A blow to bigotry

Oregon's history of sexual oppression and freedom

Oregon became the fourth state to decriminalize homosexuality after revised Sodomy Laws took effect on Jan. 1, 1972. Sodomy laws still exist all across the United States, and these laws define what constitutes normal and abnormal sexual behavior punishable by law.

Present-day Oregon law defines oral and anal sex as deviant sexual behavior. And though the state only prosecutes cases involving children and other non-consenting individuals, the ability for a government to define and enforce certain sexual behaviors among its citizens creates potential problems for discrimination and injustice.

The first instances of Oregon sodomy legislation are in the Statutes of Oregon of 1853:
“Every person who shall commit sodomy, or the crime against nature, either with mankind or any beast, shall on conviction, be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary not more than five years nor less than one year.”

Vague and short as it was, the sodomy clause from 1853 survived for over a century though it underwent extensive debate and revision.

After the Vice Clique Scandal of 1912—in which a few well-known and prestigious businessmen of Oregon were put on trial for same-sex acts—citizens demanded stricter sodomy legislation.

Revisions made in 1913 deemed any sexual act outside of male/female vaginal intercourse a legal transgression in the state of Oregon. These revisions also tripled the maximum prison sentence from five years to 15 years.

During this time, many people also began supporting sterilization legislation that ultimately passed in 1917. Under this law, a person was subject to sterilization if they were found to be:

“feeble minded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates and sexual perverts, who are persons potential to producing offspring who, because of inheritance of inferior or antisocial traits, would probably become a social menace, or a ward of the State.”

The law defined “moral degenerates and sexual perverts” as people who participated in sodomy and defined sodomy as anything other than heterosexual vaginal intercourse. The reality is that the Sodomy Law of 1913 and the Sterilization Law of 1917 actively and directly targeted gay individuals—particularly men—as a means of systematic oppression and punishment. These laws stayed in effect relatively unchanged for about 40 years.

During the 1960s—due to the growing success of the Civil Rights Movements—other oppressed groups, including women, LGBTQ+ individuals and other minorities, began to protest and make their voices heard. However, change did not come quickly or without opposition.

Some revisions to the sodomy laws during this time regarded age and consent, while others resulted in further sexual oppression, such as the inclusion of cunnilingus to the definition of sodomy in 1961.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Sexual Liberation and Gay Rights Movements gained traction as a political force in the U.S. In 1965, Oregon legislature eliminated the phrase “moral degenerates and sexual perverts” from the Sterilization Law, removing physical punishment from sodomy convictions.

Finally, in 1971, Governor Tom McCall signed the revisions of Oregon Sodomy Law, removing same-sex sexual activity as a legal transgression. Sterilization remained Oregon law, discriminating against numerous individuals—particularly women and individuals struggling with mental health—until its repeal in 1983.

Homosexuality would not be decriminalized in all 50 states until more than a generation later with the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003.

From being the fourth state to decriminalize homosexuality in 1972 to being the first state to recognize non-binary gender in 2016, Oregon now surpasses many states in sexual freedom and acceptance. 

A Blow to Bigotry: Oregon Decriminalizes Homosexuality was originally published online at Public History PDX and on KBOO radio. Author and Vanguard Editor-in-Chief Evan Smiley is a student of the Portland State history department.