Before the LGBTQ+ community had made the headway it’s made today, many pop culture milestones helped familiarize Americans with LGBTQ+ issues. Lil Nas X, Brokeback Mountain, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Friends, Will and Grace, Ellen, and Tom Hanks’ portrayal of an AIDS patient in Philadelphia are a few areas of pop culture that helped acquaint Americans with the LGBT+ community. But none did so as profoundly as Hoboken’s own Alfred Kinsey, America’s first ‘sex doctor.’ In the 1950s, Alfred Kinsey became the first pop culture phenomenon to bridge the gap between ‘gay’ and ‘straight.’ Alfred’s academic studies revolutionized the world’s understanding of sexuality, while also sparking the LGBTQ+ Liberation Movement. Read on to learn more about Hoboken’s Alfred Kinsey, the first ‘sex doctor’ who launched an entire movement.
Alfred Kinsey’s Childhood
Born on June 23, 1894 in Hoboken, Alfred Kinsey would fundamentally challenge and change the concept of sexuality forever after. This sickly, insecure child came to grace the cover of Time magazine and was even portrayed by Liam Neeson in the 2004 biopic film, Kinsey. But before universal fame and infamy, Alfred C. Kinsey spent his youth as a bedridden child in a strict, Victorian household, and his experiences here in Hoboken laid the foundation for his life’s crusade.
Alfred Kinsey’s father labored as a blue collar worker with aspirations for social mobility and a fierce work ethic. His ambition landed Alfred Sr. a placement in the machine shop at Stevens Institute of Technology.
Alfred Sr. took his occupation very seriously, publishing lecture notes in which he diagramed various mechanical apparatuses. He even included photographs of hemp fields in India to show students where their raw materials originated.
In doing so, he elevated himself from blue-collar worker to that of a lecturer within Stevens’ Department of Shop Practice.
While Andrew Sr. worked at Stevens, the family lived at 161 7th Street and worshiped around the corner at the First Methodist Church (719 Washington Street; now Mt. Olive Baptist Church).
The family’s stern, Victorian temperament accompanied by an oppressive religious austerity would have profound effects on Alfred.
Truth be told, young Alfred enjoyed neither his family nor Hoboken — but like a vibrant wine, he flourished in this harsh soil. He recalled the first automobiles, the first paved streets, and fireworks on holidays — yet beyond public events, Alfred claimed not to have substantial memories of Hoboken. This seems hard to believe, considering the Kinseys often returned to Hoboken to visit his grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and he’d play with cousins in the Hoboken streets.
“I was born in the heart of what was reputed to be the most densely populated square mile in the country,” Alfred once described his childhood in Hoboken. “In lieu of woods and fields, there were the stones of the streets and the buildings, people, cats, dogs, horses, sparrows, the weeds of the vacant lots, and the frustrated plants of the mostly barren backyards. There was the cramped vision that it is the lot of the boy in the city.”
The urban landscape was not the only thing stifling young Alfred. He grew up both physically and emotionally impaired. Due to a lack of Vitamin D, Alfred developed rickets, producing a double curvature of the spine (kyphoscoliosis) which left him humpbacked for the remainder of his life. He also developed rheumatic fever which kept him to long months of bed rest.
Coupled with a sickly childhood, Alfred was dealt the double blow of an overbearing, religious father. His father imposed strict rules, mandating Sunday to be spent in solemn prayer — even kicking Alfred’s aunt out of the house for playing the piano on a Sunday. The God of the Kinsey house was an old testament God filled with wrath and brimstone, punishing the disobedient.
