The Gay Purges – A Brief History of Exclusion and Resilience

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By KJ LeFave

Since 1999, June has officially been recognized on the federal level as Pride Month.[1] Before Pride Month was recognized by the US Government, June was unofficially designated in 1970 as a time for the display of LGBTQ+ pride, resistance, struggle and joy in honor of the Stonewall Uprisings that took place in Manhattan, New York the year before.[2] During this time, it is important to acknowledge the history of LGBTQ+ discrimination and resistance in all areas of life. One such area is academia. Historically, it was incredibly common, and even explicitly stated, that LGBTQ+ persons were not welcome at universities. Unfortunately, UW-Madison has its own history of LGBTQ+ discrimination and resistance, commonly known as the “Gay Purges.”

Newspaper article titled "Initial Report Drafted on Sex Case Hirings"
Clip from 1950 issue of Washington D.C. based newspaper Evening Star during the Lavender Scare, Library of Congress.[3]

While homophobia has always been an issue in the United States, persecution of LGBTQ+ people picked up during the 1940s through the 1960s. During this time, The Red Scare, described as “the congressional witch-hunt against Communists,” was in full swing.[4] This period in American history was filled with paranoia, questions of morality, brother-turning-on-brother attitudes, and absolutely no tolerance for anything deemed out of the ordinary by societal standards. Anything categorized as “different” was seen as a potential threat of Communist ideals taking root. By extension, a lesser known campaign of paranoia during this time was born – the Lavender Scare, a campaign to expel LGBTQ+ individuals working for the federal and state governments. This was largely perpetrated by Wisconsin’s own staunch anti-Communist, Senator Joseph McCarthy, during his Red Scare campaign. McCarthy, on more than one occasion, “directly linked homosexuality and Communism.”[5] This resulted in hysteria from the Red Scare expanding and manifesting as a separate, but still closely linked, Lavender Scare against LGBTQ+ Americans. According to Dr. Ashley Brown, an Assistant Professor in the History Department at UW-Madison, during the Lavender Scare “gays and lesbians really became the scapegoats. It is assumed that gay men and lesbians are actually threats to national security and that they can be blackmailed.”[6] Unsurprisingly, the Lavender Scare expanded into all aspects of life, including the workplace and higher education. UW-Madison was one such place where the Lavender Scare’s influence was profound.

The term Gay Purge is in reference to when UW-Madison “actively purged students identified as homosexuals” in 1962.[7] However, the persecution of LGBTQ+ students at UW-Madison predated the 1960s. Known as the First Gay Purge at UW, in 1948, several students were victims of an arrest and prosecution on grounds of sodomy and disorderly conduct.[8] These students were “expelled and denied their degrees” as a result of their conviction, but the university didn’t stop there.[9] After the expulsion of these students, UW “tracked” those affected and sent “letters to prospective employers to prevent ‘perverted’ students from getting jobs.”[10]

Black and white image of Dean Zillman holding a cigar.
Dean Zillman, UW Archives.[11]

The extreme lengths the university went to during the 1940s to ensure the outing and harm of LGBTQ+ students was echoed during the Second Gay Purge in the 1960s. Spearheaded by Dean Zillman, the Dean of Men, an inquisition into UW-Madison’s gay male population commenced. Zillman compiled “a list of hundreds of male homosexuals on campus,” calling these men into his office for an interrogation, where they were pressed to give up names of other gay men at UW.[12] The consequences of these inquiries were devastating. As described by Dr. Scott Seyforth, the forced outing of these men “ruined people’s lives,” and tragically resulted in “cases of students attempting suicide.”[13] These men were expelled and stripped of any opportunity to receive a degree from UW-Madison, but also faced societal and familial turmoil as now-outed gay men during a time of LGBTQ+ hysteria.

