Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Struggle for LGBT Equality: From Stonewall to the Present

Address given to the Summer Academy of Baltimore City 9th Grade U.S. History Teachers-6/30/11



By Steve Charing






I am honored to be invited to participate in the Summer Academy for 9th Grade U.S. History teachers and its theme, "Justice for All: The Clarion Call for America's Minorities." And let me say this…thank you all for what You do! First, a few notes about me: I was born and raised in New York City and graduated from Queens College with a degree in Political Science.

I served 2 years in the Army and moved to the Baltimore area in 1977 where I continued my career with the Social Security Administration. I have been retired from the agency since 1999.

As a hobby, I have been writing for the gay press since 1980 and have served as editor of two Baltimore-based publications. The newspaper I continue to write for and was the managing editor until last month is Baltimore OUTloud.

I also served for 7 years as the media coordinator for the Howard County chapter of PFLAG—Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

My partner Bob, who happens to be a Poly alum, and I have been in a committed relationship for 31 years, and we were legally married in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 2009. We have resided in Clarksville since 1994.

In looking back when I was in the 9th grade, I realize now how much easier it was for me then as there were 10 less presidents and 40 or so less countries in the world to consider. And, for certain, a subject like the struggle for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender equality was not on any syllabus.

But the fact that there is interest in this topic in 2011 proves how much of a journey we have traveled but yet, there is so much further to go.

Any discussion of achieving gay rights would normally begin with the Stonewall uprising that began on June 27, 1969. This was a seminal event, and is arguably the launching pad for the modern gay rights movement.

To understand the significance of Stonewall, one needs to visualize how the world existed prior to those historic nights in June.

Frequent gay bar raids occurred with police demanding ID’s under the threat of arrest.

Entrapment by the police was astonishingly commonplace especially in what are called “cruising areas.” So was blackmail.

Names of the arrested were published in the newspapers: Jobs lost. Tenants evicted from apartments. Families were torn apart.

Gays were beaten up by straights with alarming frequency. Thugs purposely sought out queers to beat up outside gay establishments. Same-sex dancing was prohibited, as was touching. Gay sex was criminal behavior.
You had Mafia-owned bars serving overpriced watered down drinks whose owners often worked in collusion with the police and cared not one bit about the gays and lesbians who were their customers as long as they can make money off of them.

Bar bouncers roughed up drunken gays.

There were no laws on the books to protect against discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations.
Homosexuals were banished from the military following extensive witch-hunts.

There were no domestic partner benefits or any rights based on same-sex relationships at major corporations and few universities.

There were no openly gay elected officials, and anyone in the public eye remained in the closet. No officeholder supported an end to the harassment, much less advocated for equality. The thought of marriage between same-sex partners didn’t even exist.

A television show with a major gay character was unthinkable, as well as an openly gay actor. Any gay characters portrayed in movies were either depressed, suicidal, flamboyant or a victim of some sort. There were few, if any, gay-related periodicals.

Homosexuality was viewed as a psychological disorder; queers were considered sick and fair game by a hostile, homophobic society.
Most chose to remain in the closet.

Partners were introduced as “roommates.”

And because of family pressures, so many gays and lesbians were virtually forced to date or marry members of the opposite sex to deflect any suspicion of being gay.

There had been gay and lesbian rights groups that were covertly formed prior to Stonewall. They included The Mattachine Society, which began in 1950 in Los Angeles and Daughters of Bilitis, which was founded 5 years later in San Francisco.

But not until the Stonewall episode did a large number of other organizations form and develop.

The Stonewall Riots occurred in New York’s Greenwich Village on a sultry Friday night-early Saturday morning and lasted on and off for the better part of a week. It resulted from the second police raid of that week at the Stonewall Inn, New York’s largest gay club. The patrons, many of whom were transvestites and young homeless gay men and hustlers, resisted the police’s actions inside the club.

As patrons were being expelled from the bar, chaos developed in the streets immediately outside. The crowd swelled to hundreds, and many began hurling bottles, bricks and other objects as well as an uprooted parking meter towards the police vehicles and the bar itself. The embattled police, who never encountered such resistance to any previous raids, were forced to take refuge inside the Stonewall Inn until reinforcements showed up.
The riots received relatively little play in New York’s daily newspapers at the time, but historians viewed this as the pivotal point in the long and frustrating struggle for gay and lesbian rights.