Yet, it was also in Hoboken where Alfred engaged in his first sexual experiences. Around the age of six, an older girl and Alfred participated in preadolescent sexual exploration in a neighbor’s basement. Like many children raised in strictly religious households, he found himself curious yet guilt-stricken with arousal and shame. Despite the fact that he’d engaged in these childhood rites of passage with a girl, he’d later confide in his colleagues that he felt something homosexual about the encounter. These feelings of eroticism, remorse, and shame lingered for years prompting Alfred to explore them not only psychologically, but scientifically. An outcast child with an irreverent view of religion and a peculiar fixation on sexuality allowed Alfred a distinct perspective and prompted him to question the entire hegemonic order of sexuality.
Alfred’s Groundbreaking Sexual Fluidity Discovery
Alfred went on to study at Bowdoin College and Harvard University’s Bussey Institute, eventually accepting an academic post in biology at Indiana University where he founded the Institute for Sex Research in 1947 (which went on to become the Kinsey Institute).
There, he conducted over 8,000 interviews to research human sexuality.
To conduct these interviews, Alfred developed a series of scales (which became known as the Kinsey Scale). Rather than assume a subject felt completely heterosexual or homosexual, Alfred asked each interviewee to plot their sexual experiences and feelings on a scale of 0 to 6, where 0 means exclusively heterosexual and 6 means exclusively homosexual. He’d eventually add an “X” to indicate “no socio-sexual contacts or reactions” (asexuality). In doing so, Alfred made a groundbreaking assertion: that humans were neither completely heterosexual nor completely homosexual and that a vast majority of humans felt somewhere between these two binary oppositions. Alfred proposed that sexuality is fluid and may change over time.
He published these findings in two landmark reports, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) — together known as the Kinsey Reports. These two books became immediately controversial while at the same time becoming instant best-sellers. Suddenly, Alfred was rocketed to fame, appearing on the cover of Time magazine which declared, “Not since Gone With the Wind had booksellers seen anything like it.”
A character named “Dr. Kinsey” (in trademark bowtie) appeared alongside Marilyn Monroe on The Jack Benny Program. Cole Porter’s song, “Too Darn Hot” (from the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Kiss Me Kate), devoted its bridge to “the Kinsey report / Every average man you know / Much prefers to play his favorite sport.” Mae West even quipped of Alfred, “That guy merely makes it easy for me. Now I don’t have to draw ‘em any blueprints!” Yet, it’s possible Alfred may have never achieved this pop-culture fame were it not for his childhood in Hoboken.
Underpinning Alfred’s theory was the idea that childhood experiences play a pivotal role in shaping lifelong behavioral patterns toward sexuality. According to James H. Jones’ seminal biography, “Kinsey’s theories suggest that he traced his own adult sexual interests to [that] incident in Hoboken.” Alfred’s early Hoboken experiences led him to usher the world from Victorian tableaus of repressed sexuality, to a more fluid self-expression not dictated by the rigid labels of homosexuality or heterosexuality.
Ironically, while Alfred disliked his father, he seems to have emulated his father’s path to academic success by taking a marginalized subject (like “Sexuality” or “Shop Practice”) and treating it with academic seriousness and vigor.
Alfred’s work had profound effects on the discourse surrounding human sexuality and helped jumpstart the Gay Liberation Movement. By bringing the taboo subject into popular culture, Alfred’s theories laid the groundwork, circulating within gay activist communities (like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis) which gathered the courage to fight oppressive stereotypes and discriminatory laws.
Both Hoboken icons Alfred Kinsey and Marsha P. Johnson are included in the inaugural Fifty American ‘pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes’ inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument in Manhattan. Whereas Alfred drew from the experiences of his Hoboken home to challenge the world’s rigid views of sexuality, Marsha challenged the world’s rigid views of sexuality and found her home in Hoboken.
Special thanks to the Head of Archives + Special Collections at Stevens Institute of Technology, Leah Loscutoff, for all of her archival help in sharing photographs of Alfred Kinsey Sr. Go to @stevensarchives on Instagram to see all the amazing photographic and archival history Stevens has to offer. Special thanks to Rand Hoppe (Collections Manager at the Hoboken Historical Museum) for locating the Kinsey Home at 161 7th Street.