From the Straight State to the Culture Wars
In October and November 1978, an unlikely duo went on tour in California together. That year, openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk met State Senator John Briggs, a conservative from suburban Orange County, to debate a ballot initiative that aimed to ban openly gay teachers in California's public schools. The measure, alternately known as Proposition 6 or the Briggs Initiative, was the first statewide referendum on gay rights in U.S. history, and the two politicians fought over the issue in community centers, television studios, and school gyms across the state. Briggs predicted the ban would spark a conservative revival that would draw a "moral line" against homosexuality, while Milk later declared, "Gay people can never go back into their closets." Together, the pair seemed like divergent responses to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and embodied two of the most important social movements of the late twentieth century: Gay Liberation and the Religious Right. Progressive versus conservative, urban versus suburban, and gay versus straight, the debates over Proposition 6 could easily be seen as some of the opening shots of the coming culture wars over homosexuality.
Yet the conflicts over gay rights were never just a struggle between two sides of the political spectrum. Instead, the culture wars included a wide range of people beyond the two social movements. They included activists and policymakers, to be sure, but also married men and women who supported gay rights because they desired privacy in their own bedrooms and straight-identified Americans who never joined the Religious Right but who disliked homosexuality. In 1978, approximately 60 percent of Californians lived in suburbs, and while Briggs found enthusiastic support in some of the conservative "megachurches" along the state's highways, not all suburbanites agreed with him. Many Californians expressed ambivalence—rather than hostility—toward openly gay people like Milk. In the lead-up to Proposition 6, pollster Mervin Field asserted that "the broad middle group, 50 to 60 percent, is in conflict. It's the kind of issue where there is some instinctive feeling, but the feeling is that it's highly discriminatory and not the way to do it." Just a year earlier, a national poll indicated that while most Americans believed that employers should not discriminate against gay men and lesbians, they nevertheless overwhelmingly opposed hiring them as schoolteachers or members of the clergy.
The history of the culture wars is best comprehended, then, not as a two-sided fight over the legacy of the sexual revolution but as a multisided debate over the boundaries of the closet. Most Americans have understood the culture wars as a debate about the definition of "privacy." In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, people across the political spectrum saw sexual privacy as a fundamental right, yet majorities also believed heterosexual marriage was superior to other kinds of relationships. Confronted with the gay rights movement of the late twentieth century, many straight-identified people struggled to define the right to privacy and the extent to which society should accept homosexuality. They argued about where and when openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual people should express their sexuality and how much public officials should tolerate same-sex relationships. In these debates, straight-identified Americans sometimes argued that the government should respect the private lives of all of its citizens and in other cases that gay relationships violated their own right not to know what others allegedly did in their bedrooms. The specific language of privacy appealed to so many, in part, because it seemed like common sense, and partisans used the same language to support numerous positions. Invocations of the term could justify eliminating discrimination against gay men and lesbians, compelling them to conceal their identities, or both.
The contours of how this discourse worked can be seen in the debate over the Briggs Initiative. The Bay Area Committee Against the Briggs Initiative warned in 1978 that Proposition 6 "would authorize the government to regulate the private lives . . . of teachers outside the school." John Briggs, meanwhile, told a cheering crowd, "What teachers do in private is their own business. But what they do in California's classrooms is our business." Privacy was neither progressive nor conservative, and many straight-identified moderates used the discourse to express their ambivalence. During the Briggs debates, J. E. S. Tyson in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Los Gatos told the San Jose Mercury, "As a heterosexual person, I view this measure as an invasion of privacy . . . [but] I am certainly not condoning the public flaunting of one's sexuality, homo- or hetero-."
The outbreak of the culture wars in the 1970s thus signaled neither the arrival of total equality for gay men and lesbians nor the opening of a uniquely conservative period in American politics. The question of homosexuality surfaced again and again in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Proposition 6 ultimately failed at the polls, but its sponsor made at least one accurate prediction: "Homosexuality," Briggs declared, "is the hottest social issue since Reconstruction." In subsequent decades, gay rights activists and religious conservatives became seemingly permanent and linked fixtures in national politics, clashing over topics such as the AIDS crisis, gays in the military, and same-sex marriage. Their prominent place in the culture wars, in fact, even prompted a pair of journalists to dub the social movements "Perfect Enemies" in 1996.
