Us & Them: Locked Up for Sodomy

Oct 15, 2015

Prior to 1962, sodomy was considered a felony in every state, punished by a long prison term. However, the sex acts that were considered sodomy were targeted towards persons of the same sex.

Even after 1962, most states had begun to tone down their punishments—but not all. West Virginia acted upon laws that deemed certain sexual acts unmoral, laws that weren’t repealed until 1976. If arrested, the defendant would often have the choice of prosecution or a mental hospital.

“It was enough to scare you,” my friend Bill Richards told me.  “It would be easier just to go away to a crazy house.”

I asked if he thought he was crazy.

“No, I knew I wasn’t crazy.”

In this episode, I interview Richards, a Charleston floral designer, who told me about his experience of being sent to the Weston State Hospital, formerly known as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. This gothic building, which predates the Civil War, is currently open to the public as a museum.  But back in the late 60s, Richards was locked up there in maximum security for several months simply for being gay.  Between a concerned mother, who was convinced that her son was “livin’ in sin” and the almost non-existent relationship Richards has had with his only son, this story is an example of the experience that gay people have endured in our nation’s recent history.  This piece offers perspective as to how far America has come in being more accepting of the LGBT community. 

Us & Them is a joint project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Trey Kay Productions, with support from the West Virginia Humanities Council.

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