A Blow to Bigotry | Oregon Decriminalizes Homosexuality

By Evan Smiley ::

In 1972, Oregon became the fourth state to decriminalize homosexuality in the U.S. after revised Sodomy Laws went into effect on January 1st. Sodomy laws exist across the United States and their purpose is to legally define what constitutes normal and abnormal sexual behavior punishable by law. Today, Oregon law clearly defines oral and anal sex as deviant sexual behavior, and though the state only prosecutes cases involving children and other non-consenting individuals, the history and implications of the government’s ability to define and enforce normal sexual behavior among its citizens are interesting at best and horrifying at worst.

The first instance of Oregon-made 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.

Demonstrations at the Love Wins Rally regarding the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. Photo by Sarah Mirk.

The sodomy clause from 1853, though vague and short as it was, has more or less survived for over a century, undergoing much deserved 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 homosexual acts, citizens pressured the Oregon legislature to change sodomy legislation. The revisions made in 1913 deemed any sexual act outside of male/female vaginal intercourse a legal transgression in the state of Oregon. The revisions also tripled the maximum prison sentence from 5 years to 15 years.

It was also during this time that many people began supporting sterilization legislation, which was ultimately passed in 1917. Under this law, an individual was subject to sterilization (i.e. forced castration or ovariectomy) if they were found:

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 individuals 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 legal, systematic oppression and punishment. Both the Sodomy Law of 1913 and the Sterilization Law of 1917 stayed in effect relatively unchanged for about 40 years. The laws began to undergo revision during the middle of the century.

During the 1960s, due to the growing success of the Civil Rights Movements, other oppressed groups, such as women, LGBT individuals, and other minorities, began to protest and make their voices heard. However, change did not come quickly, easily, or without opposition. The only revisions made to the sodomy laws during this time regarded age and consent, and specifications of the law actually resulted in further sexual oppression, such as the inclusion of cunnilungis to the definition of sodomy in 1961.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Sexual Liberation and Gay Rights Movements gained more traction as a political force in the United States. In 1965, Oregon legislature eliminated the phrase “moral degenerates and sexual perverts” from the Sterilization law, removing physical punishment from sodomy convictions (Though, one should note sterilization remained Oregon law until 1983, discriminating against numerous individuals until its repeal). Finally, in 1971, Governor Tom McCall signed the revisions of Oregon Sodomy Law, removing same-sex sexual activity as a legal transgression. 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.

This week celebrates the anniversary of decriminalized homosexuality in Oregon. Though the past injustices inflicted on the LGBT community by the Oregon government should never be forgotten, Oregon continues to exceed so many states in sexual freedom and acceptance. From being the fourth state to decriminalize homosexuality in 1972 to being the first state to recognize non-binary gender in 2016, Oregon upholds its reputation as a pioneer of civil rights equality.


Want to Learn More? Check Out:

Peter Boag, Same-sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest: Sodomy Laws

Mark A. Largent, “The Greatest Curse of the Race: Eugenic Sterilization in Oregon, 1909-1983,” The Oregon Historical Quarterly (2012)

Lutz Kaelber (University of Vermont), “Oregon Eugenics” a part of “Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States” (presentation at the 2012 Social Science History Association), University of Vermont. Accessed 10/15/2016.

Music Used

“Feasting on the Flowers” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
“La Vie Boheme” from RENT


Evan Smiley, Project Manager
Taylor Bailey, Fact Checker/ Editor
Mike Mata, Fact Checker/ Editor
Kim Andrews, Contributor