Harvey Milk was murdered on November 27, 1978, thirty-five years ago today. This diary began as an attempt to enlarge on something I'd said in a comment a couple of weeks ago. While I still plan to follow through with that attempt here, it occurs to me that I can also honor legacy of Harvey Milk by aligning myself with some of the most important things he said.
Not long ago, one of my fellow Kossacks posted a rec-listed diary on the success of the LGBT Rights movement. He very generously nominated one of my comments in his diary to Top Comments. I was then challenged to turn that comment into a diary of my own. Despite protesting my inability to do that I was lobbied pretty heavily (and obviously successfully) to take up that challenge.
Please continue reading beyond the infamous Orange Curlicue.
During his relatively brief career as a gay activist, Harvey Milk probably provided more sound-bytes than any other LGBT public figure. Among the many memorable quotes that can be gleaned from his legacy is this one:
Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.He also said:
Let me have my tax money go for my protection and not for my prosecution. Let my tax money go for the protection of me. Protect my home, protect my streets, protect my car, protect my life, protect my property...worry about becoming a human being and not about how you can prevent others from enjoying their lives because of your own inability to adjust to life.The comment that kicked all of this off noted the importance of coming out of the closet. I hope you'll all indulge me as a repeat it here.
Many many years ago... (13+ / 0-)The point I was trying to make in the above comment is that the very nature of the experience of being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender makes it inevitable that a movement in support of LGBT civil equality would have the characteristics it does--as a group of individuals, often very suspicious of mass movements and even more so of "leaders." It's not that the LGBT movement was composed of faceless and interchangeable individuals; in fact the opposite tended to be the case. Many noteworthy people were involved with making the LGBT movement what it has been and what it is, and someone has to assume responsibility for keeping things going, to serve as role models and to demonstrate to younger individuals that it's okay to be different from the majority of the population in the crucial aspect of one's sexual orientation and/or one's gender identity.
it was explained (to me personally and in various publications) that our movement has historically been highly suspicious of leaders. For example back in the mid- or late-1970s it was viewed by many as almost a scandal that an organization like what was then known as the National Gay Task Force (now of course known as the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force) would have paid leadership. It was suggested that anyone who'd agree to be paid for that kind of work must have some sort of ulterior motives.
This is one of the ways in which our progress has been quite distinct from the movement for racial equality. In that fight, it was important for there to be large organizations with clear leaders. Our strategy has been different and I think that is to some extent a matter of necessity.
While some have found this to be frustrating it makes a certain amount of sense that a movement premised on the importance of an individual having the freedom to be himself or herself would have more pioneers and fewer leaders. For each of those pioneers the legacy is not an organization that could be pointed to as much as an individual story of self-discovery and self-acceptance which could be looked to as an example for others. Those organizations that have been around and have done the legal and lobbying work are the product of the efforts of individuals who were, relatively speaking, in the background.
I have long held the view that although, in the future, the process of coming out will be less traumatic and dangerous than it has been in the past, it will still be a rite of passage for the vast majority of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Our numbers are renewed in each generation not of course as our opponents used to argue by recruiting efforts, but because for the most part we are born of heterosexual parents who anticipate heterosexual offspring and who therefore gear their child-rearing efforts accordingly.
Even with the most loving and accepting of parents, it takes most of us at least some effort to discern that we are not precisely what we were expected to be. Racial and ethnic groups are by and large self-perpetuating and self-identifying; we on the other hand are a collection of somewhat disparate individuals who differ in a significant respect from those who raised us and who have to craft a sense of identity for ourselves as we mature. That simply is not going to change. It makes a good deal of sense that our best chance of success is to make ourselves known in the world around us.
Any way you look at it, the need for a movement for LGBT rights rests on one simple and basic fact: the closet. Virtually everyone one of us who defines him or herself as LGBT or something else out of the mainstream, at some point in his or her life, has dissembled, either by lying to ourselves about who we're attracted to, who we love or how we experience ourselves in the gender continuum, by lying about those matters to our friends, by pretending that the person we're standing next to is "just a friend," by not holding the hand of our partner, by remaining mum at work about what we did last weekend and who we did it with, by dressing and looking and acting as we're expected by those around us to dress and to look and to act.
Some history lessons will follow here.
