November – December 1994

Since Alfred Kinsey’s landmark studies on human sexuality there has been a gradual change in attitudes towards homosexuality as well as a desire among gays and lesbians to no longer remain invisible. The early gay liberation groups were very influential in the United States. By publishing magazines and books, offering support services and legal assistance, and providing cultural and recreational activities, these groups helped build a community. Whether picketing American Psychiatric Association conventions in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, or fighting anti-homosexual initiatives on local and state-wide ballots, or meeting with the President of the United States to try to lift the ban on gays in the military, gays and lesbians have become more vocal, more political, and more visible. On television and radio, on covers of magazines, and in Broadway plays and motion pictures, gays and lesbians are also a slowly emerging presence in popular culture.

From Petronius’ Satyricon to Sappho’s lyric poetry, literary representations of lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals date to ancient civilizations. Such works, however, have often been censored, suppressed, or challenged. For many years after Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial and conviction of homosexual practices overtly gay writing was suppressed. The publication of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness in 1928 caused a storm of outrage. It was declared obscene and copies were seized. Medical texts dealing with sexuality, especially homosexuality, were also censored – often kept under lock and key for use by doctors only. In more recent times, novels by and about gays and lesbians have evolved from stories where the main character either commits suicide or is murdered, thus making them more palatable to the general public, to that of a more positive and realistic portrayal of gay and lesbian life.

The scientific literature on homosexuality, by the late nineteenth century, was large and growing fast. Though many scientists agreed that homosexuality should no longer be criminalized, they did not agree as to whether this “illness” could be cured or treated. Through the mid-20th century, lobotomies, electroshock therapy, psychotherapy, and aversion therapy were regularly used in attempts to cure homosexuality. In 1948, Kinsey’s investigations shocked the nation with its high incidence rates of homosexuality. Soon after, other scientists, such as Evelyn Hooker, began to document the lack of pathology in homosexuals and to conclude that other than their sexual orientation, homosexuals could not be differentiated from heterosexuals. Finally, in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Although a small but vocal group of health professionals continues to view homosexuality as a treatable disorder, the emphasis in the mental health literature in the last two decades has been on helping the gay man or lesbian live in and cope with a society which condemns or rejects this lifestyle.

This exhibition was prepared by Cathy Larson, Linda Roth, Becky Albitz, Grace Fitzgerald, and Cynthea Mosier.