In Celebration of LGBT Pride Month: LGBT Immigration
June 7, 2016

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Clive Boutilier was 21 years old when he emigrated from Canada to New York in 1955.  He lived in an apartment in Brooklyn in the same building as his mother and stepfather.  He spoke English, joined a bowling league, and was an active member of his church.  As his lawyers would later note, he was, in many ways, a model U.S. immigrant.  Nonetheless, Clive Boutilier was deported in 1967, after the Supreme Court found that he had been ineligible to enter the country as an immigrant in the first place due to his “psychopathic personality.”  Boitilier was a homosexual.

As LGBT pride parades and festivals take place in cities across the U.S. this month, it can be difficult for many Americans to remember that there was a time when merely admitting to a same sex attraction was enough to keep an immigrant out of the U.S.  While immigrants have faced a variety of legal barriers based on race and ethnicity over the years, blanket bans based on sexuality were some of the earliest and longest lasting laws.  American efforts to bar LGBT immigration have a long and complex history, which can tell us a lot about the way that American ideas about sexuality have influenced ideas about who might make a good citizen.

In 1875, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government, and not states, must regulate immigration, paving the way for federal laws to distinguish desirable from unacceptable immigrants.  The anti-immigrant prejudice swirling at the time was rich with fears about immigrants’ dangerous sexualities: popular books supposedly written by “escaped” Irish nuns told of midnight convent orgies, while American newspapers reported kidnappings of young girls taken to brothels in distant countries and forced into “white slavery” by swarthy Eastern European men posing as harmless American immigrants.  And so it was no surprise that the Page Law, the first major federal measure restricting entry, immediately banned prostitutes and convicts, especially those who had been convicted of crimes involving “moral turpitude,” or sodomy.

The Immigration Act of 1917 reinforced this restriction, barring those potential immigrants with “constitutional psychopathic inferiority,” a category which included “persons with abnormal sexual instincts.”  Homosexuals, lawmakers argued, were psychologically and physically inferior, unable to function in American society.  In the unlikely event they managed to hold down a job to avoid being a burden on the state, they were still a threat to innocent young Americans, who they would inevitably prey on and corrupt.

Of course, these restrictions were notoriously difficult to apply in practice; the only way that immigration officials could discover a prospective immigrant’s sexual orientation was through their own admission.  Since immigrants were unlikely to share this during a brief admissions interview, almost all of the immigrants deported under this provision admitted their sexual histories after being legally admitted to the United States, usually after getting in unrelated trouble with the law.  Between 1917 and 1941, only about thirty people per year were deported as homosexuals.

The 1950s saw a renewed sexual hysteria, as millions of Americans listened to Senator Joseph McCarthy rail against not only Communists, but also homosexuals.  In the midst of the “red scare,” Americans were suddenly gripped by a renewed fear of closeted gay men in positions of power, susceptible to blackmail because they had so much to hide.  McCarthy claimed to have ferreted out homosexuals in the military, the FBI, and the CIA, all potential targets for the KGB.  Homosexuals possessed the worst traits of Communists: they kept their true identities and loyalties secret, while taking part in shadow societies and recruiting innocent young Americans.  The panic prompted a campaign to drive homosexuals out of the military and the government, and resulted in renewed bans on “aliens afflicted with psychopathic personality, epilepsy or mental defect” in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act.  In 1965, the law was amended to explicitly include “sexual deviation” as medical grounds for denying entry into the U.S.

Cultural shift led to the slow reversal of the policy.  In 1974, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from their list of recognized mental illnesses, and the Public Health Service ended their practice of “certifying” immigrants referred by immigration officials as homosexuals.  Six years later, the Immigration and Naturalization Service instructed its inspectors to stop asking about sexual orientation entirely in immigration interviews.  However, immigrants who admitted to homosexual acts were still excluded.  A 1983 Supreme Court decision made it all but impossible for the INS to deport immigrants based solely on sexual orientation, but it was not until 1990 that the Immigration and Naturalization Act was revised to remove the phrase “sexual deviation” entirely.  The U.S. became the last industrialized country to remove sexuality as a barrier to immigration.

The 1990 Immigration Act was not a complete victory, however.  The Act quietly allowed for the end of a 1987 ban on immigrants with HIV, which had been disproportionately used to block homosexual and transgender immigrants.  However, when President Clinton acted to end enforcement of the ban, both Congress and ordinary Americans reacted with furor.  Citing arguments linking immigrants from strange lands and disease that would have been familiar to 19th century Americans, Congress wrote the ban back into law in 1993.  The ban on HIV+ immigrants was only lifted by President Obama in 2009.