Yet, like the Briggs Initiative, almost all of these battles hinged on the question of privacy, and the moderate consensus developing around the idea of privacy influenced their outcomes to a significant extent. Though employed to dramatically different ends, the discourse united people across the culture wars, and Americans used it to justify pushing gay men and lesbian back into the closet as often as they used it to combat prejudice. At the height of the clashes over same-sex marriage in the early 2000s, for example, the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights alleged that gay marriage bans violated same-sex couples' "right to privacy." President George W. Bush, meanwhile, declared, "What they do in the privacy of their house, consenting adults should be able to do. This is America. It's a free society. But it doesn't mean we have to redefine traditional marriage." In 2013 and 2014, polls found that 30 to 45 percent of Americans viewed homosexuality as a "sin," yet a stunning 80 percent or more of them believed people had a "right to privacy" in their bedrooms. When gay rights advocates and conservatives clashed over same-sex marriage in the 2010s, they alternately framed the issue as either one where the government denied couples their right to express their private love or one where the state denied people the right to express their private religion. And in its landmark 2015 case legalizing same-sex marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court invoked the discourse in its majority opinion, extending the rights found in the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause "to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs."
Privacy and the Legacy of the Straight State
The durability of the conflicts over gay rights and the particular interest in privacy are the contested legacies of the state's support for heterosexuality and marriage in postwar America. In the two decades after World War II, adults publicly involved in normative "straight" relationships, particularly heterosexual marriage, enjoyed the fullest benefits of American citizenship, while those who engaged in sex with others of the same sex risked social isolation, economic deprivation, and legal prosecution. Government authorities had regulated Americans' sex lives before the 1940s, but the war spurred the creation of a new legal regime that tightened earlier policing strategies, specifically targeted homosexuality, and promoted heterosexuality as a form of mental health. As numerous scholars have shown, World War II caused the mass migration of people to urban centers; disrupted numerous racial, gender, and sexual norms; and created what one historian described as "something of a national coming out experience" for millions of gay men and lesbians. The conflict, however, also served as an important watershed for Americans with normative sexual identities. Politicized by what they saw as the chaos of the war years, many Americans in urban centers petitioned public officials to protect what they saw as normal family life, and authorities responded by rewarding people for marrying and by penalizing those who broke sexual norms.
This combination of policy penalties and benefits—or what historian Margot Canaday calls the "Straight State"—cast a long shadow across the postwar period. It tolerated same-sex relationships in private but incentivized people experiencing same-sex desires to mask their feelings in public. It reinforced personal prejudice, encouraging Americans to see heterosexual marriage as the only relationship worthy of collective celebration, and pushed citizens to see homosexuality as a problem in need of a remedy. It expanded and fortified racial and gender inequality by rewarding white men for marrying while denying benefits to most women and people of color, regardless of their marital status. And for almost two decades, the officials at all levels of governance helped make everyone's private life a public concern, subjecting even straight-identified people to scrutiny over the possibility of being queer.
Powerful forces undermined this regime almost as soon as it came into being, in part because of contradictions in the system itself. The local, state, and federal policies that made up the Straight State contained two goals that sometimes reinforced one another and sometimes came into conflict. On one hand, public officials rewarded Americans for marrying and punished them for deviating from marital heterosexuality. Police arrested people for wearing gender-nonconforming clothing and harassed or closed gay bars. State-sponsored sex education campaigns encouraged Americans to think of marriage as a sign of good mental health and to worry about dangers posed by homosexuals. And the postwar housing policies that fueled suburban growth pushed banks to give mortgages to white married men while forbidding them to lend to people they suspected of homosexuality. Yet, on the other hand, authorities encouraged Americans to have sex in private. Policing never completely eradicated same-sex relationships; it merely drove illicit sex behind closed doors. Sex education not only celebrated marriage; it also encouraged young people to respect their parents' sexual privacy. Government support for the suburbs required developers to build private master bedrooms and offered homeowners one of the only acceptable places to have sex in postwar America. These housing policies, designed to help married couples have private sex, also allowed for other illicit relationships, including homosexual ones.
