But terms like hatred, persecution, and reign of terror to describe this issue reveal a lot of historical amnesia. Laws making homosexual acts illegal have been on the books in America since the 1600s. In the early 20th century and again in the 1950s the laws were actually strengthened. By the middle of the century, in most states conviction for sodomy meant as many as 15 years in prison. In California, a conviction could result in life imprisonment.
Although the sodomy laws were rarely enforced directly, they justified many other forms of discrimination and oppression. As William Eskridge wrote in his book Dishonorable Passions, “Sodomy laws sanctioned police harassment of gay people and their hangouts, the discharge of homosexuals from public as well as private employment, official refusals to protect gay people when victimized by assaults and other crimes, and deprivation of custody over or even contact with their children.” In many states, it was illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals, or for homosexuals to dance together. In 1966 New York City arrested more than 100 men a week for such crimes.
The law combined with social opprobrium to keep many gay people in the closet, living a lonely underground life. Arrest or being outed could mean the loss of a job, a family, or even a life. Many committed suicide in response to such pressures.
That was a reign of terror.
Today’s unjust but hopefully temporary wave of fines against small business owners pales in comparison.
In fact, I’m reminded of what Mark Twain wrote about the “Reign of Terror” after the French Revolution: