On Halloween night 1955, a disaster was quietly touched off in Boise. Following an investigation by a private detective, three men were arrested on charges of having sex with teenage boys. The accused were a familiar Main Street shoeshine man, a warehouse worker and a salesman at Boise's most high-profile clothing shop. The arrests were reported in the Idaho Statesman two days later.
By Nov. 3, panic set in. "Crush the monster," the Statesman editorial board demanded in the first of a series of increasingly hysterical statements, fanning the flames of a public crackdown that would come to include not only those alleged to have had sex with underage teens but also any men shown to be—or suspected of being—gay.
It was the beginning of what would come to be known as the "Boys of Boise" scandal, a witch hunt that resulted in a wave of arrests and a climate of fear that would suppress gay culture in Boise for more than a decade.
"It was a collective trauma for the city of Boise," said Alan Virta, retired archivist at Boise State University. "It was on par with an earthquake or a flood or something like that. You didn't have the physical damage, but the psychological damage was just immense. The devastation to a lot of individual lives was immense."
Now, as the 60th anniversary of the Boys of Boise arrests approaches and the city gears up for its 25th annual Pride celebration June 17-June 20, Virta said the changes in Boise's and the nation's attitude is immeasurable.
"It's immense. Just immense," he said. "The whole idea of gay pride festivals in the middle of the downtown area for a weekend is just something that couldn't be conceived of in 1955. The acceptance of gay people, particularly in the city of Boise—perhaps not the rest of the state, but the city of Boise, where the City Council is willing to pass a non-discrimination ordinance—it's just an immense change. It would be unrecognizable to people in 1955. Certainly to the gay people."
For people in 1955, the months between Oct. 31 and Jan. 7, 1956 were ones of fear. During that time, a total of 16 men faced charges, some of which were lewd conduct with a minor, lewd and lascivious conduct, and "infamous crimes against nature." All but one were convicted. Four received probation but 11 received prison sentences ranging from six months to 15 years.
The suppression fit the spirit of the time, as Americans were fed a steady diet of paranoia over Communism and juvenile delinquency. According to Virta, who helped build the "Gay Life" historical collection at Boise State's Albertsons Library, the Boys of Boise fed on both moral panics.
"It combined the other two because homosexuals, on the one hand, were considered security threats in the federal government for 10 years already by 1955," he said. "It wasn't that homosexuals were necessarily communists, but they were prone to be blackmailed, so that's why it was dangerous for them to be in government positions. [On the other hand, the arrests] started out involving juveniles—they were older teenagers but they were still minors. That, of course, you play into the juvenile delinquency thing."
At its base, however, was the belief that homosexuality itself was being "harbored" in the community "to ravage our youth," as the Statesman editorial page put it.
Other communities suffered similar episodes of anti-gay prosecutions, but Boise was different.
"It did sort of morph into people who were fully consenting adults," Virta said. "It kind of became an overall movement against gays in general, as opposed to narrowed down to the youth situation."
The scars left by the arrests lingered. Boise had a population of only about 40,000 in 1955—it was a tight-knit small town that over the course of only a few months turned on itself, eventually drawing in influential people and their families. When the scandal subsided, Boise was a changed place.
"It certainly put a chill on gay people, that's for sure," Virta said. "I think it did have an effect of quashing any sort of gay emergence that might have maybe come about in the '60s, like it started to in other parts of the country," he added. "It delayed it for maybe at least a decade, until Seattle and San Francisco really took off and gay people here got to see how other people were living."
Today, Boise's LGBT community lives up to its name—something that wouldn't have been true 40, and certainly 60, years ago.
"Back then, it was pretty much gay individuals and there wasn't too much community," Virta said. "Some of them knew each other, but you had no institutional support systems. You didn't have gay bars, you didn't have gay organizations, you didn't have gay clubs and things like that."
As the community was fragmented, so too was the public's perception of the Boys of Boise—the term wasn't even coined until 11 years later, with the publication of John Gerassi's book The Boys of Boise: Furor, Vice and Folly in an American City.
As a unified event, the arrests have become a construct of recollection.
"When it was happening, I don't know if you had the understanding of the collective phenomenon that was going on that you did with the hindsight of looking back," Virta said.
It's a phenomenon that many would still like to forget.
Even in 2006, with the release of the documentary by Seth Randal, Fall of '55, which Virta served as historical consultant, "there were people who said, 'Why do you want to dredge this stuff again," Virta said.
Looking back on 60 years of change, Virta added that much of the impetus has come incrementally, person by person.
"I think the most important thing is individual people coming out," he said. "Probably in the 1950s, I'd guess most people in Boise would say they didn't know a homosexual, whereas today, can you find anybody who doesn't know a gay person or have a gay person in their family or see gay people on a daily basis? Familiarity breeds perhaps acceptance, toleration."
That fits with Boise Pridefest, Virta said.
"Part of the idea of Pride was to say, 'Hey, we're out here... Learn to live with us.'"