Authorities designed these policies with heterosexual married couples in mind, believing that sexual privacy helped build healthy families, but they simultaneously undermined the Straight State. Civil libertarians critiqued the most punitive elements of the postwar heteronormative legal regime and argued that laws forbidding consensual sex between adults threatened the private sex lives of married couples. The police, they contended, could never truly know what happened behind closed doors without an elaborate surveillance system. Sex educators, too, adopted similar ideas and reasoned that while heterosexual marriage remained the healthiest kind of relationship, other private consensual sex acts between adults did not necessarily warrant punishment. Beginning in the mid-1960s, state and federal courts gradually accepted these arguments and issued a series of rulings that guaranteed Americans a right to privacy when it came to contraceptives, pornography, and, in some cases, homosexuality. For numerous gay men and lesbians, many of whom were barred from the suburbs and lived in older cities, this liberalization of the Straight State offered an important opportunity. Much of the early gay rights movement borrowed the discourse and emphasized the importance of sexual privacy.
As the postwar Straight State eroded, however, Americans across the political spectrum breathed new life into it, hoping to prevent the complete collapse of the state's support for heterosexuality. In the late twentieth century, straight-identified liberals, conservatives, and moderates spoke about "privacy" to police the boundaries of sexual respectability, and their use of the term concealed the government's ongoing role in shaping Americans' sex lives. Conservatives such as Briggs stoked opposition to gay rights in "family-friendly" churches in the suburbs and argued that openly gay teachers violated their own "right" not to be confronted with homosexuality in public. Meanwhile, many self-identified moderates criticized what they saw as discrimination and violations of privacy, even as they distanced themselves from what they saw as the excesses of pride parades or gay-friendly sex education. Even some white middle-class gay men and lesbians spoke of privacy to distinguish themselves from others they deemed less respectable than themselves. Privacy allowed gay activists to challenge elements of the Straight State, but it also encouraged them to avoid associations with Americans who seemed less able to assimilate to mainstream ideas about acceptable sexuality, including transgender people, radicals who advocated for revolution, or the queer poor who lacked bedrooms altogether. Neither inherently conservative nor progressive, discourses about privacy in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries defied easy categorization and transcended the clear left-right binary of the culture wars.
The Straight State, the Culture Wars, and the San Francisco Bay Area
The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac chronicles this history by focusing on the cities and suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. Between World War II and Proposition 6, the postwar Straight State, mass suburbanization, and a sexual politics centered on the right to privacy transformed San Francisco and nearby San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. Traveling to work in defense industries or to fight in the Pacific theater, migrants flooded San Francisco in the 1940s and caused older residents to demand that public officials preserve social order. During the 1950s and 1960s, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties underwent economic and population booms while the city lost residents and revenue to the suburbs. In this period, San Francisco witnessed an influx of tens of thousands of poorer residents, people of color, and unmarried people, including many gay, lesbian, and transgender migrants, while millions of white, married middle-class couples moved to the suburbs to have children. This sifting process not only produced new evangelical churches and gay communities; it also led to growth in mainline Protestant congregations, Catholic parishes, homeowners' groups, and parent-teacher associations. Over time, these communities produced multiple politics related to sexuality, religion, and the state. By 1978, the Bay Area included one of the most well-known middle-class gay neighborhoods in the country that elected Harvey Milk to office in San Francisco, a dozen evangelical megachurches that enthusiastically backed John Briggs in Santa Clara County, and numerous other communities that sat between them politically, ideologically, and even geographically.
Many writers have dismissed or celebrated the Bay Area as an exceptionally liberal place, and in many ways, San Francisco deserves its progressive reputation as a "Left Coast City." San Francisco has a long tradition of radical and liberal politics, and since the 1960s, it has boasted one of the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) populations in the country. Yet the city also developed in ways remarkably similar to other parts of the United States. By the 1970s, suburbanization had transformed urban centers nationwide, San Francisco included. Cities as diverse as Jackson, Mississippi; Chicago, Illinois; Flint, Michigan; and Miami, Florida, all encompassed a mixture of gay neighborhoods, red-light districts, queer bars, and politically active LGBT voters. These spaces and communities varied from place to place, but they all underwent spatial and demographic shifts in alignment with those taking place in San Francisco in the same period. "San Francisco is exceptional," editorialized the New Republic in 1979. "It is exceptional, however, in the sense of being in the vanguard, not of being a mere fluke. . . . What happens to the gay population of San Francisco . . . is a portent of what awaits the nation as a whole."
