1961: The Decriminalization of Sodomy

In 1955, the Illinois General Assembly began the monumental task of overhauling the state’s criminal code. The code had accumulated a patchwork of conflicting and confusing statues. The Assembly used the American Law Institute’s (ALI) 1956 Model Penal Code as a guide, which recommended eliminating all prohibitions against consensual sexual activity between adults, including those related to homosexual activity.

Paul Goldman and with Rev. James Jones, a prominent Episcopal clergyman, led lobbying efforts to implement the ALI recommendation to decriminalize sodomy. Their concern was not so much the consequences of prosecution, but the psychological effect of the law. Paul Goldman, a straight Chicago lawyer, had been deeply affected by the suicide of his gay law school roommate. Anguished over his roommate’s torment, Goldman devoted his professional life to the legal needs of homosexuals.

Gov. Otto Kerner signed the new code into law on July 28, 1961. Sodomy stopped being a criminal offense in Illinois on January 1, 1962. This made Illinois the first state in the US where it was not illegal to engage in homosexual activity. There was no noted opposition to decriminalization. Since it was part of a larger overhaul of the criminal code, many people probably did not realize that the new criminal code would decriminalize sodomy.

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While the new code removed the criminalization of sodomy, it included a statute that made it a crime to commit a “lewd fondling or caress of the body of another person of the same sex” in a public place. The committee that wrote the new code defended this measure, saying that fondling between persons of the same sex “was felt to be of such character as to be disgusting and offensive to the vast majority of the general public. The considerations which led to an abandonment of proscribing various forms of sexual conduct done by consenting adults in private did not warrant a disconcern for all types of open display of such erotic interests.” The committee did not consider it necessary “to make criminal the ‘petting’ activities of persons of the opposite sex.” The discriminatory nature of this law lasted only two years. In 1963, the legislature passed a new law that changed the words “the same sex” to “either sex.”

The “lewd fondling or caress” law was not repealed until 1984. The 1851 Chicago ordinance against cross-sex dressing was not repealed until 1973.