The Case for Gay Reparation.
Other countries are taking steps to atone for their shameful past treatment of L.G.B.T. people. The United States should too.
The New York Police Department apologized last week to the gay community for the 1969 raid of the Stonewall Inn, the fallout of which is widely credited with spurring the contemporary gay rights movement at home and abroad. Timed to coincide with Stonewall's 50th anniversary, the statement by Commissioner James P. O'Neill said in part: "The actions taken by the N.Y.P.D. were wrong — plain and simple" and "the actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and for that, I apologize." The apology is the culmination of a decades-old struggle by gay activists for recognition of wrongdoing on the part of the police — one that few activists thought could ever become a reality.
With the surprise apology, the United States has taken its most significant leap yet into "gay reparation," or policies intended to address the legacy of state-sanctioned repression of homosexuals. Although relatively new to the United States, gay reparation has been debated and legislated around the world for close to two decades and is a logical progression in the maturation of the gay rights movement. Having largely secured rights once thought to be virtually unattainable — especially same-sex marriage — gay activists, especially in Western democracies, are turning their attention to addressing the historical legacies of homosexual repression.
Although there is no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to gay reparation, countries have taken three distinct approaches. The most common is "moral rehabilitation," which entails a formal apology by the state and the expunging of criminal records of those convicted of a homosexual offense. There's also financial compensation for loss of income and pensions. Finally, there's "truth-telling," or an official report on past wrongs that incorporates steps for reparation. These are not mutually exclusive approaches; in fact, as recent experiences show, they are often pursued simultaneously or sequentially.
One of the first countries to grapple with gay reparation was Spain, which is fitting given the country's reputation — first won during the Inquisition, an institution infamous for burning "sodomites" at the stake — as one of the most hostile to homosexuality in the Western world. In 2007, as part of the landmark Law of Historical Memory, which recognized the victims of the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, including homosexuals, it became possible for anyone who suffered economic hardship because of their sexual orientation to seek compensation from the state and to petition that their criminal record be expunged. According to El País, approximately 5,000 people were detained and arrested on suspicion of being gay under the Franco regime. Many were sent to mental institutions to undergo "conversion therapy."
Following in Spain's footsteps, in 2009, the British government issued an official apology to Alan Turing, the World War II code breaker, 57 years after he was sentenced to a chemical castration for being gay. (Mr. Turing killed himself two years later.) In his announcement, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, "While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him." The Turing apology — and his subsequent pardoning in 2013 — were followed a few years later by a national pardon of thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted of crimes under sexual-offense laws. Such laws, which in Britain, as in much of the English-speaking world, have traditionally applied only to men, were used in convicting some 65,000 people.
In 2016, Germany announced it would make financial reparations from a fund of 30 million euros to anyone convicted under Paragraph 175, a provision in the German criminal code that was employed by the Nazi regime to force homosexuals into concentration camps and that remained on the books until 1994. A reported 140,000 people were arrested under Paragraph 175, though only about 5,000 of them were still living in 2016. The government also pledged to expunge the records of some 50,000 people jailed because of their sexual orientation.
Since 2017, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand and several Australian states have issued apologies to gay and bisexual men and other members of the L.G.B.T. community convicted for consensual same-sex activities before they were decriminalized and have announced plans to expunge the records of their convictions. Canada's apology was preceded by a report written by the country's leading gay rights organization chronicling systemic anti-gay discrimination and accompanied by a payout of $85 million to the victims of the so-called gay purge, a policy of government-sanctioned discrimination that lasted until the 1990s and that caused thousands to lose their jobs and face prosecution.
Certainly, the case for gay reparation in the United States is as compelling, if not more so, than in other Western democracies. President Dwight Eisenhower's 1953 Executive Order 10450, which called for the expulsion of homosexuals from all levels of the federal government, contributed to the "Lavender Scare" — the hunting of homosexuals throughout the federal bureaucracy, from the post office to the military to the diplomatic corps. It also ushered in decades of initiatives, court rulings and laws that demeaned and demonized homosexuals — such as Anita Bryant's 1977 Save Our Children Campaign, which depicted gay men as pedophiles; Bowers v. Hardwick, a 1986 Supreme Court ruling that upheld sodomy laws at a time when most democratic nations were already dismantling such laws (that ruling would not be overturned until 2003); and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the infamous 1993 policy that allowed homosexuals to serve in the armed forces if they kept their sexual orientation a secret. That policy alone was responsible for the dismissal of some 13,000men and women, including medical doctors, fighter pilots and Arabic translators, by the time it was revoked in 2011.
But if history is any guide, gay reparation faces an uphill struggle in the United States. After all, American society is still debating the merits of reparations for slavery. Moreover, although polls reveal that the issue of gay rights no longer divides the American public, it remains salient to the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, social conservatives, who control the party's social agenda, have already attacked the idea. In 2010, the radio show host Michael Medved said that "any campaign for gay reparations would fall flat because there's no evidence whatever that today's homosexuals are the heirs to a long, bitter heritage of discrimination that spans generations." He added that unlike black people, homosexuals "exercise a great deal of choice about just how public they want to embrace gay identity — or to claim a victim's status."
The Trump administration has also displayed a keen hostility toward the gay community. Early on, all references to L.G.B.T. people were erased from government websites, including the 2017 apology issued by Secretary of State John Kerry for "decades of prejudice" toward gay and lesbians at the State Department. This month, the Trump administration rejected requests to fly the rainbow flag, a symbol of gay pride, at American embassies during the month of June, a practice begun by the Obama administration as a sign of America's support for L.G.B.T. rights.
Despite these daunting obstacles, gay reparation is a struggle worth pursuing. Although it remains a relatively new phenomenon, it has so far shown itself to be a useful tool for restoring dignity for those victimized by discriminatory policies and for allowing countries to close long and painful chapters of homosexual repression. At the same time, gay reparation can serve to familiarize and sensitize the public about the injustices of the past, especially a new generation of L.G.B.T. people in the West who have mainly known freedom in their lifetime.
Omar Encarnación is a professor of political studies. This op-Ed appeared in The New York Times, June 14, 2019.
June 30, 2019
Voices4America Post Script. Reparations for Gays,This is a bold thought as the anti-LGBTQ Trump still is in the White House. But it is important to dream about when America will be great again. #HappyPrideMonth #HappyPride #HappyStonewall50