At the same time, the evolution of the Bay Area suburbs, particularly those in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, paralleled trends visible in other places. The second largest metropolis in the nation's most populous state, the Bay Area's history includes more than just its central city. Originally conceived as "bedroom communities," the suburbs of the San Francisco Peninsula and South Bay experienced enormous postwar growth. Similar to "crabgrass frontiers" across the country, these areas witnessed an influx of new homeowners in the postwar period, almost all of whom were white, middle class, and married. Cold War defense spending helped fuel population booms across the American South and West, including the Bay Area, and Santa Clara County received the most military-related funds in California after Los Angeles and San Diego. Thirty years of growth eventually turned the relatively homogeneous bedroom communities of the Peninsula and South Bay into a polynucleated, "postsuburban" landscape in the 1970s comparable to places such as Orange County, California, or the "Research Triangle" near Raleigh, North Carolina.
But it was, perhaps, early participants in the culture wars themselves who articulated the most important reason to study the Golden State and the Bay Area in particular. Harvey Milk understood that his visibility as an openly gay official extended far beyond San Francisco, and he promised to bring hope to "young gay people" in places like "Altoona, Pennsylvania," and "Richmond, Minnesota." John Briggs, meanwhile, campaigned in California's suburbs, including the Bay Area towns of Santa Clara and Mountain View, promising to "Save America." And onlookers from Newsweek to the Wall Street Journal watched Proposition 6 with interest because they believed what happened in California could transform the nation. The story of the Bay Area, therefore, is also very much postwar America's story: a history of cities and suburbs, cul-de-sacs and red-light districts, gay professionals and conservative evangelicals, sexual nonconformists and sexual traditionalists, and voters spread across the political left, right, and center. While no example can truly stand in for every place, San Francisco and its suburbs offer both a unique and representative vantage point from which to observe the origins of the nation's culture wars.
Sexuality, the State, and the Postwar Metropolis
The story of the Milk-Briggs debates, in many ways, epitomizes the ways that most scholars have conceptualized political conflicts over homosexuality in late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century America. Too often, historians have defined the struggle over gay rights narrowly as a clash between traditionalists and radicals over the meaning of the sexual revolution. Political histories that mention sexuality primarily underscore the importance of the Religious Right and Gay Liberation, beginning their narratives just before the rise of the two social movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Recent work on conservatism, in particular, has often framed the issue in binary terms, ceaselessly replaying the duels between figures such as Briggs and Milk. In some cases, scholars have argued that a backlash against feminism, gay rights, and the "hippie counterculture" fueled the New Right and allowed conservatives to seize power.
The Religious Right and Gay Liberation, undoubtedly, represent two of the most important social movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Yet stories about the culture wars that begin in the 1960s and rely on a clear left-right binary obscure as much as they reveal. Most notably, they often mystify the postwar liberal state's role in stigmatizing deviant sexuality and obscure the privileges enjoyed by the vast majority of self-identified heterosexuals who never joined the Religious Right. Decades before the culture wars made national headlines, local, state, and federal officials rewarded Americans for marrying and punished people who had gay sex. That regime affected nearly everyone, not just the opposing sides of the culture wars. Many Americans in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries felt strongly that heterosexuality represented the only healthy, natural kind of relationship. A broad range of Americans supported political, social, and economic rewards for heterosexual married couples. Framing the issue of gay rights as a two-sided culture war conceals this broad consensus, focusing scholarly attention solely on the most vocal participants.
Blending some of the key insights of metropolitan history and LGBT history offers a more compelling framework in understanding these conflicts. Historians have frequently relied on national frameworks for explaining American politics, and scholarship has often isolated the Religious Right and Gay Liberation from larger trends in postwar history. Bird's-eye views on the culture wars tend to reify divisions between liberal coasts and the "Bible Belt," blue states and red states, erotic cities and vanilla suburbs. Yet historians can best see the complex interplay of sexuality, race, gender, class, and politics at the metropolitan level. The field of postwar metropolitan history, however, has only begun to include an analysis of sexuality. Histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender life have long focused on cities as places in which people experiencing queer desires or who have deviated from middle-class social norms have found one another. More recently, historians have begun "queering the state," demonstrating the ways in which public policies have promoted heterosexuality and policed homosexuality, yet this scholarship has primarily focused on national policies.