Headshot of Lewis Bosworth.
Lewis Bosworth, UW Archives.[14]

Very few of the men affected by the Gay Purge have spoken out about their experiences. However, one of the men affected, Lewis Bosworth, spoke out about the ordeal and emerged as a champion for LGBTQ+ rights. As a sophomore, Bosworth began hearing talk of a “purge” on campus of gay male students.[15] Eventually, Zillman reached out to Bosworth, requesting that he come to his office for an interrogation.[16] Bosworth refused, until a university police officer accosted Bosworth at his work; forcing him to undergo Zillman’s examination.[17] As a means of self-preservation, Bosworth denied any and all same sex relationships he was suspected of, and rebuffed all attempts made against him to extract names of more gay men on campus.[18] Bosworth’s efforts prevented him from being expelled, but university officials were not content to go without enforcing some sort of academic repercussions. Prior to his interrogation by Zillman, Bosworth had been awarded a scholarship to study abroad his junior year. Following Zillman’s inquiry, he had been stripped of his scholarship.[19]

The discrimination of LGBTQ+ students and staff on campus was met with protest. In 1969, an anonymous writer at UW published an “open letter in the campus paper calling for homosexuals to band together.”[20] From this emerged the Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality, later called the Gay Liberation Front.[21] The group organized protests, dances, attracted like-minded students in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, and even “traveled around the state, working with emerging gay organizations at other college campuses on LGBTQ+ issues.”[22] After his experience in the Gay Purges, Bosworth himself became active in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in Madison. A bartender at Rod’s Bar, a beloved gay bar on West Washington Avenue, Bosworth was instrumental in curating safe spaces for gay men in the area.[23] The bar had a monthly newsletter that was edited by Bosworth for ten years, which served as an invaluable resource for establishing queer community in Madison.[24] Bosworth also fought for his community in faith circles. A practicing Lutheran himself, Bosworth contributed to efforts to push for LGBTQ+ friendly churches.[25] While taking on different roles within his church, Bosworth helped found the Luther Memorial Gay, Lesbian and Friends Fellowship Group and worked to foster empathy and acceptance during the AIDS epidemic, going as far as to let the Madison AIDS Support Network use the church as a meeting place.[26] Dr. Scott Seyforth, a friend of Bosworth’s described Lewis’ capacity for activism and resilience as follows, “He was tenacious. He stayed with organizations that struggled with acceptance of LGBTQ+ folk and fought for inclusion. He returned to UW–Madison – the school that tried to kick him out for being gay in 1962 – and worked his career there while pressing for inclusion broadly.”[27]

Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment continues to be an issue in Wisconsin and the United States as a whole. Reckoning with periods like the Lavender Scare and Gay Purges, we are reminded of the power that fear and hate has at the institutional level, and how this can translate into national and state backed campaigns against “the other.” From these eras, we are also reminded of the resilience of those who faced persecution, like Bosworth, and take away hope, inspiration and commitment to change and education when confronted with homophobia today.

[1]The History of Pride Month,” Joint Base Andrews, June 23, 2021.

[2]About: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Pride Month: Library of Congress,” The Library of Congress.

[3]Initial Report Drafted on Sex Case Hirings,” April 28, 1950. Evening Star (Washington, D.C), Page A-27, Image 27. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

[4] Judith Adkins, “‘These People Are Frightened to Death,’” National Archives and Records Administration.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Purge, PBS Wisconsin, June 1, 2023.

[7]Term: Gay Purge of 1962,” Wisconsin Historical Society, January 7, 2016.

[8] Ezra Gerard, “Gay Purge: The Persecution of Homosexual Students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1962–1963,” Public History Project, March 22, 2021.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dean of Men Theodore Zillman, 1955 Badger Yearbook, UW-Madison Archives.

[12] The Purge.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Dr. Lewis Bosworth, UW Archives.

[15] The Purge.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Wisconsin Pride – Part Two: Struggles and Victories, PBS Wisconsin, May 22, 2023.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Molly Nortman, “Friends Book Sale: Enriched by the Generous Donation of Dr. Lewis Bosworth,Friends of the UW-Madison Libraries, March 15, 2022.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.