The “Gay Purge” at UW–Madison

Learning Objectives:

Students will be able to understand how and why the UW–Madison disciplined students who engaged or were suspected of engaging in homosexual activity.

Students will be able to understand the relationship between psychology/psychotherapy and homosexuality in UW’s decision-making process for re-admitting accused students.

Students will be able to understand how accused students attempted to regain admission and the traumas associated with that.

Sources and Readings

Recommended Primary Sources:

Role of University Psychology in Homosexual Students 1948-1949: Read Report Here

This is a report that described the difference between a “true” and “pseudo” homosexual. In Annette Washburn’s analysis, she argues that a true homosexual is someone who continues to engage in sexual relations with the same sex despite any psychiatric measures or treatment. On the other hand, a pseudo homosexual is someone who can be rehabilitated to engaging in heterosexual practices. This document recommends that true homosexuals be dismissed from the university because they cannot be cured of their deviancy, while pseudo homosexuals can be allowed to remain at the university.

1948 Letter Exchanges: Read Letters Here

This is a series of letter exchanges between a student accused of engaging in homosexual acts and a university director. The letters demonstrate how seriously the student takes the allegations and the potential implications for having to attend a meeting. There is also important language in the beginning about how homosexual behaviors were not welcomed by the “community” and the sense of othering involved. Note: the letter has been redacted to protect the identity of the accused. 

Student Conduct Records 1954-55: Read Report Here

These are the conduct cases from 1954 to 55. Each case lists the student involved, the action or offense committed by the student, and action taken against the student by the university. The source includes a particular instance of a student charged with “homosexual activity” and students charged with other conduct violations for comparison. Note: the document has been redacted to protect those accused. 

Recommended Readings:

Public History Project Blog: “Gay Purge: The Persecution of Homosexual Students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1962–1963” By Ezra Gerard. Read Blog Post Here

UW–Madison University Health Services “Statement in response to UW–Madison History Project.” Read Response Here

UW–Madison Student Affairs “Gay Purge Response.” Read Response Here

Additional Primary Sources:

Voices of the People Article: Read the Article Here

This is a series of communications with a student who engaged in homosexual acts. The student in question was suspended and then readmitted to the university for the summer term after seeking treatment. The committee clearly established why the students faced disciplinary actions, what those disciplinary actions entailed, the necessary conditions for re-enrollment, and the student’s actions that lead to re-enrollment.

Report on Philosophy of Student Conduct: Read Report Here

This document explains how the university planned to address student misconduct. The committee outlined a step for both disciplinary action and treatment/redress options for students found guilty of violating university conduct. There is also a series of questions at the end that the committee should consult when handling a specific case. This policy applied to the persecution of gay students on campus and there are clear parallels to the committee’s philosophical ideas of discipline and redress and the actions taken against students charged in engaging in homosexual activities.

Additional/Alternative Readings:

Selected chapters from William Wright, Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage Purge of Campus Homosexuals. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.

Estelle B. Freedman, “Uncontrolled Desires”: The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920–1960,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 1 (June 1987): 83–106.

David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

For a discussion of the medicalization of homosexuality in the United States see Henry Minton, Departing from Deviance: The History of Homosexual Rights and Emancipatory Science in America. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). 

Discussion and Questions

Primary Source Discussion Questions

Role of University Psychology in Homosexual Students 1948-1949:

  •       How does the author differentiate between a “pseudo” and “true homosexual”? Why would they differentiate these two?
  •       Why and how did the university use these ideas in their actions against students accused of engaging in homosexual activity?
  •       How did these ideas help legitimize the university’s persecution of gay students?

1948 Letter Exchanges:

  •       Why was the student so concerned about attending the conduct meeting?
  •       How do you interpret the relationship between Little’s claims about homosexuality, citizenship, and the University community?
  •       What are your overall impressions and takeaways from this exchange about being gay at UW? How does your impression change to looking at the University from the student’s perspective?

Student Conduct Records:

  •       What happened to the student who engaged in “homosexual actions”?
  •       Why do you think the University decided to undertake these disciplinary actions?
  •       What are some potential consequences students endured because of this?
  •       How did the consequences of a student who engaged in homosexual acts compare with those who engaged in other behavior considered unbecoming?

Reading Discussion Questions

  •       Why and how were gay students targeted for suspension, psychological treatment, and/or expulsion from the University? 
  •       What were the academic, social, and psychological consequences for students accused of homosexual activities?
  •       How did gay students resist the University attempts to identify and expel them?
  •       How do the “Gay Purges” correspond with larger social trends in American society?
  •       Why is this history still important today? Think about UHS’ and Student Affairs’ responses.

Discussion Norms: These are based on Walter Parker, Teaching Democracy: Unity and Diversity in Public Life, 138-9

  •       Do not raise hands
  •       Address one another, not the discussion leader
  •       Invite others into the conversation
  •       Cite and/or reference the texts to support your texts
  •       Base response in the reading/sources
  •       Listen to and build on others’ comments
  •       Critically Agree and Disagree

For more ideas about structuring discussion and asking good questions, see The Discussion Project

Source Citations

Role of University Psychology in Homosexual Students 1948-1949: Annette Washburne, Report on the Role of University Psychology in Homosexual student, Student Conduct and Appeals Committee 1923-1970, Series 5/87, Box 1, Student Conduct Committee (1948-1949) Folder, UW–Madison Archives, UW–Madison Libraries.

1948 Letter Exchanges: Various Letters, Dean of Students Records, 1957-1971, Accession 1994/070, Box 4, “Special Conduct File – Adams Street Case – June 1948” Folder, UW–Madison Archives, UW–Madison Libraries.

Student Conduct Records 1954-55: Student Conduct Report, 1954-1955, ​​Student Conduct and Appeals Committee 1923-1970, Series 5/87, Box 2,  UW–Madison Archives, UW–Madison Libraries.

Voices of the People Article: Voice of the People, Capital Times (Madison, WI), June 12. 1948, Accession 2017/276 Box 1 (Gay Purge 1948), Newspaper Clippings, 1948 Gay Purge, Box 1, Folder 2, UW–Madison Archives, UW–Madison Libraries.

Report on Philosophy of Student Conduct: Report on the Philosophy of Student Conduct Cases, Student Conduct and Appeals Committee 1923-1970 Series 5/87, Box 1, Student Conduct Committee (1948-1949) Folder, UW–Madison Archives, UW–Madison Libraries.