Together, these literatures enable a more nuanced understanding of the origins of the culture wars. Beginning this history in the 1940s and setting it in a metropolitan context reveals a number of diverse sexual communities and the important role the state played in promoting marital heterosexuality. After the New Deal, federal policies shaped two of the most important internal migrations in U.S. history—the outward movement of married white couples to the suburbs and the influx of a racially diverse cohort of unmarried people, including many gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people, to older cities. The government's intervention in the postwar housing market was a crucial pillar of the postwar Straight State, and the sorting of people by the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration based on their perceived sexuality paralleled and reinforced their racially exclusionary practices. This process never operated with the rigidity of racial segregation; self-identified and closeted gay men and lesbians have always lived in the suburbs, and private bedrooms allowed numerous seemingly "straight" suburbanites to engage in queer sex. But the penalties embedded in the postwar housing market placed significant barriers to openly gay people wishing to buy a new home and, therefore, created a divided landscape in which some places allowed for the freer public expression of same-sex desires than others. Restrictions based on marital status and sexuality, furthermore, reinforced racial segregation since California banned interracial marriage until 1948 and many other states banned them until 1967, and public officials frequently stressed the ways in which racially homogeneous neighborhoods nurtured strong families.
These federal policies set the stage for a number of local actions. As urban areas took on a greater share of their regions' residents of color, poorer people, and unmarried residents, including many gay men and lesbians, worried mayors in cities such as San Francisco cracked down on "vice." Bar raids and police sweeps of parks grew out of a larger fear that "sleaze" hurt downtown investment and encouraged businesses and white middle-class families to relocate to the suburbs. Federal policies that divided the Bay Area and other regions along sexual lines, therefore, intensified competition at the metropolitan level.
At the same time, school and health officials tried to promote marriage through education campaigns about sex and parenting. Suburban school districts, often filled with thousands of new mothers and fathers, offered adult courses on childrearing that included teaching children about sex and marriage. These classes not only served as important avenues for disseminating scientific knowledge about sexuality to a wider public but also anchored new communities of middle-class parents. Eager to use expert advice to raise "better" families, many new suburbanites in places such as Santa Clara County came together in book clubs, parent-teacher associations (PTAs), and church groups to discuss the works of writers like Dr. Benjamin Spock and to meet others like themselves.
From the mid-1940s through the 1960s, these policies garnered enormous public support, enabled the creation of new social communities built around sexual norms, and mobilized voters in defense of those norms. During the war, middle-class, primarily white parents in California and elsewhere forged a new relationship with the state, demanding that authorities repress the increasingly visible queer people in major cities and promote heterosexual marriage in public schools. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, suburban homes, schools, and churches represented key counterparts to urban gay bars and bookstores, bringing communities of likeminded individuals together. In the long postwar period, many of these groups served as the most ardent supporters of classroom-based sex education. Although almost all suburban residents agreed that heterosexual marriage represented the only socially acceptable place for sex, they disagreed over whether schools or churches could best supplement lessons taught in the home. In the twenty years before the battles over classroom-based sex education in California attracted national attention in the late 1960s, suburban parents debated the issue in their PTAs, congregations, and neighborhoods.
Examining controversies over homosexuality and sex education in the homes, schools, churches, and neighborhoods of postwar America, therefore, reveals longstanding concerns about the importance of heterosexuality and marriage and hostility to same-sex relationships. It embeds the Religious Right within the state's larger, longer support for heterosexual marriage and helps explain how the postwar period can be remembered both as one of the most "liberal" periods in American history regarding the expansion of the welfare state and as one of the most "conservative" eras in terms of its gender and sexual politics. One of the principal consequences of the postwar expansion of the state was the dramatic mobilization of parents across the political spectrum in defense of marriage, childrearing, and heteronormative sex. Telling the history of those movements not only helps explain the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s, it also reveals the consensus in American politics about the importance of preserving heterosexuality and marriage. As bedroom seclusion became a popular expectation of many postwar homeowners and renters, large numbers of self-identified "straight" voters distanced themselves from what they saw as the "excesses" of both the sexual left and right by emphasizing the importance of "privacy."