By the courageous actions of these individuals—often maligned and shunned as fringe people by even the gay community—a statement was made that “enough is enough” and a movement was born.
The ensuing commemorative marches, parades and festivals that have been celebrated around the world since 1970 have emboldened the LGBT community to come out and stop being ashamed of who we are.

Yes, it is true that footage focusing on the more bizarre costumes that are typically on display at such celebrations have been used by religious extremists and political opponents to denigrate the gay community. They have been tools in the effort to keep us down, often succeeding.

But on balance the parades and related events have been beneficial. They are an affirmation of our self-identity. The gruesome conditions of pre-Stonewall gay America that I described earlier have virtually flipped around in the decades that followed.

While we have had to endure a phenomenal amount of setbacks politically during this period—including the politicizing of HIV/AIDS—we have come so far as a community, it defies imagination. We have evolved from merely seeking tolerance to later seeking acceptance, and now full equality will hopefully be within our grasp some day.

The complexity and scope of the gay rights movement at both the national and local levels cannot be appropriately captured by a simple chronological timeline as events and legal outcomes have spanned over decades. Instead, it is more instructive to highlight the progress and setbacks according to a few key landmarks and issues.

One of the early breakthroughs in the post-Stonewall era was the finding from the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 that confirmed the importance of new, better-designed research and removed homosexuality from the official manual that lists mental and emotional disorders. Two years later, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution supporting this removal.

Since then, both associations have urged all mental health professionals to help dispel the stigma of mental illness that some people still associate with homosexual orientation.
Moreover, they have attempted to debunk a variety of myths including that homosexuality is a choice and it can be cured through therapy.

These are crucial developments that have laid the foundation for society’s acceptance of gay people.
Not many other breakthroughs occurred during the 1970’s but interest in the plight of gay people was heightened by the anti-gay efforts of singer Anita Bryant’s successful attempt to overturn an anti-discrimination ordinance in Florida’s Dade County in 1977.

Through her group “Save our Children,” she instilled fear among voters and elected officials by insisting homosexuality is being taught to children.
The ensuing gay boycott of orange juice of which she was the spokesperson for the industry and the added support from a number of prominent Hollywood celebrities helped expose her as an extremist and galvanized the gay rights movement.

Thus, there was some degree of momentum heading in the 1980’s but a setback of unimaginable catastrophic proportions devastated the gay community.
This month we marked the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the virus that has come to be called HIV/AIDS. Gay and bisexual men by the tens of thousands were infected by the disease in the U.S., and thousands died from it. In the beginning of the scourge, the public saw it as a “gay disease” although the disease can be transmitted by intravenous drug users and tainted blood transfusions.
Politically, the AIDS epidemic was used to bash gays and their so-called lifestyle, by homophobes, religious and other social conservatives. Funding for dealing with the crisis was unconscionably insufficient.

President Reagan never publicly uttered the word “AIDS” and would have continued that silence had his friend Rock Hudson not succumbed to the disease in 1984.

On the positive side, the subsequent education campaign within the gay community resulted in the emphasis of safe sex and the closing down of establishments that fostered unsafe sex.

Nonetheless, while medical treatments have been developed to mitigate a once certain death sentence, there is no cure or preventable vaccine. Unfortunately, those in poverty or without health insurance have less access to these medications.

Troubling still is the fact the rate of infection from men having sex with men is back on the rise. Today’s younger generation is most vulnerable because:

1) They may not know anyone who actually died from HIV/AIDS and have not experienced the emotional trauma caused by such a loss;
2) They have a feeling of invulnerability because of their age; and
3) A false sense of security exists that medications would intervene.
Let’s go over some of the areas in which are key to the LGBT rights movement. I’ll begin with the military.

Throughout our history, the U.S. Military has banned gays and lesbians from serving in the Armed Forces. Thousands had been discharged mainly as a result of witch-hunts conducted by commanders and the snitching by fellow service members.

In 1993, newly elected President Bill Clinton attempted to fulfill a campaign promise to allow openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the military through an executive order. Having not accrued any political capital in the first few months of his presidency, Clinton was unable to withstand the vehement opposition from Senate Armed Forces Chairman Sam Nunn, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell and many other military leaders and members of Congress.

