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How Gay Life in America Has Changed Over 50 Years

3 minute read

It was in June of 1969 that the Stonewall Riots took place following a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. That pivotal moment in the history of gay rights in America is commemorated each year, with June celebrated as LGBT Pride Month in the United States. With this year’s celebrations closely preceding the potentially momentous decision the Supreme Court will soon hand down on gay marriage, it’s an apt time to reflect on just how far LGBT rights have come over the last half-century.

In June of 1964, five years before Stonewall and nine years before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, LIFE Magazine published a photo essay called “Homosexuality in America.” With photos by Bill Eppridge, the essay explored the specific challenges faced by gay men in American cities, from regular arrests by police to constant pressure to hide their true identities.

The language used to describe the plight of gay men was not entirely sympathetic. Their world, largely defined as a world separate from mainstream American life, was “sad and sordid.” Those who chose to be open about their sexualities were said to be “openly admitting, even flaunting, their deviation.”

The attempt to classify a population with whom many Americans were unfamiliar led to generalizations (homosexuals prefer careers in “interior decorating, fashion design, hair styling, dance and theater”) and forced sexualized taxonomies (drag queens, S&M adherents, married fathers who purport to go around the block for the newspaper but are in fact seeking companionship from other men). The article’s tone would today be described as “othering,” an examination of “them” by “us.”

“For every obvious homosexual, there are probably nine nearly impossible to detect,” LIFE wrote, using the kind of language that might be wielded to describe Soviet spies. “The myth and misconception with which homosexuality has so long been clothed must be cleared away,” the article continued, “not to condone it but to cope with it.”

Decades before the first states began to legally recognize gay marriage, LIFE acknowledged a trend among gay men to live as though they were married:

There are also the “respectable” homosexuals who pair off and establish a “marriage,” often transitory but sometimes lasting for years. Unburdened by children and with two incomes, they often enjoy a standard of living they otherwise would not be able to attain.

LIFE’s examination of gay life in the mid-’60s is a product of its time. With its reliance on stereotypes and the sense of fear that doesn’t always remain between the lines, the article offers evidence of how much things have changed in 50 years. Change, of course, is incremental and ongoing—and the Supreme Court’s imminent decision as to the legality of same-sex marriages is proof of just that.

June 26, 1964 issue of LIFE magazine.
June 26, 1964 issue of LIFE magazine. Caption reads: "A San Francisco bar run for and by homosexuals is crowded with patrons who wear leather jackets, make a show of masculinity and scorn effeminate members of their world. Mural shows men in leather."Bill Eppridge—LIFE Magazine
June 26, 1964 issue of LIFE magazine.
June 26, 1964 issue of LIFE magazine. Caption for full-page photo reads: "Two fluffy-sweatered young men stroll in New York City, ignoring the stare of a 'straight' couple. Flagrant homosexuals are unabashed by reactions of shock, perplexity, disgust."Bill Eppridge—LIFE Magazine
June 26, 1964 issue of LIFE magazine.
June 26, 1964 issue of LIFE magazine. Caption for top left photo reads: "When Hollywood police closed 'gay' haunts near Santa Monica Blvd. bar, Barney Anthony put up a sign warning homosexuals. 'I don't like 'em,' he says. 'There's no excuse. They'll approach any nice-looking guy. Anybody does any recruiting, I say shoot him. Who cares?'"Bill Eppridge—LIFE Magazine
June 26, 1964 issue of LIFE magazine.
June 26, 1964 issue of LIFE magazine. Captions read: "A police officer in tight-pants disguise waits on a Hollywood street to be solicited by homosexuals cruising by in cars. Decoy officer and partner lead handcuffed homosexual away in Hollywood. When arrested for soliciting, he burst into tears."Bill Eppridge—LIFE Magazine

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com