Contested Consensuses and the Normative Center
By delving into the social, cultural, and political fabric of a metropolitan area and broadening the history of the culture wars beyond Gay Liberation and the Religious Right, The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac challenges historians to look beyond the left-right binary of American elections and to see moderation as an ideology with its own politics and history. Some of the best studies of the suburbs have underscored the ways in which many middle-class white Americans have more frequently identified themselves in nonpartisan terms such as homeowners, taxpayers, and school parents than as ideologically coherent liberals or conservatives. Identifying labels such as "heterosexual," "husband," and "wife" worked precisely in this manner after World War II, and similar to other seemingly neutral suburban identities, these terms have masked varying degrees of racial, gender, sexual, and class privilege. Numerous historians have demonstrated that the homosexual-heterosexual binary that dominates the present-day "common sense" about sexuality only came into existence in the late nineteenth century. As late as World War II, relationships between two men or two women did not invariably provoke hostility from the wider society or even define someone as "homosexual." The growth of the postwar Straight State, however, consolidated heterosexuality and American identity and reinforced the notion that same-sex desires represented a problem in need of a collective solution. This regulatory system defined heterosexuality and homosexuality in exclusionary and hierarchical terms, giving many Americans a "possessive investment in straightness" that transcended the left-right axis of electoral politics. No study of liberalism or conservatism alone could fully encapsulate the widespread faith in heterosexual marriage that has animated multiple sides of the culture wars.
Understanding the consensus around straightness requires recognizing a moderate rhetorical tradition in U.S. politics. Since the 1940s, white, middle-class suburbanites, in particular, have frequently embraced a centrist rhetorical style that valorizes the middle and has rejected "extreme" points of view. The merits of any given issue have varied, but activists' and policymakers' ability to persuade others has often rested on their ability to convince the wider public that their proposal was "in the middle" and "balanced." Self-identified moderates have not necessarily sat idle, waiting for direction from others. They have, instead, actively crafted their own centrist politics with its own ideology, contradictions, and self-interest.
Moderation as a rhetorical frame has defined the culture wars as often as polarization and understanding the tensions within centrist discourses necessitates investigating what historian Wendy Wall calls the "politics of consensus." Even when Americans have expressed seeming agreement over words like "freedom" or "the American Way," they have often clashed over definitions. Opponents have frequently used similar language to reach different goals. Moderate politics since World War II have functioned precisely in this manner with Americans sharing common words, even as they have disagreed about their meaning. Deciphering the language that they have used matters greatly because "balanced," "middle," and "extreme" represent relative expressions that have changed over time. Moderates have refashioned the boundaries of centrist discourses in response to pressure from social movements as well as a means of preserving their own self-interest. These middle-class voters have also sometimes revised their points of view out of genuine sympathy for a given cause. On other occasions—or even on the same occasions—they have changed their rhetoric as a means for preserving their own interests. When, for example, historian Matthew Lassiter studied school integration in the Sunbelt South in the 1960s and 1970s, he found numerous suburban whites who expressed sympathy for the goals of the civil rights movement but who also opposed "extreme" measures like busing students across neighborhood lines. Whites' rhetorical support for "colorblindness" often simultaneously reflected a genuine antipathy to Jim Crow and a convenient rhetorical tool for preserving segregated schools. A close analysis of the discourse of moderation, therefore, not only helps historians see Americans' attitudes change over time but also unmasks varying degrees of privilege and ideology masquerading as common sense.
Sexual Moderation and the Postwar Public
This book follows two of the most important moderate discourses that middle-class Bay Area residents and policymakers used to define their relationship to sexuality, the city, and the state. In the years immediately after World War II, San Franciscans or suburbanites rarely mentioned a right to sexual privacy. Instead, people across the ideological spectrum spoke about marriage and childrearing as collective projects and described "homes, schools, and churches" as the building blocks of a moral order that protected so-called normal families. Many white middle-class Bay Area residents called this trinity of institutions "preventative agencies," which helped discipline people. When the home, school, and church failed, voters and public officials looked to the police or other law enforcement to punish sexual misconduct of any kind. Ideally, the three institutions taught similar, reinforcing messages, and postwar moderates frequently spoke of homes, schools, and churches as a unified front against sexual delinquency and disorder.
The migration of people to cities during and after World War II seemed to test the strength of the Bay Area's homes, schools, and churches and triggered a new round of reforms reminiscent of the antivice campaigns of the early twentieth century. Population growth in ports such as San Francisco, in particular, expanded older LGBT communities and communities of color, alarmed many middle-class residents, and prompted a crackdown on prostitution and gay bars. Unlike earlier campaigns, however, the antivice efforts of the 1940s unfolded amid the expansion of the New Deal state, and residents worried about homosexuality and sexual promiscuity found a sympathetic audience among public officials. Authorities after World War II called for unity between the home, school, and church, offering voters a mixture of classroom-based sex education, information about human sexuality for parents, and school prayer. The state's support for character-building programs effectively democratized elite ideas about sexuality, broadening the number of people who saw heterosexuality as a form of psychological maturity.
