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LGBTQIA+ History Month: 3 historical events in Boise you might not know about

Photo courtesy of the Idaho Statesman Collection, Boise State Archives

Modern American LGBTQIA+ history is often centered in coastal urban areas like New York City and San Francisco. But every state and every town has queer and transgender people in it, which means that America is full of untold LGBTQIA+ history. Here are three queer and trans historical events that happened in Boise, Idaho that you might not know about.

 1. The “Boys of Boise” Scandal, 1955

During his 24 years at Albertsons Library at Boise State, Alan Virta, who retired in 2011, created an LGBTQIA+ history archive as the head of special collections and archives, and helped advise the creation of “The Fall of ‘55,” a 2006 documentary directed by Seth Randal about the scandal that rocked Idaho’s capital.

Virta often clarifies that the 1950s were not the idyllic, peaceful post-war period they are often depicted as. Knowing about the context of the Cold War at the time is helpful according to Virta because homosexuality was viewed as something that could lead to the ultimate evil at the time: communism.

So, when a Boise police officer started investigating a few men who were allegedly having sex with teenage boys, the town erupted in Oct. 1955. The “Idaho Statesman” ran near-daily updates on new allegations for several months that quickly shifted to claims against adult men for having consensual sex with other adult men, not teenage boys.

“The basic theme that I want people to take away is that the ‘Boys of Boise’ scandal started as an investigation of men for [allegedly] having sex with teenage boys, but then it sort of transformed into an investigation of all gay men, consenting adults, as well,” Virta said.

After police arrested three men on Halloween of 1955, dozens more were accused and 16 men were prosecuted in total. It’s hard to know how many people in all were even investigated after the Boise Police Department hired a private investigator and the 1966 book “The Boys of Boise” by John Gerassi greatly exaggerated the number of allegations.

Still, Virta said that many Boiseans for decades after have thought it best to leave the scandal alone. 

“Boise was known for the ‘Boys of Boise’ and I think it was embarrassing,” Virta said. “And people didn’t want to bring it up. Plus, the whole situation broke families up and caused a lot of grief in Boise.”

But the scandal left behind a lasting landmark that receives thousands of unknowing visitors every year — the 60-foot glowing cross atop Table Rock was placed there in 1957 to signal the city’s dedication to Christian purity in response to the perceived impurity the scandal revealed.

2. The “Forgotten Boise 7,” 1977

More than two decades after the “Boys of Boise” scandal, another erupted, this time within the Boise Police Department. 

In March 1977, a police sergeant claimed that seven of his colleagues, who were women, were lesbians. Only one of these women were officers; the others worked as dispatchers or in administrative roles.

The story of the “Forgotten Boise 7” is being made into a documentary set to be released in June 2021. In the trailer for the film, one of the women who was fired from her position as a dispatcher in the department, Sue Krohn, tells her story for the first time.

“One of the sergeants decided to go after us because — he had no actual proof that we were lesbians — he decided we were,” Krohn said.

Krohn also mentioned that after losing trust in the police department, it became hard to trust anyone.

“It was a horrible, horrible situation,” said Andrea Scott, the documentary’s executive producer in the trailer who was a 19-year-old in Boise at the time. “These women were fired from the police department, they were embarrassed, they were vilified in the press by some people. Other people stepped up and were very supportive.”

History and Gender Studies Professor Dr. Lisa McClain said one of the groups who supported the women and decried their firing was a group at Boise State called the Women’s Alliance. McClain also noted that while no one actually knew whether the women were lesbians or not, that didn’t factor into the investigation.

“It was just something that was claimed,” McClain said. “The investigation does not appear to [have been] very thorough, and eventually some of the women sued for things like back pay, attorney fees, things like that and the suit was successful.”

After being fired, the seven women sued the city and won a $10 million settlement. Virta and the film’s trailer both clarified that the women weren’t able to sue the city for discriminatory firing practices. They won the settlement because their phones had been illegally tapped for evidence, so the only punishment delivered was for wrongful investigation, and none of the women were ever reinstated to their positions. 

Their firing also left just one woman employee at the department, who was forced to take a lie detector test and was asked if she was a lesbian.

“At that time, there was no anti-discrimination law for gay people,” Virta said. “So, the chief of police just flat-out said, ‘we’re firing these women because we suspect they’re lesbians, and it’s damaging department morale. We’ve got to get rid of them.’ And that was the grounds for firing them.”

There was no federal prohibition against employment discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people until this summer, with the Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County.

McClain contextualized the “Forgotten Boise 7” as right in the middle of second-wave feminism and the effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. At the time, McClain said, lesbians and other queer women were being targeted by feminists like “The Feminine Mystique” writer Betty Friedan, who claimed that lesbians endangered the feminist cause by making it too radical and adding a plank in the feminist platform — the identity of lesbianism itself — that they thought mainstream America wouldn’t accept.

“These are women in a traditionally male occupation,” McClain said. “So it is policing gender in the police department in a very specific way.”

3. The First Boise Pride, 1990

In the last few decades, support for the LGBTQIA+ community has grown, particularly in the rights of gay men and lesbians to be married. Summery Pride parades attract thousands of people, sometimes millions, to the sites of former protests like the Stonewall Inn in New York City and the steps of the Idaho capitol building in Boise. 

Photo courtesy of the Idaho Statesman Collection, Boise State Archives

But Boise’s first Pride celebration did not start with the gathering of 70,000 people who celebrated Pride in 2019.

Boise’s first Pride celebrations were actually small picnics in the Kathryn Albertson municipal park in the late 1980s that weren’t advertised. A Boise State employee was the first to call for an official pride demonstration during June, which honors the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

This Boise State employee was named Brian Bergquist, whose last name Broncos might recognize as the name of the Bergquist Lounge in the Student Union Building (SUB), which was named after him. Bergquist was an administrator in the SUB, and wrote an article in Boise’s local gay magazine at the time he titled it “Don’t let the parade pass us by” in 1989.

The next year, a couple of hundred Idahoans gathered at the Capitol for Boise’s first official Pride parade. Many wore masks or paper bags over their heads to protect their identities, which, as the “Forgotten Boise 7” had shown, could result in employment discrimination. The first few years, it was called the “Gay and Lesbian Freedom Parade,” and some marketing for Boise Pride has left some confusion as to whether the first parade was actually in 1989, but Virta said that by all historical accounts, the first real Pride parade was in 1990.

Idaho’s LGBTQIA+ history includes far more than scandals or parades, but Boise and Idaho have historically tended to resist discussing these histories, especially those filled with shame. But as Virta explains, there is a purpose to remembering and retelling these stories and many others.

“For the broader societal good, I think it’s good that we know these things have happened,” Virta said. “If only to be a reminder that things like this can happen again if you’re not vigilant.”

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