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The 'gay scare of 1957'

Wow. I’ve never heard of this gay purge history, but Lorraine Ahern of the Greensboro News-Record has a fascinating article up on a series of trials held in 1957 in Greensboro, NC that charged 32 men with “crimes against nature.”

In the end, 24 were convicted and received sentences of 5 to 20 years; some ended up serving on highway chain gangs.

The now-obscure episode, which some longtime residents came to call “the purge,” was the largest attempted roundup of homosexuals in Greensboro history and marked one of the most intense gay scares of the 1950s.

…Unlike sweeps of subsequent decades, involving raids on public parks and gay bars, Greensboro’s 1957 trials focused on private acts behind closed doors. The purpose, in the words of the police chief, was to “remove these individuals from society who would prey upon our youth,” and to protect the town from what a presiding judge called “a menace.”

A list was gathered of suspected homos based on interrogations of “suspects”, and ,no surprise, socially or politically prominent men on that list were protected. This long article is really worth a read, because it’s a snapshot in time of what it was like to be closeted in a small town during the dark days of the homophobic 1950s (of course this is the golden age of America that the bible beaters dream of returning to). This story could be from almost any city in the country at the time:

In one series of letters that police seized as evidence, a UNC-Chapel Hill student from High Point wrote to a male classmate in code. “Hilda Sara” stood for “homosexual.” He closed his letters with “B.B.B.” — “better be butch” — and assigned male friends female nicknames such as “Thelma” or “Mamie,” a nod to America’s first lady in the Eisenhower years.

As campy and facetious as the letters sound today, an anthropologist who years later taught North Carolina’s first state-approved course on gender and homosexuality notes that there was reason for such intrigue.

In larger cities, beginning with Washington, the FBI had recruited local vice squads to conduct surveillance on suspected gays and enlisted postmasters to monitor mail for telltale material such as men’s “physique magazines.”

Even in private conversation, people were discreet.

“If someone heard a man say, ‘I went on a date with Betsy,’ that wouldn’t raise any suspicion,” observed retired UNCG professor Thomas Fitzgerald. “People had to camouflage their lives. The ’50s were abysmal.”

***

Times have changed in NC: Durham and Orange counties (as well as the city of Durham and towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro) have provided domestic partner benefits for some time; Greensboro is about to move on it.

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