By contrast, moderate discourses about sexual privacy were newer developments that first appeared after World War II and grew in popularity after the Warren Court in the 1960s. A small number of liberal lawyers and researchers such as Alfred Kinsey spoke of the "right to privacy" to push back against the laws restricting multiple kinds of nonmarital sex, including homosexuality. Most often, these liberals spoke about dangers to civil liberties and the practical difficulties police faced in trying to monitor behaviors that took place behind closed doors. Some gay rights groups in this early period spoke about privacy to try to limit harassment from law enforcement.
But a larger set of middle-class gay activists used the discourse to win limited freedoms after Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s such as Griswold v. Connecticut and Stanley v. Georgia made "privacy" a basic legal right for Americans using birth control or viewing pornography. Beginning in 1965, federal courts gradually extended the Fourth Amendment's guarantee of protections against "unreasonable search and seizure" and the Fourteenth Amendment's "due process" clause to offer Americans limited sexual freedoms. These decisions primarily restricted the state's ability to police its citizens, rather than establishing an unfettered right to sexual freedom. Nevertheless, after these rulings, many gay men and lesbians argued that their disproportionate arrest, loss of employment, and discrimination in housing represented a violation of their "privacy." Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union subsequently used the discourse to justify nondiscrimination ordinances in employment and a halt to the arrest of Americans for "victimless crimes."
Equally important to the rise of the privacy discourse were a series of Supreme Court rulings in the early 1960s that made it difficult for parents to treat the school and church as interchangeable pieces of a moral order. In Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp, the U.S. Supreme Court curtailed teacher-led prayer and Bible readings in public schools. These decisions did not mean that religion disappeared from public education altogether, but they triggered local debates about whether open expressions of religion violated the privacy of nonbelieving students. Numerous conservatives argued that the church and school needed to reinforce lessons given in the home and that prayer bans endangered young people's morality. Many moderates and liberals, by contrast, contended that schools should teach "facts" about sex and that young people could learn their own private morality in the church and home.
A few years later, these arguments overwhelmed conservatives at the dawn of the sexual revolution. Worried about premarital sex, homosexuality, and drug use, middle-class Bay Area parents across the ideological spectrum asked the public schools to contain what they saw as immorality and convinced the California legislature to require family life education for all high school students. For liberals and moderates, education about "facts" violated no one's privacy, even if teachers told students that homosexuality was a mental disorder. Conservatives, now on the defensive, argued that mandatory teachings about sex violated their right to privacy. Convinced that the secular school system corrupted students, many conservative parents opted to teach their children at home or in private religious academies.
By the late 1960s, however, gay activists increasingly split over privacy's value as a rhetorical tool. Many gay men and lesbians worried that emphasizing privacy allowed officials and employers to require them to conceal their relationships in order to gain the benefits of a nondiscrimination policy. Instead, they emphasized the public dimensions of sexuality, calling for people experiencing same-sex attractions to "come out of the closet." Their fears were well founded because many straight-identified Americans increasingly spoke about privacy to justify their own ideological positions. Some moderates, for example, affirmed that they opposed discrimination against gay men and lesbians because they believed in "privacy," but they opposed "public" displays of homosexual affection in parades or on the street. Others claimed that nondiscrimination ordinances themselves violated the public's right not to have openly gay teachers in the classroom. Many middle-class gay activists continued to emphasize privacy's liberal elements, therefore, and argued that gay men and lesbians barely differed from straight people except for what they did in the bedroom. This claim gave many gay people a measure of acceptance, but it also sharpened the line between those most able to conform to middle-class gender and sexual norms and those who could not. Most transgender people, sex radicals, and the queer poor who sold sex for a living or lived on the street still faced accusations that they violated others' privacy.
Focusing on these two moderate discourses reinforces and disrupts the longstanding view that the 1960s represented a crucial turning point in the development of the culture wars. Both before and after the 1960s, Bay Area residents clashed over the meaning of a united "home, school, and church" and the "right to privacy" even as they used the phrases again and again. Moderates, for example, alternately spoke of "privacy" to support gay equality, condemn homosexuality, or justify a middle ground on the issue. Proponents of unity between the "home, school, and church" shared a belief that parents, teachers, and clergy should work together. Yet they also differed on how to mediate the needs of those groups. Some voters argued that unity between "home, school, and church" required greater sex education in children's classrooms, while others used it to justify more religious instruction. Local clashes over classroom prayer and sex education played out against the backdrop of a seeming national consensus about the importance of normative marriage and the value of religion in public life.
