Eleven days before the new president was sworn in last year, the outgoing administration made a quiet, if heartfelt apology. It was immediately taken down by the Trump administration, but on January 9, Secretary of State John Kerry posted to the Department of State website a statement.
It read in part,
“In the past — as far back as the 1940s, but continuing for decades — the Department of State was among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, forcing some employees to resign or refusing to hire certain applicants in the first place. These actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today. On behalf of the Department, I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the Department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community.”
It was a groundbreaking moment. Not just because of how rare it is for the government to apologize for, anything really, that it has done. But also because in many ways, the halls of the agencies of the federal government were the birthplace of the gay rights movement in this country. Not in the sense that they supported it, in fact, quite the opposite. They created the situation where women and men rose up and said, we won’t allow you to treat us like this anymore.
The person many credit with being the closest thing to a godfather to the movement, is a man named Frank Kameny. Leaders had done great work before him, to be sure. But few did as much, for as long to advance gay rights in the U.S.
He served in Germany during World War II as an Army mortar crewman, and when he returned after the war, he got a PhD from Harvard and a job he loved with the Department of Defense. He dreamed of becoming one of the country’s first astronauts, competing with the Soviets in the race to outer space.
Problem was, Kameny had an incident after he graduated that he was desperately trying to keep hidden. In 1956, he was in San Francisco to deliver a paper at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. In the men’s room at the bus terminal, without any kind of invitation, a man at the urinal next to him reached over and touched him in his privates. Kameny said he was immediately repelled and ended the contact.
Okay, so this was the 1950’s. People hate gays and are horrified at the idea that there were “perverts” out there roaming the streets soliciting their children. So how do you stop a hidden menace?
Well, in the case of Frank Kameny, the man who tried to touch him was no desperate San Francisco gay. He was an undercover policeman. And watching through a vent in the wall were two more policemen. It was a sting operation. Pretty damn common back then. Touch a man’s dick and see how he reacts. If it doesn’t meet your repulsion standards, lock him up.
At the police station Kameny was told what every person who is arrested gets told. “Plead guilty and it’ll be easy for you. Plead innocent, and we’ll make a big, public mess out of this.” Fearing for his future, despite having neither initiated the sexual assault, nor giving any indication he wished the urinal groping to continue, he pled guilty, paid a fine, and left humiliated.
But shortly into his job with the Department of Defense, he was summoned to a small room where a team of investigators were waiting for him. They told him “Information has come to the attention of the US Civil Service Commission that you are a homosexual. Is it true?” He replied that it was none of their business. “That question is irrelevant to my job performance,” he told them repeatedly. A month later, at the age of 32, he received a letter stating that he was being fired on the grounds of homosexuality.
Frank Kameny, the man who fought Nazis in Germany, got a PhD from Harvard, and dreamed of traveling to Space for his country, was dismissed in disgrace as a thanks for his patriotism. But Kameny wasn’t one to give in to defeat so easily.
He sued in a federal district court. And then an appeals court. And then went so far as to petition the Supreme Court to hear his case. Even if homosexual behavior was immoral, he argued, if it does not interfere with his ability to do his job, what bearing does it hold on his ability to perform a government job? The Supreme Court declined to hear his case. But Frank Kameny, the civil rights activist was born. He would work tirelessly until his death in 2011 in the many legal battles fought to overturn discrimination toward LGBT persons in the government, in the military, and in private life.
But when I was studying him, Frank Kameny stood out to me, not just for being the first truly effective gay rights activist, but also because of how he was an activist. See, he was a bit of a control-freak. But one of the areas that really came out — one of the ways his authoritarian tendencies were really on display — was over the dress code he enforced when organizing a protest.
Which is not what you expect, right? When I think of protests, I think of something closer to anarchy. Or at least a random, come-as-you-are display. But not a Kameny protest.
Men had to be in suits and ties, their hair cut short, and their dress shoes well-polished. The women — and there were many, many lesbians leading the early gay rights protests — were expected to wear skirts, high heels, hair not to be cut too short — no looking too butch!
“If you’re asking for equal employment rights,” Kameny would say, “look employable.” A bit extreme, but pretty understandable, too, right?
Well, you can imagine how well Kameny got along with later gay rights activists of the say it loud, say it proud variety. In the 70’s when queer activists began coming to the conclusion that dressing up as for church, marching in polite lines, and filing court briefs was doing little to actually stop the police from beating them once they took their suits off to go out to a safe place to relax at night, they began taking the activism to the politicians who could write laws protecting them. If in their polished politeness they were being ignored, then they would steal the spotlight until they could be avoided no more.
An organization called the Gay Activists Alliance started what they called, Zaps. It was a mischievous form of protest, the goal of which was to inconvenience. They would handcuff themselves to the mayor’s office. Or they would target a politician known to be gay-friendly, wait for a public event, then ask so everyone can hear, “Sir, when are you going to speak out about gay rights?” When security would remove that person, the next would step up. “Sir, when are you going to speak out about gay rights?” They would do it until the politician had no choice but to cancel the event.
