Immigrating While Queer: Part I

June is National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pride Month, which honors the important contributions that LGBTQ+ Americans have made to U.S. history and culture. Visit the National Archives website for more information on our related holdings. Today’s post from Jennifer Halpern looks at the immigration challenges faced by queer and gender nonconforming people over the last century.

There is a great body of records about people seeking a new home who, up until recently with greater research, haven’t been included in migration stories, at least not in the United States. These records shed light on queer and gender nonconforming people who had attempted to enter the United States as immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and displaced or stateless persons. They sought citizenship for the same reasons as any other applicant: to find a better life, to escape war and unrest, or persecution for their sexual or gender identity, religious beliefs, or ethnicity. This is the first of three-part series on the challenges to immigration, and U.S. law as a whole, for queer and gender nonconforming persons from the early 20th century to present day. 

A note to readers: I use “queer” and “gender nonconforming” to efficiently address the fact that a person’s sexual orientation or their gender expression and their physical body were grounds for evaluation and possible exclusion in American immigration policies. Being queer can include the LGBTQ+ umbrella, and “gendering nonconforming” refers to people who were judged to not fit societal or cultural definitions and expectations of “masculine” or “feminine” in their dress, character, and activities and persons whose physical bodies were expected to appear as either “male” or “female.”

Fit To Be a Citizen 

People applying for permanent immigration to the United States had to demonstrate they were essentially good people, therefore good candidates to be citizens. This meant they weren’t criminals, convicts, drug addicts, prostitutes, or illiterates; that they could provide for themselves; in some cases, that they were sponsored by an American; and were mentally and physically healthy. Along with a background investigation, an applicant needed people in their personal lives to vouch for their “good moral character.”

Up to the 1990s, American immigration policy took a nativist view, with a false pretense of protecting American citizens from external threats, and explicitly sought to exclude groups based on race, education, cultural or ethnic background, and dissenting political views. 

Criminals, convicts, and prostitutes were excluded from the possibility of immigration and faced deportation because they fell into the category of people who had committed what immigration law calls “crimes involving moral turpitude.” The category of crimes involving moral turpitude casts a wide net. According to the Board of Immigration Appeals, the term includes serious misdemeanors, and felonies like murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery, and child abuse, but also includes actions “which shocks the public conscience as inherently base, vile, or depraved, contrary to the rules of morality and the duties owed between people or to society in general.” The use of the term was debatable, nebulous, and at its worst, subjective. 

According to Federal regulations, a “determination that a crime involves moral turpitude shall be based upon the moral standards generally prevailing in the United States.” From about 1917 to until 2003, looking a legislation and case law, being or acting as queer and gender nonconforming was put into the category of crimes of moral turpitude because it was believed to be a perverse behavior, a criminal act, and for some time, an illness. If you were a queer or gender nonconforming person, you could not have good moral character. Simply put, queer persons were unfit to be American citizens.  

The Immigration Act of 1917 established groundwork for widespread exclusions, and being queer or gender nonconforming were within those excluded groups. To be openly queer meant the person was identified officially as a “Constitutional Psychotic Inferior,” or “CPI.”  In the late 1940s, with further input from the Public Health Service to define them as “persons with abnormal sexual instincts,” being a CPI was equivalent to having a mental illness, like schizophrenia. To some, homosexuality was believed to be a communicable disease like something that could be spread among an otherwise healthy heterosexual population. 

“A Man Like This…”  

In the case of Alfons Zinkower, who was seeking entry to the United States, the allegation of him being gay was based on one person making a claim. There isn’t much known about the investigation itself, but his case investigators took the claim seriously and interviewed friends, acquaintances, and associates to ascertain evidence of the allegation. Questions arose over where he spent his leisure time, if he associated with other homosexuals, or if he had relationships with them. The goal was to find some “indication” of his homosexuality, though it isn’t concretely defined in his records. 

What’s powerful about Mr. Zinkower’s case file is that it highlights how the visa case workers dealt with an applicant who might fall into this category. There is a small window into their perspectives and the haphazard process used to shape a profile of what a queer or gender nonconforming person looked like.

