The movement continues into everyone is provide the same rights as others.

Works Cited


Andersen, E. A. Out of the Closets and into the Courts: Legal Opportunity Structure and Gay Rights Litigation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. Print.


Armstrong, E. A. Forging Gay Identities: Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco, 1950-1994.    Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Print.


Canaday, M. The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America          (Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America). Princeton: Princeton University       Press, 2011. Print.


Felt, M. Democratic Anxieties: Same-Sex Marriage, Death, and Citizenship. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2011. Print.


Genz, S., & Brabon, B. A. Post feminism: Cultural Texts and Theories. Edinburgh: Edinburgh             University Press, 2009. Print.


Pascoe, Peggy. What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. Oxford University Press, USA. 2010. Print.


Sherwin, S. No Longer Patient: Feminist Ethics and Health Care. Philadelphia: Temple           University Press, 1992. Print.


Wadsworth, Nancy. “Intersectionality in California’s Same-Sex Marriage Battles: A Complex Proposition.” Political Research Quarterly. 64(1) 200–216. 2011. DOI: 10.1177/1065912910376386.