Gay Reparations Are Past Due
The United States lags behind many other countries in making up for its abusive past. Here’s why—and how to fix it.
It may seem surprising to American readers, but one of the most vibrant human rights movements around the world today is “gay reparations,” or policies intended to make amends for the legacy of systemic discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In the last decade alone, Canada, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, and the United Kingdom have embraced gay reparations.
The policies hardly comprise a homogenous experience, and they do not entail giving people money simply for being gay, as some suspect. In most countries, gay reparations are limited to a government apology to the LGBTQ community for past wrongs and a promise to do better in the future. In others, they have entailed memorializing the victims of state-sponsored repression of homosexual citizens. In 2008, the German government opened a monument to gay victims of the Holocaust, an unknown number whom perished in Nazi concentration camps, many of them victims of gruesome medical experiments intended to eradicate their homosexuality. In still other countries, gay reparations have centered on a pardon to anyone convicted under laws that criminalized same-sex attraction, as in the United Kingdom, which in 2017 issued a posthumous pardon to those convicted of “gross indecency,” including Alan Turing, the mathematician credited with shortening the end of World War II; or even financial compensation for wages or pensions lost due to having spent time in prison or in a mental institution because of a homosexual offense, as in Spain since 2009 and in Germany since 2016.
But none of this momentum has reached the United States. The closest the country has come to embracing gay reparations was in 2019, when, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the New York Police Department issued a belated apology for the raid that triggered the rebellion. “The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong—plain and simple … and for that I apologize,” said New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill. Surely, the absence of gay reparations—or even a discussion of them—in the United States is not out of a rosy history free of systemic discrimination toward the LGBTQ community, although a valid argument can be made that this history is not particularly well known, save, perhaps, for “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That infamous 1993 policy allowed gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexual orientation a secret. By the time the Obama administration lifted the policy in 2011, some 13,000 LGBTQ troops had been dismissed from their jobs.
Decades before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” from the 1920s through at least the 1960s, there was the policy of “entrapment,” which involved undercover police officers sending flirtatious signals to other men they presumed to be homosexual in the hopes of ensnarling them into illicit activity. According to the historian Eric Cervini’s book The Deviant’s War, War, which is about gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, in the 15 years after World War II, “homosexual arrests—including those for sodomy, dancing, kissing, or holding hands—occurred at the rate of one every ten minutes,” for a grand total of 1 million arrests. Entrapment was followed by the Lavender Scare, the midcentury persecution of federal workers suspected of being homosexual.
Perhaps as many as 10,000 people were fired or expelled from their federal jobs during the 1950s and 1960s because they were homosexual or suspected of being homosexual based on evidence as flimsy as how they dressed, talked, or looked. The trigger for this witch hunt was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 executive order banning “perverts” from working in the federal government. Some of the victims of the Lavender Scare took their own lives, while others were sent to government-run institutions, especially St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where they were forced to undergo such dehumanizing treatments as lobotomies, insulin-induced comas, and gay conversion therapy, with the aim of changing their sexual orientation.
Gay activists have compared the treatments offered at St. Elizabeths to the government’s human experiments with syphilis on Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, which between 1932 and 1972 left hundreds of diagnosed Black men with syphilis untreated so doctors could follow the progress of the illness. “As with the Tuskegee experiment, those subjected to experimentation at the hands of federal officials were a despised minority that never consented to be treated,” noted Charles Francis, president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., the main U.S.-based organization championing gay reparations—especially a formal apology from Congress.
Adding to such mistreatment have been a host of court decisions that for decades stigmatized homosexual people. Two rulings in particular reveal the animus that American jurisprudence has in the past shown toward gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. In Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the state of Georgia’s sodomy laws, the court determined that the Constitution did not protect the rights of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to engage in private, consensual sexual relations, because, the justices concluded, homosexual sex has no connection to family, marriage, abortion, or procreation. In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger quoted the 18th-century English jurist William Blackstone’s characterization of homosexual sex as an “infamous crime against nature,” worse than rape, and “a crime not fit to be named.” Homosexuality remained criminalized in the United States until the Supreme Court overturned the Hardwick ruling in 2003. Meanwhile, in Bottoms v. Bottoms (1995), Virginia’s Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that awarded custody of a child to a grandmother, because the child’s biological mother, Sharon Bottoms, was in a lesbian relationship, which at the time was a crime under Virginia law. This ruling was not an aberration; at the time, it was customary for the courts to deny LGBTQ people the right to raise their own biological children and to adopt.
Acts of state-sponsored anti-gay discrimination sent an unambiguous message to ordinary Americans that it was acceptable to demean and demonize LGBTQ people, and even to engage in acts of violence against them. The infamous and bloody history of societal attacks on the American LGBTQ community includes singer and spokesperson Anita Bryant’s 1977 Save Our Children crusade, which depicted gay men as pedophiles; Evangelist Jerry Falwell’s “declaration of war” on homosexuality, a rhetorical tactic employed during the 1980s to raise funds for Falwell’s Moral Majority organization; and the 2016 attack on Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. One of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, the attack on Pulse killed 49 people and wounded 53, many of them young Hispanic men. Prior to Pulse, there was the now largely forgotten 1973 arson fire at Upstairs, a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter, which left 32 people dead. The thick homophobia of the era precluded even an acknowledgement of the tragedy by the mayor of New Orleans or Louisiana’s governor.
