Until the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas in June 2003, gays and lesbians in South Carolina legally did not enjoy the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts in society. While the 2003 ruling decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults, it did not signal the end of discrimination against homosexuals. Open discrimination against gays and lesbians has been evident in the Palmetto State almost from its founding. When the colonial government adopted English Common Law in 1712, it prohibited sodomy, saying “That if any man lieth with mankind as he lieth with a woman, they both shall suffer death.” The General Assembly refined the statute in 1814, writing, “[The] detestable and abominable vice of buggery [sodomy] . . . be from henceforth adjudged felony . . . and that the offender’s being hereof convicted by verdict, confession, or outlawry [unlawful flight to avoid prosecution], shall suffer such pains of death and losses and penalties of their goods.” Fear of death and the stigma attached to being homosexual, without doubt, led many to hide their sexual identities, making their histories difficult to trace. A few early records, however, do exist to shed light on the plights of homosexuals.
In August 1810 newly elected South Carolina congressman John C. Calhoun wrote to his soon-to-be mother-in-law, Floride Bonneau Colhoun, about a common acquaintance, Wentworth Boisseau. Calhoun was “shocked beyond measure” to learn that his friend Boisseau had engaged in homosexual activity. Calhoun wrote to his mother-in-law: “A whole life of virtue could not restore his character. It is the first instance of that crime ever heard of in this part of the world. I cannot conceive how he contracted the odious habit, except, while a sailor to the West Indies.” Though records do not exist to confirm Boisseau’s fate, Calhoun’s letter suggests that Boisseau was effectively exiled from this state and left to live “a life of contrition, to make his peace with heaven.”
Sixteen years after Calhoun wrote to his mother-in-law about Boisseau, another written exchange provided a record of homosexuality in South Carolina. In May 1826 a young Thomas Jefferson Withers, who would become a noted defender of states’ rights and a judge on the state court of appeals, wrote to his friend James H. Hammond, who would serve as governor of South Carolina and also as a U.S. senator, about his pleasures of sharing a bed with Hammond. In language that left little to the imagination, Withers urged Hammond to experiment further with homosexual activity. In his September 1826 response to Withers, the nineteen-year-old Hammond did not deny his dalliances with Withers. However, Hammond did exhibit more reservations about their behavior. Hammond expressed concern for what he saw as Withers’s wantonness and encouraged his friend to consider marriage and heterosexual family life.
South Carolina, in 1869, was the last state to remove capital punishment for sodomy. Even the rescission of the death penalty did little to encourage gays and lesbians to live openly. In 1895 South Carolina adopted a constitutional amendment barring those convicted of sodomy from voting. (This was repealed in 1970.) While gay and lesbian communities began to coalesce in larger United States cities, such communities did not begin to form in South Carolina until the latter part of the twentieth century. There were individual exceptions to the typical closetedness of most homosexuals. Laura Towne and Ellen Murray, the first principals of the Penn School, founded in 1862 to educate freed African American slaves, were companions for forty years. Laura Bragg, who in 1909 became the first female director of the Charleston Museum, had a longtime relationship with Belle Heyward, which has been documented in their correspondence.
Though South Carolinians might occasionally have tolerated open examples of “Boston marriages,” most South Carolinians simply preferred to ignore the existence of their gay and lesbian fellow citizens. Not until the mid-to late 1980s, when the AIDS crisis began to affect the state, were all citizens forced to deal with the issue. In 1989 the General Assembly introduced a bill that would allow the quarantining of people who carried HIV. Members of ACT-UP, a national anti-AIDS activist group, joined South Carolina and Atlanta activists to protest the General Assembly’s action, and the bill did not pass.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, homosexuality remained a punishable felony in the state. At the time that the U.S. Supreme Court decriminalized sodomy in 2003, buggery, as it was referred to in the South Carolina code, was punishable by five years in prison or a fine. At the same time, laws banned the recognition of same-sex marriage and offered no legally recognized alternatives, and they did not address discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In spite of what gay and lesbian community members view as discrimination in the South Carolina legal code, they actively participate in political and social groups, including the Alliance for Full Acceptance, the South Carolina Equality Coalition, the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement, the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Business Guild, and others.
Duberman, Martin. “‘Writhing Bedfellows’ in Antebellum South Carolina: Historical Interpretation and the Politics of Evidence.” In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, edited by Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey. New York: New American Library, 1989.
Sears, James T., and Louise A. Allen. “Museums, Friends, and Lovers in the New South: Laura’s Web, 1909–1931.” Journal of Homosexuality 40, no. 1 (2000): 105–44.
Towne, Laura. Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne. Edited by Rupert Sargent Holland. 1912. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.