The fact that homosexuality was present in the earliest settlements of the colonies is evident from the creation of laws outlawing it and the records of the courts punishing those who violated them. In 1636 Plymouth Colony enacted laws prohibiting homosexual encounters, with strict penalties to be applied. Connecticut passed similar laws in 1650, with even harsher penalties attached. The records of both colonies reflect the prosecution of individuals for violating the laws, but they also reflect the steady lessening of the penalties imposed over time.
This may indicate the development of a more open-minded attitude among the Puritans and other groups over time. It may also be a reflection of the realities of the day, in which the colonies faced labor shortages as they grew, and the need for healthy manpower outweighed the need for moral retribution. It may also indicate a reluctance among judges to inflict severe penalties for the commission of a crime that had become common, as it had for premarital sex and other violations of the law which overwhelmed the courts with cases.
Providence Colony, which later became the colony of Rhode Island, referred to sodomy as a “vile” act. “…whereby men given up thereto leave the natural use of woman and burn in their lusts one toward another, and so men with men work that which is unseemly.” None of the colonies addressed the subject of women with women in their laws or their interpretation of the Book of Leviticus, upon which the law and penalties were based, with the exception of the New Haven Colony, which was absorbed into Connecticut.
By the end of the colonial era, all the colonies had laws against sodomy, some of the specifying both men and women, and all of the colonies had greatly reduced the penalties imposed by their courts in most cases, although the laws specified the penalty to be death. But attitudes changed over time. During the American Revolution, a man known for homosexual behavior was in France seeking a position with the American Army while simultaneously facing prosecution for sodomy under one of the German states’ draconian laws.
The man was Baron Wilhelm Von Steuben, and Benjamin Franklin, then in Paris, knew of the charges and of the likelihood they were true. Franklin also recognized the military ability of Von Steuben and the value it would bring to the still amateurish American Army under Washington. Franklin chose to look the other way as regards Von Steuben’s sexual orientation and wrote letters recommending him to Congress and to Washington himself.