As a result, he was forced to accept the compromise known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” This policy, which was enacted in 1994, was aimed at allowing gays and lesbians to serve but to do so without any open acknowledgement of their sexual orientation or to act on that orientation.

In the 16 years that transpired, over 13,000 service members were discharged, a significant number of whom held critical jobs for our national security, such as Arabic linguists.

Furthermore, a study conducted by GAO and later by an expert commission found that the policy has cost taxpayers $363 million during the first 10 years alone.

As you are probably aware, this past December Congress voted to end the current policy and the President signed it into law. The implementation has been delayed but it will take place by the end of the year.

An estimated 66,000 gays and lesbians are currently serving in the military.
Another area is the topic of hate crimes.

A tragic event occurred in October 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming when a gay college student, 21 year-old Matthew Shepard was kidnapped by two guys and beaten to death. This crime had garnered national and international attention to the dangers that gays are exposed to at the hands of those who are hateful.
During the next 11 years, Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, tirelessly lobbied around the country and in the corridors of Washington to secure legislation that would add extra penalties to those convicted of a crime based on hate.
Although such action failed in 2007 under a threat of a veto by President Bush, it finally succeeded two years later.

In October 2009, the aptly named Matthew Shepard Act was passed so that the Federal Hate Crimes statute was expanded to include crimes motivated by a victim's gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

President Obama signed the measure into law.

Maryland has a hate crime law on the books that covers sexual orientation and gender identity.

The decriminalization of gay sex marked another turning point.

This occurred on June 26, 2003 when the U.S. Supreme Court by a 6-3 decision, struck down the sodomy law in Texas in the case Lawrence v. Texas.

The court had previously addressed the same issue in 1986 in Bowers v. Hardwick, where it upheld a challenged Georgia statute, not finding a constitutional protection of sexual privacy.

But Lawrence explicitly overruled Bowers.

The majority held that intimate consensual sexual conduct was part of the liberty protected by substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Lawrence effectively invalidated similar laws throughout the United States that purport to criminalize sodomy between consenting same-sex adults acting in private. It also invalidated the application of sodomy laws to heterosexual sex.
At the time, the decision was considered by many as the most significant legal victory in the U.S. for gays and lesbians.

Later that year, another court decision was even more significant as we turn to the hot button issue of same-sex marriage.
On November 18, 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on the case Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that barring same–sex couples from marrying was unconstitutional.

Given 180 days to take whatever action was deemed appropriate, then Governor Mitt Romney ordered clerks to issue marriage licenses on May 17, 2004.

Accordingly, the controversial subject of gay marriage was one of the major issues during 2004 presidential election. Conservatives denounced the prospect of same-sex marriages as a threat to the sanctity of the institution and would destroy society.

Here’s a footnote: As to same-sex marriage being the downfall of the institution of marriage, Massachusetts, the state where marriage for same-sex couples has existed longer than any other, has the lowest divorce rate in the U.S.

Opposition to gay marriage was forming even before the ruling in Massachusetts. A decade earlier, opponents of gay marriage had started to rev up their rhetoric following the Hawaii State Supreme Court ruling in 1993 that found the state’s refusal to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples was discriminatory.

In 1998 the voters in Hawaii approved a constitutional amendment that would deny such marriages.
The opposition to gay marriage was led mainly by religious and cultural conservatives. They had successfully heightened the fears of the public and used the issue as a fundraising tool.
Much of what they put forth included distortions, exaggerations, the use of stereotypes, unsubstantiated statistics, and pure fiction to not only raise money but also to exert political influence.

In 2004 Republican political guru Karl Rove exploited the ruling in Massachusetts to drive a wedge among Democratic voters—particularly targeting African-Americans. And Republicans managed to place constitutional amendments on the ballots in 11 states that would prevent same-sex couples from marrying. They all succeeded.
Many believe that the scare tactics and ballot initiatives worked in the presidential election in that a higher than normal turnout among evangelical voters in the swing state of Ohio may have been the difference.

The marriage issue has taken two different paths. One is at the Federal level when in 1996 President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA, which primarily allows states to refuse to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples in other jurisdictions and bars any Federal benefits to same-sex couples.

