In the early 1960s, the University of Wisconsin-Madison launched a year-long inquisition into homosexual activity on its campus, now known as the “Gay Purge.” This purge aimed to identify gay male students and discipline them through expulsion, arrest or revocation of financial aid.
The Public History Project exposed the Gay Purges to the campus community in March 2021, after nearly 60 years of silence.
Tyler Albertario, an LGBTQ+ historian from New York who studied political science at Binghamton University, stated that it is likely that these purges occurred at “every public university system in the U.S. during the two decades after World War II, many of which have not been uncovered.”
The Public History Project article urged the university to provide financial compensation to the victims and their families, many of whom faced a lifetime of repercussions academically, professionally and emotionally. The university stated on Twitter that it has no plans to do so, and did not address this statement in a request for comment.
Juliana Bennett, a UW-Madison student and the alder for District 8, condemned the university’s tendency to acknowledge past atrocities without putting in the work to rectify them. She stated that it is sometimes enough to simply “acknowledge that there is harm done, but there comes a point when you've done such significant harm that you need to do active measures of reparations to resolve that harm.”
The Gay Purge is an example of a calculated and institutional attack on the university’s queer population, but it is far from an isolated incident. The years leading up to this event, particularly following World War II, saw increased tension and contempt towards sexual behaviors deemed “immoral.”
For instance, the Wisconsin State Journal reported the arrest and trial of 12 men accused of sodomy in 1948. Some of the men, as enrolled UW students, faced expulsion for their “misconduct,” and others faced prison sentences or fines of $100 — the equivalent of about $1,200 today.
Dr. Annette Washburne, the first woman to be made a full professor at UW-Madison, began her efforts to remove gay students from the university throughout the 1940s. In 1948, she wrote a report encouraging the Committee of Student Conduct and Appeals (CSCA) to find and expel homosexual students so they could not “contribute to the delinquency of others.”
The CSCA deemed this an “excellent report” and adopted it as their official guide to addressing homosexuality. Dr. Washburne would later be instrumental in spearheading the 1962-63 Gay Purge.
Albertario explained that anti-gay attitudes reached a fever pitch partially due to a concerted effort to root out anyone suspected of being a homosexual in government, dubbed the Lavender Scare of the 1950s. In 1950, a Senate committee formed to investigate “the employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in the government,” stating in their report that “one homosexual can pollute a government office.” Events like this directed public sentiment toward hatred and distrust of homosexuality.
Amid this growing attitude held by the public, UW-Madison began to identify and eliminate gay students systematically in 1962. The purge was led by Dr. Annette Washburne, Dean of Students Howard Zillman and Detective Peter Rordam of the Department of Protection and Security.
If a student was suspected of homosexual activity, he would be brought before Dean Zillman or Det. Rordam for interrogation before facing a panel from the CSCA. Even the Student Health Clinic, which was itself a key participant in the purge, condemned these two men and the CSCA for hostile and aggressive interrogation tactics, corroborating victims’ statements that they were coerced into naming names or admitting to “immorality.”
This fostered a culture of mistrust and isolation among those who were gay on campus at this time. Engaging in any sort of sexual or romantic activity caused fears that one would be exposed and expelled.
According to Albertario, this coincided with “the first time [in history] that you saw gay and lesbian groups ... coming together to form some kind of collective action,” but this early pride movement was supplanted at the university by calculated persecution.
Expelled students could be considered for re-admission after undergoing extensive psychotherapy, or in some cases religious conversion therapy. Any student considered exceptionally “homosexually oriented” – what the university called a “true” or “innate” homosexual – received harsher discipline and less likelihood to gain re-admittance than a “pseudo” homosexual, a circumstantial offender.
Moving forward, Bennett and Albertario urge the university to take action in acknowledging its history. Upon the history project's release, the university condemned the purges.
Bennett stated that the university should make an effort to reach out to living victims and ask them what they want to be done, and that the administration should further its efforts to “make this university more welcoming and inclusive” to LGBTQ+ students.
She also urged fellow students not to forget the power of their voices. She encouraged the Madison community to “speak truth to power,” adding that “spreading awareness of this issue is a way to hold the university accountable.”
Albertario stated that historical instances of oppression like the gay purges should not be forgotten. He encouraged students and community members to “understand and familiarize themselves with the trials and tribulations of those who have come before,” because without this understanding, “the events which seem to have been born of a bygone era may rear their head once again.”
Editor's note: This story was updated at 12:58 p.m. on Thursday, April 28, 2022, to correctly reflect that Albertario graduated with a degree in political science and to include that the university has condemned the "Gay Purge."