Given the terrible history of repression of LGBTQ people in the United States, the absence of gay reparations is puzzling. Canada, a country with a decidedly less troubled history when it comes to homosexuality, issued an apology to the gay community in 2017. The apology came with a multimillion-dollar payout to compensate victims of the “gay purge,” those fired from the military because of their sexual orientation, and authorized a memorial to the victims of those persecuted for their sexual orientation in the capital city of Ottawa.
An obvious factor behind the delayed arrival of gay reparations in the United States is that the subject of reparations is particularly vexing in American society, stemming from the still-unsettled legacy of slavery and from racism.
Some critics of gay reparations such as the conservative political commentator Michael Medved have maintained that gay people are not deserving of reparations because unlike Black Americans, gay people are not victims of multigenerational damage, meaning that whatever ills homophobia may have caused in the past, these ills are not the same as those left behind by slavery, as they do not carry over from generation to generation. Medved also points to the economic success of some in the American LGBTQ community (which has generated the mythical notion that LGBTQ Americans are more affluent than the population at large) as a reason for why gay reparations are redundant.
Others are opposed to all forms of reparations, racial and otherwise, believing that reparations are inherently divisive and that they lead to a slippery slope scenario in which all groups come to view themselves as victims and worthy of reparations. As argued by a writer for the right-wing website RedState, gay reparations would allow for reparation claims by the “obese, the disfigured, the disabled, the short, the bald,” and also by “[m]igrants who weren’t treated kindly when they tried to enter the U.S. illegally” and by “really smart Asians who were rejected from Harvard.”
Seen from a global perspective, though, there appears to be more compelling reasons the United States is a gay reparations laggard. The first one is the poor resonance of human rights in American politics and society. Gay reparations movements abroad, especially in Spain, Britain, and Germany—countries that pioneered the gay reparations movement—have waged their struggles as a human rights crusade. This has entailed borrowing the rhetoric and strategies of the international human rights movement to make their claims and push their agenda forward. Inspired by human rights activism, gay reparations activists have emphasized the need for reparations as a moral obligation intended to restore dignity to LGBTQ people. They have also leveraged historical narratives of homosexual repression to influence public opinion and policy toward the LGBTQ community, such as the oppression of gays and lesbians under Nazi Germany or under the homophobic laws of the Francisco Franco regime in Spain, and shamed public officials for failing to stand up for the human rights of LGBTQ people.
But in the United States, there’s not much in the way of precedent of social movements arising (much less succeeding) with human rights as their core focus. Even the American civil rights movement failed in its attempt in the 1960s to link its struggle for civil rights to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was due in no small part to the effective demonization of human rights by American conservatives during the Cold War as un-American, never mind that Americans, such as former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, were among the main drafters of the 1948 declaration and that this document drew on seminal American documents, such as the Declaration of Independence.
Curiously, the view of human rights as un-American lingers to this day. The Trump administration, for example, attempted to reframe the promotion of human rights at the global level as exclusively entailing property rights and religious freedom. That was the mission of then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights. Predictably, the commission’s final report led women’s groups and LGBTQ activists to accuse President Donald Trump’s Department of State of choosing to promote the human rights it liked, while undermining those it did not support, such as LGBTQ rights.
A less apparent factor in the United States’ lagging on gay reparations lies with the American LGBTQ rights movement itself. The United States may have birthed the gay liberation movement that came in the wake of the Stonewall riots. Yet in recent decades, gay rights activism in the United States, when seen through international lenses, has been relatively conservative. Since at least the late 1990s, the legal struggle for same-sex marriage consumed American activists almost at the expense of anything else. And that struggle was less than radical. While activists in such countries as Argentina, Germany, and Spain stressed how same-sex marriage would serve to transform society and the culture at large by expanding freedom and equality and by deepening citizenship and democracy, in the United States activists were more inclined to emphasize how same-sex marriage would push same-sex couples toward existing norms, even taming their sexuality. That latter argument came to be known as “the conservative case for gay marriage,” which contended that American society, including conservatives, should support same-sex marriage because it would bolster traditional values.
Framing the struggle for same-sex marriage around such modest goals as strengthening homosexual households wasted a great opportunity to engage society in a broad debate about the role of LGBTQ people in society. It also made it harder for gay activists to expand the struggle for LGBTQ rights beyond marriage and into such areas as transgender rights and gay reparations. These shortcomings, however, should not portend the end of gay reparations in the United States beyond the Stonewall apology. The international experience demonstrates that it is never too late for nations to right past wrongs. It took the United Kingdom more than a century to reckon with its own persecution of gay men under the charge of gross indecency. And the payoff is more than worth it. Aside from restoring dignity to the victims of state-sponsored policies of anti-gay discrimination and violence, gay reparations hold the promise of putting an end to the history of oppression of LGBTQ people while reminding future generations of the sacrifices and struggles that came before them.
Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of political studies at Bard College and author of The Case for Gay Reparations and Democracy Without Justice in Spain.
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