Also, there was an effort to propose a constitutional amendment called the Federal Marriage Amendment which, if passed by both houses in Congress and ratified by 38 states, would define marriage as between one man and one woman. The measure failed in July 2006 in the House of Representatives.
Opposition was based mainly on the concept of federalism—that the Federal government should not intervene in the area of marriage licensing that has been traditionally a state responsibility.

The other path leads to state recognition. There are too many twists and turns in the road to marriage equality among the states and the courts to allow me to describe in the time allotted.
One of the more publicized contests, however, took place in California in 2008 where voters approved Proposition 8 that denied the right for same-sex couples to marry after the legislature had previously passed the measure.
This setback sent tremors among LGBT folks worldwide. Not only was California the most populous state but a high Democratic turnout in support of Barack Obama during the election was seen as a way to overcome largely Republican opposition and the measure would fail. It did not for a variety of reasons.

But needless to say, the signing of a marriage equality law in New York last week added to five other states and the District of Columbia who have legalized same-sex marriage. The other states are Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, and Iowa.

29 states have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, while 12 others have laws against it.

Unless DOMA is repealed somehow, the same-sex marriages in the states that allow it are more symbolic than anything because it does not provide the 1,300 or so benefits, rights and responsibilities that are conferred upon heterosexual couples.
A fair question asked is what about civil unions if that would be more acceptable to the general public? Well, civil unions provide a separate but unequal class for gay and lesbian couples and their families that do not offer the same respect from society as marriage does. And such an arrangement is not portable from state-to-state.

Another area in which the struggle for equal rights has not fared well is employment protections, at least at the Federal level.

The Employment Nondiscrimination Act or ENDA is a proposed bill in the United States Congress that would prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by civilian, nonreligious employers with at least 15 employees.

A form of ENDA has been languishing in Congress since 1973, and ENDA itself has been introduced in every Congress except the 109th (2005-2007) since 1994 to no avail.

In 2007, the bill was pulled when it appeared that the inclusion of transgender individuals would fail to gain the needed votes in the House. This caused a rift within the LGBT community.

A transgender-inclusive bill was re-introduced in Congress 2009 and again 2011 where it remains to be acted on.

A total of 15 states, including D.C., have job discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and an additional 6 states, including Maryland, have protections based on sexual orientation only.
Locally, Baltimore City, Howard County, Montgomery County, Takoma Park and College Park have anti-discrimination ordinances in place.

In the private sector 337 large corporations employing over 8 million people have equal rights for their LGBT employees.

Culture. Without question the trend towards LGBT acceptance and ultimately equality has been aided by more positive portrayals of LGBT persons in film, books, television, music and other forms of entertainment.

From Billy Crystal’s role as Jodie Dallas in the late 70’s sitcom Soap, to the 8- year run of Will & Grace, to 20 years of MTV’s Real World with regular LGBT cast members, to straight actors playing gay roles and winning Oscars like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, to the influence of Ellen DeGeneres and Elton John, more people saw LGBT folks in a different light and helped to mitigate the stereotypes that have existed.

And when TV producers trust openly gay actors Neil Patrick Harris and Jane Lynch to host huge awards shows, you know that we are on the right track.
Clearly, more and more celebrities and even a few sports figures have taken up LGBT causes whether it is marriage equality, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or anti-bullying campaigns.
This is significant because of the influence these people have on society, especially the younger generation.
And with more people coming out, the chances for establishing allies increase. People who come out to their friends, neighbors, family members and co-workers put a face on LGBT. And those folks are less likely to want to see their LGBT counterparts harmed and discriminated against.

At this point I want to offer a brief summary of what’s been happening in Maryland.

In 1998, an ACLU lawsuit led to the Maryland courts striking down the state's sodomy law on equal protection grounds.
Under the leadership of Governor Parris Glendening, Maryland passed a comprehensive bill in 2001 to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
A similar bill to include protections based on gender identity has failed so far.
As for marriage equality, what advocates in Maryland are seeking is civil marriage, whereby religious institutions are exempt from being forced to marry couples if they do not want to.

Roughly 40 percent of couples in Maryland are married in city halls, town clerks offices and by justices of the peace. Those marriages are still valid even without a religious ceremony.

A lawsuit, Deane & Polyak v. Conaway was filed in July 2004, which charged that excluding same-sex couples from marriage violates the state constitution's guarantees of equality.