Since our movement began in earnest in 1950, it has been, according to who you ask and when you ask them, about
- being left alone
- being unconventional
- being "legal"
- being free from discrimination and bigotry
- being equal under the law
- being allowed to have sex anywhere, anytime, with anyone who's willing
It's always struck me as interesting that, although the foundations were being laid even 45 years ago, the fight for legal recognition of same-sex relationships, which has culminated with the current struggle for marriage equality, was not a matter of great importance to the LGBT movement until well into the 1980's and didn't assume its current ascendancy until the late 1990's, to the detriment, some would argue, of other of the movement's important and legitimate goals. Note: I understand that argument but don't agree; however that's a separate discussion I'd prefer not to get into here. I should also note that the history of the movement was often characterized by a good deal of antagonism between gay men and lesbians and by utter disdain for those who weren't gender conforming. Those were and sometimes still are unfortunate realities but I don't want to spread myself too thin by discussing those issues in this diary.
It's always dangerous to attempt a brief characterization of a large-scale movement, particularly one like the LGBT rights movement which from its beginnings has included a number of highly opinionated individuals who frequently disagreed with each other and were found, even by many of their peers, to be at the very least somewhat difficult to deal with. But it's also necessary to make a stand here and advocate on behalf of my own views. So while others may disagree, I'm going to reiterate that the point of our entire movement has always been for us to be allowed to be live, authentically, as the individuals each of us is. The other items on the agenda proceed directly from that basic fact.
The modern homophile movement ("homophile" being the word used to describe the LGBT rights movement prior to 1969) began when someone decided that the fact of loving someone of the same gender, or being inclined in that direction, had been kept a shameful secret for too long. And that, by one means or another, with one subtext or another, it was time for that secret to cease being one. Because that secret is always a personal one, coming out of the closet has served as the basis for our movement and that is why it's always been one in which leaders have been secondary to the reality of the lives of individuals.
Although acceptance of sexual minorities has been the object of various organizations from the 1870's onwards, it's generally accepted that the struggle for LGBT equality began in earnest in 1950 with the founding of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles by Harry Hay and a few of his friends. Hay conceived the idea of such an organization one night while sitting in his home--the home he shared with the woman he had married in a vain attempt to convince himself he was heterosexual. Hay had been active in the Communist Party during the 30's and 40's and even into the 50's (he once testified in front of HUAC) but his sexual orientation, once he fully embraced it, rendered him persona non grata in those circles. At the time, same-sex sexual activity was illegal throughout the United States, as was dressing in the clothing normally associated with a gender other than one's own. Early attempts to even to advocate for changes to those laws were frequently hampered at a variety of levels, such as by invoking laws prohibiting the distribution of "obscene materials" through the mail.
Hay originally founded his group along principles that reflected his experiences there, using "cells" so that, in case of police action, not everyone would be arrested and/or silenced. From 1953 onwards the organization effectively purged its most left-wing members, including Hay, and became the sort of entity that held polite informational picket lines and quiet discussions behind the scenes, not to mention finding lawyers to defend people arrested on "morals" charges (often though not always as the result of police entrapment). Even while other chapters of Mattachine popped up and persisted well into the 1970's, long enough for me to consult with the New York branch while I was was coming out (they referred me to a therapist which is what I'd gone to them for), the original LA chapter apparently disbanded as early as 1961.
In order to have any sort of movement, someone's got to keep it going. In the case of the LGBT rights movement, that meant that someone had to be willing to identify himself or herself as a gay man, as a lesbian, as bisexual, as transgender. In a world where virtually nobody wanted to be publicly known by those labels it took a good deal of fortitude to go in the face of that. People such as Harry Hay, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, and Frank Kameny were individuals who took that kind of responsibility back in the 1950's and early 1960's. However, many of the members of the homophile movement were deeply and very consciously in the closet. Even following Stonewall, it was tough to get people to openly acknowledge their sexual orientation. The very first LGBT political action committee, MECLA, the Metropolitan Elections Committee of Los Angeles, was founded in 1976 by (among others) David Mixner, a college friend of Bill Clinton who later went on to become both a supporter of Clinton during his election campaign and a critic of both Clinton and Obama on LGBT-related issues. MECLA's founders were convinced that they could achieve political influence by tapping the wealth of the more prosperous members of LA's gay community and channeling that money towards municipal and statewide elections. While the group was successful, its efforts were always hampered by a disinclination on the part of of its many donors to publicly acknowledge the fact of their homosexuality.
One of the consequences of the closet was that until well into the 1980's, despite the fact that versions of ENDA have been introduced in Congress since the 1970's, it was next to impossible to obtain data showing that people had experienced employment discrimination due to their sexual orientation. Only when people were willing to come out of the closet at work was there somewhat adequate information to document what most of us knew then and know today to be a reality.
