The Zoo Story

The Zoo Story Homosexuality in 20th-Century America

Written in 1958, The Zoo Story was extremely unusual for its time because it included explicit discussion of homosexuality. While Albee's treatment of the topic is fairly tame by modern standards, it shocked audiences when the play was first performed in the United States in 1960. This section will briefly summarize how American attitudes toward homosexuality might have influenced the play's reception.

In the 1950s, America had a socially conservative culture. While it would liberalize considerably in the 1960s, these changes were still distant when Albee wrote The Zoo Story in 1958. At the time, homosexuality was thought by many to be a mental illness. It was also illegal. In most states, consensual sex between men was considered sexual assault, and both participants could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. If an individual was revealed as gay, he was at risk of falling out with his family, losing custody of his children, being harassed by the police, and even being committed to a mental asylum.

However, the most common problem that gay Americans faced was employment discrimination. In 1953, the United States government made homosexuality 'necessary and sufficient' grounds to fire federal employees. These policies were copied by most private employers, giving gay Americans a very strong incentive to keep their sexual orientation private. Employment discrimination was not limited to a 'don't-ask-don't-tell' policy: frequently, employers would actively investigate workers they suspected of homosexual activity. The United States Postal Service facilitated these investigations (Ford).

The Mattachine Society, founded in 1950, was the first gay-rights advocacy organization. The Mattachine Society won an early victory in 1952 when one of its leaders, Dale Jennings, was acquitted of lewd-behavior charges despite being openly gay. Although there was a media blackout around the case, word of it spread through the gay community, and Jennings's victory led to an outpouring of attention and support for gay rights. However, the Mattachine Society and organizations like it came under fire during the Red Scare, led by Joseph McCarthy. These organizations did not gain wide membership or influence until the Stonewall riots in 1969.