In the late 1940s, the United States was at the center of a changing political landscape. During the 1950s, queer and gender nonconforming persons were being flushed out of the federal workforce and the military. The idea was to keep America and American values protected amid a Cold War and growing anxiety about external threats, real and imagined. The discussion about homosexuality became more defined and targeted. 

In 1950, Congress created the Hoey Committee to investigate “homosexuals and moral perverts” in the workforce and would subsequently fire or force them out. According to the committee’s final report, homosexuality made people unsuitable for employment because queer and gender nonconforming people “were weak, unstable and fickle people who fear detection and who are therefore susceptible to the wanton desires of others.” Homosexuality was seen as a “morale destroyer” for the military and civil service. The report led President Dwight D. Eisenhower to sign Executive Order 10450 in 1953, which barred employment of any queer person in the federal government. 

The prevailing thought at this time was that homosexuality was a danger to democracy. In addition to being unreliable, fickle, reclusive, and depressed, being queer also meant that the person could be a communist, or susceptible to communist recruiters, and therefore, anti- or un-American. 

How a person was determined or evaluated to be a homosexual was vague. There was never a medical or mental health exam to make a determination to concretely diagnose a person “homosexual.” The first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders listed homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” even though there was also a community of psychologists, like Evelyn Hooker, who, in her research, found no psychological disturbance between groups of heterosexual men and homosexual men. Yet a narrative about queer people was cultivated and perpetuated for the public and made into a de facto definition by mental health professionals, religious, and political leaders who pathologized homosexuality.  

Finally, it was believed that queer people could manipulate heterosexuals, and somehow convert them to become queer simply by being open or “out,” and showing two same-sex adults in a romantic relationship. At its worst, it was believed that queer people would prey on children and therefore, they were grouped with pedophiles and seen as predators. This is demonstrated in a clip from Boys Beware, a 1955 educational film warning against “the dangers of homosexuality.” It stated that homosexuals were “sick” with “a sickness that was not visible like smallpox but no less dangerous and contagious. A sickness of the mind.” The film gave various scenarios of “mentally ill” homosexuals who wanted to befriend, kidnap, and even murder young boys.

Queer Persons Need Not Apply

What it meant to be placed in an excludable category for being homosexual was blurry despite efforts to define and categorize a type of person and fit a profile. While all immigration applicants required medical exams, the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) would refer applicants suspected of being homosexual to the Public Health Service (PHS) for a health evaluation. If the PHS official determined the applicant was in fact homosexual, the applicant would be issued a Class A medical exclusion that would exclude them from approval. The understanding was that if a person’s behavior, appearance, or character revealed they were queer, it was probably the result of a more serious mental or psychological problem, and therefore excluded from immigration.  

More definitive legal frameworks were established from the 1950s and into the 1960s despite the vague and inconsistent interpretation and implementation of whether being queer was a real mental illness.  

The term Constitutional Psychopathic Inferior or “mentally defective” category was used until around 1951, when defining homosexuals as “psychopathic” was tested in court case United States v. Flores-Rodriguez. As a result of the decision, defining homosexuals as “CPI” was removed from the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (McCarran–Walter Act) and replaced with language to categorize and exclude homosexuals as people who fall into the category of “with a psychopathic personality, epilepsy, or a mental defect.” The act also excluded “Aliens coming to the United States to engage in any immoral sexual act.”

During this time U.S. law placed queer and gender nonconforming people in an excludable category, and took away their opportunity to immigrate and naturalize. Further, American society saw queer people “unnatural” who were morally, socially, and criminally dangerous. It was clear that there was no place for them in the United States, which was the case for a very long time.

Stay tuned for the second part of the series, which looks into increased challenges in the 1960s through the 1980s to anti-queer statutes across local, state, and federal jurisdictions.

To learn more about the Lavender Scare and programs targeting the LGBTQ community in the federal workforce, see the  Prologue article, “‘These People Are Frightened to Death,’ Congressional Investigations and the Lavender Scare” by Judith Adkins.

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