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Gays and lesbians have been a 'despised category,’ historian says at Prop. 8 trial

January 12, 2010 |  3:39 pm

During the second day of a high-profile trial on same-sex marriage, a historian told a federal court that laws and police practices throughout U.S. history show gays and lesbians have been a "despised category," a minority that have been arrested, fired, harassed and censored because of sexual orientation.

"Gay life really was pushed underground," New York University history professor George Chauncey testified this afternoon.

Chauncey was the second expert witness to be called by lawyers for two same-sex couples who are challenging the federal constitutionality of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that resurrected a California ban on same-sex marriage.

Because laws and police practices forced gays and lesbians to hide their sexuality and because the entertainment industry until recent years shied away from stories about homosexuality, "many young people growing up had no idea that there [were] other people like themselves," he said.

Similarly, many heterosexuals assumed they knew no gays or lesbians, which fostered dangerous and negative stereotypes, he said.

Chauncey cited early bans in the colonies against "nonprocreative" sex and later laws that banned sodomy. Police in large cities and small towns over the decades used vagrancy laws to arrest gays and lesbians and then informed their employers, landlords and families about the nature of the charges, Chauncey said.

"Gay life was enmeshed in a web of criminality," he said.

He cited a federal government report from the 1950s on homosexuals and "other perverts" and noted that federal law required intelligence agencies to fire suspected homosexuals. That requirement did not end until 1975, and it did not become illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in those agencies until 1990, he said.

Systematic discrimination against gays and lesbians "has lessened since the 1950s," Chauncey acknowledged, but he said 20 states still do not bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in government jobs; 28 states do not bar such discrimination by private employers.

"The fear of homosexuals as child molesters or recruiters continues to play a role in debates over gay rights," Chauncey said.

-- Maura Dolan in the San Francisco federal courthouse