Some other quotes are pertinent as well. Jim Foster was a pre-Stonewall activist who was instrumental in founding the Society for Individual Rights in 1964. SIR eventually became San Francisco's Alice B Toklas Memorial Democratic Club, the oldest LGBT Democratic organization in the country. But what Foster was known for once upon a time was for this statement:
Never forget one thing: What this movement is about is fucking.As I've already noted, when the LGBT rights movement began, the overwhelming majority of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals lived deeply closeted lives. Although it was never technically illegal to be a sexual minority in the United States, the fact is that engaging in activities that might define one as a member of that minority was illegal everywhere in the US until 1962, when Illinois became the first state to abolish its sodomy laws. Simply be being identified as someone who could, potentially, engage in such activities made one a potential target of prosecution. Many states had laws that prohibited "known homosexuals" from congregating in public. Some states prohibited homosexuals from being served alcoholic beverages. Some states prohibited homosexuals from receiving state-issued professional licenses (including, ironically and in conflict with the well-worn stereotype, licenses to work as hairdressers). And of course nothing protected us from losing our jobs were we to be publicly identified as something other than heterosexual.
The Stonewall riots (there were, needless to say, preceding events as well, which garnered less publicity at the time they took place), things changed quite suddenly and radically. It was no longer the freedom to be left alone; it was the freedom to be open, the freedom to be explore sexuality, the alliance with other political movements of the age. The Mattachine Society (composed mainly of men) and the Daughters of Bilitis (founded in San Francisco in 1955 by lesbian couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in the early 1950s and composed exclusively of women) soon found themselves rendered essentially irrelevant, or at any rate behind the times.
From its beginnings as a rather polite, if focused, effort get the larger society to understand that gay men and lesbians (though perhaps not the transgendered; transphobia was rampant in the early days of the LGBT movement and is certainly far from nonexistent today) were just as much people and citizens as were heterosexuals and that our forms of intimacy should not be criminalized, things changed swiftly and constantly following Stonewall. In the immediate aftermath of the Stonewall riots the first organization, New York's Gay Liberation Front, attempted to frame the struggle in the same terms similar to those of the anti-war movement and the fight for racial and gender equality and, to embrace, to a considerable extent, the economic attitudes and language of the New Left as well. By trying to do so many things it succeeded mainly in making itself obsolete rather quickly. In New York and elsewhere, the GLF was soon followed by Gay Activist Alliance groups in various cities which tended to focus more on its own struggle than on forming alliances with other causes, not all of which were always especially welcoming.
Things churned rapidly. Issues of class and interest quickly created divisions. The 1950's phenomenon of a male-dominated Mattachine Society versus a women-oriented Daughters of Bilitis duplicated itself (at least in the larger cities) even as early as 1970. There were issues of class and of sexism. There existed simultaneously differing and apparently competing notions of what "liberation" even entailed. While the male-dominated organizations often found themselves battling police sting operations, many of the women couldn't abide the idea that men were so promiscuous while they viewed themselves principally as relationship-oriented. At the same time many of the heterosexual women in the womens' movement were afraid that allowing open lesbians a full voice within their own groups would somehow validate the criticisms leveled at them by many straight men. While the male-focused groups tended to be more accommodating of men who dressed in drag, many lesbians found that practice unacceptable if not downright offensive. And neither the men nor the women had much tolerance for those who were either bisexual or transgender. Finally, in keeping with the attitudes of a great deal of "radical" politics back then, nobody trusted anyone who was perceived to be "middle-class."
From the early 1970's onwards the LGBT movement has maintained a juggling act between those whose main interest is sexual freedom and those whose main interest is in becoming part of the mainstream of civil society. That's not to say that the two items on the agenda have been completely in opposition to each other. Indeed, until the law ceased treating same-sex sexual activity in a fundamentally different manner than it treated opposite-sex sexual activity, there was every reason to focus on decriminalization.
Although there were numerous local chapters of the Mattachine Society and, later on, numerous local organizations calling themselves "Gay Activists Alliance of [someplace]," there really were no national LGBT rights organizations until the founding of the National Gay [and Lesbian...added in 1985] Task Force in 1973. 1976 saw the founding of the Gay Rights National Lobby (GRNL), the first group developed specifically to lobby the federal government. GRNL was ultimately absorbed in 1985 by the Human Rights Campaign, which had been founded, five years earlier by GRNL as a national-level political action committee. That same year, 1973, saw the founding of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which serves to provide legal services in defense of equality. The National Center for Lesbian Rights was founded in 1975.
