People like to talk about the 1950s, the “Eisenhower Era”, as a time of peace and prosperity, somehow forgetting the day-to-day horrors of the Cold War and the Red Scare and the way people routinely treated “Negroes” and “homosexuals”, those being the more polite labels for those minorities back in the day. The “N-word” and “Queer” were in everyday use. Make America Great Again.
Neil Miller looks at those good old days, those wonderful 1950s, in Sioux City, and the result is a disquieting little book garishly titled Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey To The Paranoid Heart Of The 1950s (2013).
Following the brutal 1954 murders of two children in Sioux City, the cry went up to rid Sioux City of its sex maniacs and “sexual deviates”.
The police, needing to quell public hysteria, arrested 20 men who the courts never claimed had anything to do with the crimes. Their crime was simply being queer. Labeled as sexual psychopaths under an Iowa law that lumped gay men together with pedophiles and murderers, the men were sentenced to a state mental hospital for an indefinite time, until they were “cured” by electric shock.
The poor men that were sent away for being gay included a department store management trainee, a cosmetology student, two owners of beauty salons, a dance teacher at Arthur Murray’s, and a retail clerk.
“For a moment it seemed as if all the hairdressers and window dressers from northwest Iowa were there to welcome them.”
It sounds funny, except that it was true. What happened to these 20 men is a tragic travesty.
That wasn’t the only “Homosexual Panic” in the 1950s. For queer people every day was a sex panic, they could be arrested, lose their jobs or be harassed with no impunity. Also in 1954: the murder of Eastern Airlines Flight Attendant William T. Simpson, or more importantly, how Miami Daily News reporter Milt Sosin covered it.
Like most gay guys at the time, Simpson lived a quiet life. He was 27 years old and just one of the many gay men who worked for Eastern Airlines as a flight attendant. Eastern was based in Miami and was Dade County’s largest employer at the time.
Simpson kept a low profile and would usually skip the “crew parties”. He rarely visited the underground gay bars in Miami at the time. Simpson had no family nearby. He came to Miami in 1951 from Louisville, Kentucky for his career and sex. For the most part, the gay community in Miami was under the radar, but if you were gay, you somehow knew that Miami was full of gay men.
On an evening in 1954, Simpson landed at Miami International Airport after a final shift working aboard a flight from Detroit. For most of the flight, a fellow flight attendant remembered him mentioning several times that he had a date planned for that evening.
According to his landlord, Simpson left his apartment around 10pm. Two hours later, his body was found face-down in the gravel near a bridge in an area known as a “lovers lane” in the 1950s, where you could park your car along the waterway and have sex.
Simpson never made it to his date. It is believed that on the way there he was propositioned by Charles Lawrence on the side of the road. Unknown to Simpson, Lawrence was notorious for “rolling” gay men, luring them to a secluded spot where his accomplice would jump out and help rob the victim.
Usually, they would not kill their victim, but in Simpson’s case, something spooked Lawrence when Simpson didn’t cooperate like other victims had done.
Lawrence shot him in his left side and Simpson, stumbling out of the car yelling, “Leave me alone! Leave me alone!” finally tossed over his keys and wallet before collapsing a few yards away.
According to the Miami Police report, Lawrence got $25 and claimed he thought Simpson would live. He and the accomplce said they were surprised when they found out the next day that he had died.
Reporter Sosin was on the story from the moment it broke. He wrote his first front page article aptly titled “EAL [Eastern Airlines] Man is Slain on Lovers Lane” in the afternoon edition. Along with the headline, there was a photo of Simpson’s corpse.
Sosin suspected Simpson was gay because of the location in which the murder took place. Sosin referenced the potential killer as a man and suggested that it was possibly a sex crime.
The story immediately gained traction, but rather than trying to report on the crime, Sosin focused on Simpson’s sexuality. At the time, homosexuality was rarely mentioned in mainstream media. Following the police investigation, Sosin learned that police felt they were busting a colony of maybe 30 gay men in the area, but he knew he had a major story when he learned that police actually discovered the area was actually home to about 500 gay men.
A follow up front page story the next day used the headline “Pervert Colony Uncovered in Simpson Slaying Probe.“
The article detailed how nearly 500 gay men were living in a northeastern part of downtown Miami. The article accused Simpson of “mixing with the wrong crowd and getting involved in gay drama” which it suggested might have been the motive behind his murder. One investigator quoted in the article even claimed the murder might have been because Simpson was looking to become “queen” of the colony.
Lawrence had admitted to the murder, but they played the old gay-panic defense, testifying that, while they did like to “roll” gay men, Simpson took it too far. They claimed Simpson made them feel unsafe and made unwanted sexual advances towards Lawrence.
The Miami Herald and Miami Daily News mostly ignored the trial, instead focusing on stories of gay activity around Miami.
With the term “pervert” being used to describe Simpson in court, the jury might have also felt sympathetic to Lawrence’s claims. Lawrence and his buddy were convicted of a lesser charge of manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Simpson’s murder was the catalyst of what seemed like endless homophobia in South Florida. Various Christian activist groups stepped up and called for Dade County politicians to rid the area of homosexuality by raiding known gay bars, clubs and hangout spots.
From the mod-1950s through the 1960s, all three major Miami newspapers ran stories that informed readers on how to be aware of their neighborhood surroundings and who their neighbors might be, just in case one of them was a queer.
The state of Florida set up the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee responsible for distributing literature throughout the state warning citizens of gay activity. The committee also targeted, interrogated and stripped teachers of their credentials if members suspected them of being gay.
In the 1970s, orange juice shilling Anita Bryant launched her “Save Our Children” campaign in Miami-Dade County against the LGBTQ community, showing gay panic was still alive and well.
Boise, Idaho, had its own Sex Panic in 1955. Beginning with the arrest of three men in October 1955, by the time the investigation wound down in January 1957, 1,500 people had been questioned, and 15 of them were sentenced to terms ranging from probation to life in prison. One, the gay son of a city councilman, lost his appointment to West Point when investigators questioned him there and he eventually committed suicide in a squalid Boise hotel. The investigation began when there was a complaint about possible sexual improprieties at the YMCA. Can you imagine?
The Idaho Statesman, Boise’s only daily newspaper, reported arrests and ran an editorial with the headline “Crush the Monster”. In it, the editors called homosexuality a “moral perversion” and a “cancerous growth… calling for immediate and systematic cauterization“. The Statesman called for:
“…the whole sordid situation to be completely cleared up, and the premises thoroughly cleaned and disinfected” using “the full strength of county and city agencies“.
The editorial increased the panic among Boise citizens, who decided that if the Statesman was so alarmed at the situation then there must be good reason to be alarmed. CBS Reports: The Homosexuals, a 1967 documentary and the first nationally broadcast program on homosexuality in America, includes a segment on the scandal. In the John Waters cult classic Pink Flamingos (1972), at the conclusion the queer characters, including Divine, set off for Boise.
These events in the 1950s won’t shock anyone over 60 years old, but probably younger people can’t even imagine it. In the 1950s, the increasing visibility of LGBTQ subcultures, particularly in urban areas such as Dallas, Baltimore, New York, Miami, New Orleans, and San Francisco, undermined one of the “props” of Cold War politics: the traditional, heterosexual, nuclear family and its norms of sexuality. Nationally, the citizenry become obsessed with the “homosexual menace,” and its potential threats not only to American security, but also to the nation’s morality.
Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey To The Paranoid Heart Of The 1950s is out of print, but I found 12 used copies on Amazon starting at $45.