Scroll To Top

The Many Don'ts of American LGBTQ+ History

American flag and the Pride Flag on the porch of a house
Via Shutterstock

With the passage of Florida's "don't say gay" law, a.k.a. the Parental Rights in Education bill, and the continued attacks on LGBTQ+ rights, it's important to spend time remembering the many other "don'ts" of American LGBTQ+ history.

From 1919 to 1921, there was the "don't be gay" crusade against homosexuality in the United States Navy. It took place primarily along the East Coast, with Newport, R.I, as the epicenter of the campaign that grew to include key players from the Episcopal Church and the Hartford Courant, plus Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy. For the lover of history, it includes Navy drag shows, entrapment, and a cover-up with implications for FDR's political ambitions.

Up until 2003, there was the "don't have gay sex" rule that criminalized consensual sex (anal and oral) between members of the same sex in many states. The U.S. Supreme Court decriminalized consensual gay sex in its ruling that year in Lawrence v. Texas. Still to this day, gay men must abide by "don't donate your blood" due to a lack of interest from Americans in changing the policy that prevents men who have sex with men from donating their blood unless they've been celibate for three months (it was once a lifetime ban). The hysteria about gay blood is tied to the way gay men were treated from the beginning of the HIV pandemic, which gave rise to the don't have gay sex without a condom rule. I'd argue that rules for safer sex apply to all sexually active adults.

From 1994 through 2011, the U.S. military employed the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which barred out lesbian, gay, or bisexual people from serving in the military. It was supposed to change a policy that was even worse, under which the armed forces sought out LGB troops and discharged them, but unfortunately the investigations continued.

The Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando in 2016 became a symbol for some in society to tell people "don't identify as LGBTQ+" as if the victims where somehow responsible for their deaths. Others denied that they were selected by the shooter because of their identity.

From the late 1980s through today, there is a tendency by officials in the Roman Catholic Church to not take accountability for the actions of pedophile and ephebophile priests. The shameful sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups continue to divide the church, which also codifies "don't act on your gay or lesbian sexual desires" because they are contrary to natural law, according to church doctrine.

In 2018 the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of a Colorado baker and against a gay couple who asked the baker to make them a wedding cake for their nuptial festivities and reception. As a result, the Supreme Court engendered the "don't shop here" rule that defended "religious liberty" against antidiscrimination laws throughout the union. In other words, the Supreme Court put the onus on LGBTQ+ people to avoid shops with religious owners and to spend extra time researching businesses in case they might contract someone who finds their identity sinful. While this policy is corrected through the free market, it remains in place as the "don't work here if you're in a same-sex marriage" rule instituted by religious institutions like Roman Catholic parishes and Christian schools. Consider the many who have been fired due to their marriages. (And if they are lucky enough to fly under the radar, most likely their same-sex spouse is not entitled to their health benefits!)

There is the "don't use that bathroom" debate that labels trans men and trans women as violent predators who seek to use a bathroom as their venue to harm people. The hysteria on this matter is tied directly to matters of disgust, morality, and civil rights. But much as the Roman Catholic Church perpetuated the myth of the pedophile gay priest, e.g., initially that only gay priests abused children, some ultraconservative people are spreading the myth of the predatory trans bathroom user. This issue is trending in the direction of "don't support your trans kids," given Texas officials' assertion that parents are engaging in child abuse if they enable their children to receive gender-affirming care.

Finally, with the "don't say gay" law in Florida and moving west to other right-leaning states, LGBTQ+ kids are prevented from learning about themselves and their community's contributions to society in an effort to maximize "parental rights" in public education. This is also why the pastor of St. Isidore's Roman Catholic Church in Riverhead, N.Y., could get away with not letting me, a gay man, eulogize my mother during her funeral mass in 2019.

Following Donald Trump's presidency, America is becoming increasingly antagonistic toward LGBTQ+ people. While same-sex couples can say "I do" thanks to the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, there are simply to many other ways that LGBTQ+ people are being treated as second-class citizens. History will judge our legacy on the separation of church and state, and for these decades of antigay and anti-trans "don'ts," time will tell.

Benjamin Brenkert is the author of A Catechism of the Heart: A Jesuit Missioned to the Laity.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Benjamin Brenkert