Dr. Chris VanderStouwe, Boise State University, [email protected]

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When thinking of LGBTQ+ History, the most readily available moment in our collective memories is typically the Stonewall Riots, long seen as the catalyst for the gay liberation movement, and the beginning of pride celebrations throughout the United States and the world. However, much of what made Stonewall possible happened in the decades leading up to the infamous raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969.

The 1950s and 1960s saw many examples of police raids, arrests of members of the gay community, and enforcement of draconian “Crimes Against Nature” laws, often leading to the arrests of hundreds of queer individuals in cities throughout the country. One of the earliest moments of widespread scandal and moral panic around homosexuality, however, is often less known outside of its home region. Now known as “The Boys of Boise” scandal, dubbed so by John Gerassi’s 1965 book of the same name, what started as the arrest of three men accused of sexual acts with underage boys became what has been called a “witch-hunt” that lasted over a year. In the end, dozens were arrested, charged, and convicted amid interviews with over 1,500 homosexual men in the area, the exodus of dozens of others, and a city councilman’s son being removed from West Point, eventually leading to his suicide. Occurring during a post-war period of McCarthyism that featured many “moral panic” moments, especially around sodomy and other sexual activities, the arrests and subsequent “witch-hunt” led to calls from the Idaho Stateman’s editorial board to “crush the monster”, and became a widely publicized moment of gay panic and hysteria. In fact, legacies of this scandal still exist today, as the crimes against nature laws that created the 1955 uproar are still on the books in Idaho despite 2003’s Lawrence v. Texas ruling that such statutes are unlawful. Just last month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Idaho for its enforcement of these sodomy laws in requiring a plaintiff to register as a sex offender for an out-of-state conviction from more than 20 years ago. And in the past year, the Idaho State Legislature has continued Idaho’s legacy of anti-LGBT sentiment, prosecution, and legislation through the passage of several anti-trans bills, most of which have been challenged in courts and are currently unable to be enforced.

As a young-ish queer academic moving from coastal California to Boise in late 2015 to begin my position at Boise State, I was unaware at the time of the history surrounding this scandal, or that it had even taken place, despite having been engaged in queer linguistics and queer studies for several years. Now, however, it is a cornerstone to my courses that involve historical understandings of queer life, and it remains a historical event that many Idahoans are familiar with. It has also been referred to as an event that “a generation of gay men grew up haunted by” (Randal & Virta 2007) due to its widespread publicity and the long-running nature of the witch-hunt that took place.

The language that surrounded the events of 1955 was stark and foreboding, with claims of a pervasive “homosexual menace” and an “underworld” of hundreds of boys affected. While now described frequently as a “witch-hunt” due to the fact that the majority of those arrested and convicted were guilty only under the statues that made gay sex illegal, at the time the initial reports greatly exaggerated the reality of the situation. Only later was it made clear that the majority of acts involved legal adults and involved only a few individuals (Schneider 2008). However, using language and tactics that frequently paralleled other post-war panics such as the red scare, what was a relatively benign and small-scale situation involving only a few young men became a national story that drew a 14-month investigation and framed gay men and any non-normative sexual expressions as deviations that must be crushed. Much of the rhetoric still heard in conservative circles today to uphold a heteronormative family structure, including fear-stoking claims that gay men are all “child molesters”, can be linked back to the moral panic that was created during this time. These ideologies and the perpetuation of cold war-era rhetoric and panic defenses is perhaps one of the most insidious legacies of the scandal that continues today.

A few decades after the Boys of Boise scandal, another less widely known series of events took place in Boise surrounding seven police officers removed from their positions on “suspicions of lesbianism” in the Boise Police Department. While the women sued in Federal court and eventually won, they were not reinstated and had endured a lengthy period of intense scrutiny and investigation. During this time, a local gay bar had opened, and even though this was years after Stonewall, local officers would still enter the bar to check IDs and intimidate patrons; even today,  many who were part of this second period of “panic” in Boise fear that there continues a maintained sense of homophobia and moral fear underlying the seemingly more liberal nature of Boise compared to the rest of the state today. (Scott, p.c.) Despite the media attention and panic created at the time of this second series of events, much of this story has been kept from widespread awareness until recently, in part because of a gag order still in place on details of the federal case. However, members of what are now called “The Forgotten Boise 7” are working on creating a documentary (slated for a 2021 release) on the events surrounding this iteration of “moral panic” that has largely been erased from our local history.