If your entire sex-life is presumptively illegal, it's challenging to fight for greater legal recognition. Although a substantial number of states had abolished their sodomy laws by the mid-1980's, the Supreme Court concluded in 1986, in Bowers vs Hardwick, that states and the federal government were free not to do so and to maintain laws criminalizing sex between people of the same gender, even when done in private. That decision was used later on in another case, decided in 1990 by the Ninth Circuit, referred to as High Tech Gays vs Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office which upheld the right of the Department of Defense to deny a security clearance to people who admitted to same-sex sexual activity, or to subject such individuals to higher levels of investigation. The policy behind the High Tech Gays decision relied on Bowers vs Hardwick and was only overturned in 1995 by Executive Order. It was not until 2003 that Lawrence vs Texas overturned Bowers entirely. At the time Lawrence was decided, fourteen states still had sodomy laws on their books, including four in which those laws applied exclusively to homosexual activity.
Nancy Cott, one of the expert witnesses in the 2010 trial on Prop 8, noted in her book "Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation," that marriage was viewed, from colonial times onward, as, in a certain respect, the lowest level of government. To fight for legal recognition of our relationships is, in a certain sense, an expression of the mainstreaming of LGBT Americans in a way almost unimaginable to the people who were on the front lines of the LGBT rights movement in the 1960's. Even though Richard Baker and McConnell instigated the fight for the right to marry in 1970, their focus was not so much on getting married as it was on LGBT rights in general. In fact Baker had been part of an early Minneapolis-based gay liberation group that had sexual freedom as its primary aim.
I began to come out of the closet in 1975. Some of my friends in the early days, including those who'd been out when I still had a girlfriend, looked back with a certain amount of nostalgia to the days when being gay and out took some real gumption and when part of the attraction of being gay was the idea of being an outlaw and that one had to be exceptional to be even a bit out of the closet. My impression is that some of those people were genuinely sorry that the actions of those who were, at the time the actions were taken, on the fringe, made it possible for those who were far more conventional to be openly gay and out of the closet. This is the price of success. You open the door to people slightly less on the fringes and by doing so you lose control of the momentum. And it's not as though the battle--even the internal battle--is won permanently. Not only does the definition of "out of the closet" keep on shifting, there's always going to be a certain amount of pressure, subtle and not so subtle, to keep a few toes stuck back in the darkness.
Being "out," in 1975, consisted for me of telling trusted friends, including my girlfriend, that I was gay and, at some point, ending that heterosexual relationship and searching for one that included another man as a partner. But beyond that, like most of my friends, nothing much really. My sister knew I was gay early on; my folks did not. I didn't come out to them until 1985. Even after moving to San Francisco, where I had colleagues who were out and open in the workplace, I didn't discuss my "personal life" until my partner's health began to fail and I really had no choice other than to be out at work. That was 21 years ago and yet...
I work for the federal government. The other day I invited to be profiled by the office Combined Federal Campaign representative. Pretty simple really; give them a picture to use and provide answers to a few questions. First question:
What causes do you support through your charitable contributions?Here is my original response:
The bulk of my donations goes to organizations that support equality as well as those that help those living with HIV and AIDS. Both are causes I believe in deeply and ones I invest a great deal of energy into even apart from donating to the CFC.Fine as far as it went but there was something missing. A simple thing really and yet I had to FORCE myself to revise my statement to read:
The bulk of my donation goes to organizations that support LGBT equality as well as those that help those living with HIV and AIDS.See what I did there? I work in the most progressive city in America, in an office where my rights are protected (though only by Executive Order). I work in an office of approximately 200 people. I don't know all of them well; I don't even know everyone's name (even when they tell me, sometimes I forget. It's kind of embarrassing actually.). Anyone I interact with even somewhat regularly knows I'm gay. I can think of only one individual in my entire organization who seems to have a problem with that and I don't lose any sleep over it. Yet despite all that I had to MAKE myself say that the bulk of my charitable donations goes to organizations that that support LGBT equality. As it happened, I knew that my profile was going to be sent out in an email sometime this week, the same week as we observe the anniversary of Harvey Milk's murder. It would have been unseemly, under the circumstances, not to have referenced an important aspect of who I am.
To circle back around:
The LGBT rights movement exists in the form it does because it originates from the fact of a personal characteristic that, even though it is intrinsic, has historically been disdained and has therefore been culturally suppressed. The individuals whose rights the movement seeks to vindicate therefore have no means of asserting those rights until they each, individually, affirm who they are. The movement attempts to make the process of coming to self-acceptance as safe as it possibly can be, by destroying every false stereotype, by combating every lie that is told about us. It was Harvey Milk who articulated this need as few others were able so clearly to do.