The oral arguments were heard August 2005 at a District Court in Baltimore.
In January 2006, Judge M. Brooke Murdock ruled in favor of the plaintiffs but immediately stayed the decision pending appeal by the state’s attorney general.

By a 4-3 decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled against the 19 plaintiffs in September 2007 thus upholding the 1973 law which states that marriage is between a man and a woman but signaled that the legislature can address the issue.

However, various attempts to gain marriage equality through the legislature have failed, most recently this past session.

In 2008, the General Assembly passed some forms of domestic partnership recognition that allowed, among other things, hospital visitation and medical decision-making rights to unmarried couples.

In February 2010, Maryland's Attorney General, Doug Gansler, issued an opinion that Maryland law could recognize valid same-sex marriages performed in other U.S. states.
In 2011 for the first time the Civil Marriage Protection Act passed the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and then went on to pass in the Senate. However, after realizing there were a couple of votes short of passage in the House of Delegates, supporters of the bill voted it back to committee, thereby ending the effort in 2011.

Governor O’Malley had pledged to sign the bill if passed but has been criticized for not taking a public leadership role to try to get the needed votes.
Had the bill been signed into law, a referendum drive to overturn it was a certainty.

In the past General Assembly, a bill to add protections based on gender identity and expression similarly fell short.

Although the bill made its way out of the House, it failed to be voted on in the Senate.

The bill, as proposed, did not include Public Accommodations, which divided the transgender community.

The well-publicized beating of a trans-woman Chrissy Lee Polis at a Rosedale McDonald’s captured on video should fuel momentum to the gender identity bill next year.

Finally, Maryland law permits adoptions by single LGBT individuals and does not explicitly prohibit LGBT couples from adopting.
Status in Baltimore. After many years of contentious debate that received significant opposition from the Catholic archdiocese, a non-discrimination bill was passed by the City Council in 1988.

In November 2002, Baltimore became the first jurisdiction in Maryland to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and credit practices based on gender identity or expression.
With much of the anti-discrimination work completed in Baltimore, the one area the LGBT community continues to have problems with is the police.

Many LGBT folks have mistrusted the police, not only in Baltimore but throughout the U.S.

True, you don’t see the bar raids, random ID searches and harassment that existed during the pre-Stonewall era, but friction remains.
This is based on a perceived and real lack of interest by police in investigating a crime against an LGBT victim or pursuing suspects.
The transgender community is particularly suspicious of the police because of the spate of attacks including homicides on trans-women, many of whom happen to be sex workers.

A liaison was established two years ago at the police department with the LGBT community to help bridge the two entities together.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention to this audience especially some of the issues facing LGBT youth.

While there are far more resources and support groups, including the establishment of Gay-Straight Alliances in the schools, to help today’s LGBT youth than there were, say, two decades ago, too many still experience a variety of problems.

Even today, with acceptance of gays and lesbians on the rise, a large number of families and peers continue to be resistant to a child’s coming out as gay or transgender.

In Baltimore, many rejecting families have thrown their LGBT children out of their homes.

This problem has been more prevalent among transgender teens.

Youth homelessness means these kids either live on the streets or couch surf just to survive.

And these circumstances often lead them to drugs, crime, illness and prostitution and their chances of being a victim of a crime are increased.

In addition, LGBT teens today are subject to bullying in the schools.
While Maryland has strong anti-bullying laws, their enforcement has been inconsistent.
A number of highly publicized suicides among teens who were gay or perceived to be gay have been traced to bullying—either in person or in cyberspace.
I recommend visiting GLSEN to learn more about the incidence of bullying in schools and what can be done about it.

In conclusion, we have traveled a long road to be where we are today, but we have so much further to go.

Folks like you taking an interest in matters affecting the LGBT community and understanding the history behind the LGBT rights movement will definitely help make it a better journey.

Thank you, and I welcome any further questions.

4 comments:

ccombs said...

I think this is wonderful. My mother just asked me what would be discussed if there were ever a LGBT history course and I have decided to send her this link so she can see that there is so much more to LGBT history than AIDS and Rock Hudson.

ccombs said...

Thank you so much for this! I shared it with my Mom who wondered what types of things could be taught in a LGBT history course.

Steve Charing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Charing said...

Thank you for your comments. There was so much mnore to cover, such as Harvey Milk, etc., but time constraints prevented me from hitting other important topics.