A history of these two discourses furthermore reveals ongoing and continuous support for marriage and heterosexuality before and after the 1960s. All sexual relationships have public dimensions, and many straight-identified people have used "privacy" in a way that has obscured the state's ongoing support for heterosexual relationships, particularly marriage. Scholars have traditionally thought of legal arguments about "privacy" as a kind of "negative liberty"—or a claim about the "right to be left alone" from government interference. This understanding of the term has often accompanied a broader explanation of the freedoms that came with the sexual revolution. Court rulings, such as Griswold, that affirmed the right to privacy opened the door for legalized contraception and the repeal of laws against gay sex.
Yet Americans at the grassroots level in the late twentieth century primarily used privacy to demarcate the boundaries of sexual respectability and to reinforce straight privilege. In this context, same-sex couples have repeatedly faced accusations that open expressions of their relationships violate others' privacy. The central questions surrounding gay rights in this era have usually been the following: who has the right to openly express their sexuality, and which relationships deserve public acknowledgment? While marriage ceremonies or heterosexual dates have rarely generated controversy, for example, same-sex couples have often faced extra scrutiny for public displays of affection. In its most liberal form, the right to privacy has carved out important legal protections for LGBT people. But it has also left other kinds of consensual adult relationships, such as polyamory or people who engage in casual sex, outside those protections and beyond the bounds of respectability. Even with antidiscrimination laws, many LGBT people have felt pressure to conceal their relationships in their neighborhoods, workplaces, or schools.
More importantly, the frequent invocation of privacy has concealed numerous "positive rights" offered to heterosexual married couples. Although the Straight State decisively weakened after the 1960s, it cast a long shadow across the twentieth century, and public officials passed new laws that promoted heterosexuality and reinforced marriage often in the name of privacy. Between 1993 and 2011, the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy required people engaged in same-sex relationships to conceal them from their commanding officers or risk discharge and a loss of benefits. Even as states such as California banned same-sex marriage, bipartisan coalitions in Congress and state legislatures launched marriage promotion initiatives for heterosexual couples in the nation's schools and churches. Married couples in the early twenty-first century benefited from numerous advantages in housing, insurance, and tax policies. Throughout these debates, few people acknowledged that the government has long offered married couples benefits that it has denied to the unmarried or that LGBT activists were responding to a long history of "special rights" conferred on people who conformed to heterosexual norms.
To be sure, many straight-identified Americans expressed sympathy for gay rights in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. However, they often qualified that support either by also emphasizing the importance of marriage between a man and a woman or by offering their support to gay couples who most looked like them and shared their attitudes about sexual respectability. White, middle-class, monogamous gay couples were best positioned to claim the sympathy of straight-identified Americans who shared their larger adherence to other gender and sexual norms. Yet even they faced discrimination. In the twenty-first century, proponents of same-sex marriage not only needed to redefine marriage as a private relationship devoid of any support from the government but also needed to convince the wider electorate that "marriage equality" would violate no one's privacy. The postwar Straight State no longer universally discriminated against all people in same-sex relationships in the early 2000s, but it nevertheless continued to shape many Americans' expectations about who deserved public support and who did not.
The history of the origins of the culture wars thus reveals the importance of moderate voters who disavowed discrimination, even as they embraced a fundamentally discriminatory worldview. Tracing the evolution of public policies, the changing language of the political center, and the transformation of metropolitan space helps make this worldview visible. By the time Californians debated Proposition 6 in 1978, a majority of Americans had benefited from the economic redistribution of goods through processes such as homeownership, had supported heteronormative sex education, and had joined new communities defined by common social characteristics like marriage. The creation and subsequent liberalization of the postwar closet transformed more than just the conservatives who would later make up the Religious Right. It also gave millions of middle-class, self-identified straight voters a shared hierarchical vision that enabled the dismantling of the most repressive elements of the postwar closet and the reinscription of a tiered division between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Even as gay activists clashed with religious conservatives, the "right to privacy" emerged as a bipartisan discourse designed to limit both the egalitarian agenda of gay liberation and the rightist vision of figures like John Briggs.