Over the years, the details surrounding the events from 1955 have been brought back up in local and national news despite views by some surviving family members of those affected and other local citizens claiming it tarnishes the reputation of the city. (Schneider 2008) (It should be mentioned here that Boise is notorious for having an atmosphere of being what is called “Boise Nice”, where surface-level kindness and respectability politics are expected to prevail over any sort of acknowledgement of our region and state’s history of white supremacy and violence against minorities – diving into the details of this could be an entirely separate post for another day). Most notably in recent history, the details of the Boys of Boise panic were revived during the 2007 scandal involving Idaho senator Larry Craig, who was arrested “for conduct which the arresting officer believed was intended to convey a desire to engage in sodomy in an airport bathroom.” (Chazan 2008) In particular, an op-ed in the New York Times by Seth Randal and Alan Virta reminded readers nationwide of the 1955 scandal, linking Craig’s actions to these past events.

In the local media, the events from 1955 resurface every several years as other events harken back to the panic that was induced from the original scandal in their own ways. These include the scandal surrounding Larry Craig (2007), the ongoing fight to “Add the Words” gender identity and sexual orientation to our state’s human rights declaration (ongoing since 2010), unsuccessful calls by far-right state legislatures to remove any and all diversity programming at Boise State or risk losing state funding (2018-2019), this year’s passage of several anti-trans bills through the state legislature now being challenged in the courts, and even last month’s previously mentioned use of the same crimes against nature laws used in the past to force someone to register as a sex offender for a consensual sex act from a time before Lawrence v. Texas. What may seem like distant history to some continues to rear its discriminatory and inflammatory face to others, especially in an ultra-conservative state like Idaho.

For all of the history that can be told, all of the language surrounding such scandals and “moral panics” of the era leading up to Stonewall, all of hidden forms of language and signs used during these decades in the name of safety and preservation, and all of the progress made since the first brick at Stonewall was thrown, we are still reminded constantly in today’s world of the dangers that persist. We can see and hear the use of rhetoric similar to that found in the 1950s, the use of similar argumentation to the panics of the 1950s and 1960s in current iterations of anti-LGBT (and especially anti-trans) bills at the state level, and more.

I like to think of Queer History month as a time not only for reflection and remembrance, but also for reminders of how far we have yet to come, and how important it is to stand up for those within the queer community at the highest risk for continued persecution and marginalization. As some aspects of the queer experience become normalized, it is easy to forget the dangers that still exist for many within the queer community and the reality that many of the legal battles that have been won for the LGBT community thus far primarily benefit white, cisgender, and able-bodied gay men and lesbian women. We should use our history as a reminder of the importance of intersectional approaches to liberation and justice, and we should continue to fight for those within our community at the highest risk. After all, as poet Emma Lazarus - author of the sonnet featured on the Statue of Liberty - wrote, “Until all of us are free, we are none of us free,” words from long ago that ring truer than ever today.


Non-linked References

Schneider, Jen (2008) Queer Wordplay: Language and Laughter in the “Boys of Boise” Morals Panic. Journal of Historical Sociology, 21(4). 466-487.

Chazan, Alana (2008) A Boy of Boise: In Defense of Idaho's Most Famous Toe-Tapper. City University of New York Law Review, 11(2). 441-468.

Gerassi, Jon (2001[1965]) The Boys of Boise

Scott, Andrea (2020). Executive Director, The Forgotton Boise 7. Personal Communication.

Randal, Seth & Virta, Alan (2007). Idaho’s Original Same-Sex Scandal. The New York Times Op-ed. Sept 2, 2007.