They did little more than antagonize anyone they were trying to convince in the short run. But they always got noticed. They got press coverage. And with the press coverage came pressure. What was politely ignored was now being brought out into the glaring light.
(Unsplash / Jerry Kiesewetter)
This tension, between tactics to impress and tactics to agitate is an old one, and by no means unique to the gay rights movement. The idea of presentability politics is an understandable one. TV shows Will and Grace and Modern Family have moved mountains in public opinion in this country by not being a show all about gay people, but rather a show about normal people, two of whom just happened to be gay. Dammit, if it wasn’t effective.
But then on the other hand, when gays a decade later say, I’m sorry I shouldn’t need to be straight America’s fantasy of a perfect queer person just to have you recognize my civil rights, I can’t help but stand and start applauding.
See I’ve seen a lot of debate lately around what is the best way to resist a Trump presidency. Is it okay to shut down an airport? Is it okay to punch a neo-Nazi white supremacist in the face? Stop traffic in the streets? Is it too far to call Trump Hitler? I’ve seen calls to self-identify as Muslim, to physically block deportations, to take up residence along pipeline constructions.
But for every step activists take, there are plenty who claim they stepped over the line. Why be so dramatic? Why inconvenience a city by marching through its streets? In response to the protests this year, I saw a lot of my friends saying things like, “well maybe if they got a job and got out of the streets, people would take them seriously.”
Okayyy. But did you ever stop to think why these people have been pushed to extreme measures to get the government’s attention? If you’re used to politicians listening to you at town halls, or wherever you politely express your opinion, is there a chance that these people tried that, and it didn’t work?
This is the setup for any social justice cause… There’s a dominant group in society that is withholding some rights to another group. The group out of power has two options. It can just take away their power, like in the French Revolution. Or it can try to convince the group in power to extend those rights to them as well.
And if you’re going to try and convince them instead of make them change, you can try and make them like you or you can make it so they can’t ignore you. You can be Frank Kameny in a suit and tie, or you can be the Stonewall rioters, learning to punch back.
(Unsplash / Andy Omvik)
I personally have always struggled with this. I was raised in a home that placed a huge value on decorum. On being polite. On returning whatever abuses may come your way in life with the way you wish to be treated.
And I respond well to it when people interact with me that way. I remember in college, back when Facebook was new and you would like a group just because it had a clever title, I joined one that said, “Hillary Clinton, get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich.” Oh, boy do I cringe at that now. But of course it was public and all my friends online saw that I had liked this page. So one of my friends from class sent me a private message that said, “hey, I saw you liked that page and that’s incredibly demeaning towards women. I’m sure you thought it was just a joke, but I expected better of you.”
I felt three inches tall when I read that. I immediately unfollowed the page and apologized to her. Just recently I saw her pop up on my feed again after several years and I shot her another message that said, “Hey thanks for calling me out on that sexist shit back in the day. You shouldn’t have had to deal with that from me or anyone, but I really appreciate that you took the time to do it. It set me on a better path.”
And I think my friend was especially effective with me because she didn’t just aggressively — if fairly — call me a sexist. She just politely said she was disappointed in me. Which, honestly, is so much worse.
On the other hand, I also have a personality that has never had a problem pushing the boundaries a little. When I was a senior in high school I had a conversion experience and started getting really involved in my church. I went on retreats and travelled to conferences, getting more and more fired up about what they were teaching. One day I came home from one of those conferences with a bumper sticker I immediately put in on my car and drove it to school every day. In bright yellow, so no one could miss it, it said, Chastity — the choice of the next generation.
Now I still wholeheartedly support anybody’s personal decision to say, “hey, I’m not ready for sex.” And I definitely condemn any attempt to shame them for it. What an insecure person you’ve got to be to start questioning a person’s courage or integrity because of decisions they make regarding their sexuality.
BUT, did the bumper sticker send a message to those who were sexually active that I was judging them? Absolutely. And I sure wish I had never done it. But I was young and I have always had a personality that when I find something I believe in, I’m not afraid to take a bold stance about it. Even if it makes some other people uncomfortable.
So I’m sympathetic to both sides. Sometimes a gentle, compassionate approach works best. But sometimes you need to wake people the hell up.
To me, one of the most shameful chapters in American church history, is how white church leaders treated Dr. Martin Luther King. When he was in jail in Birmingham, church leaders in Alabama wrote a letter in a newspaper condemning Dr. King’s tactics. Catholic and Protestant came together in the name of unity. They were polite, but their message was clear. Sit down, Dr. King. Settle down. You’re moving too fast. Don’t break the law. You’ve got to give white people time to adjust.
Dr. King’s letter back to them became one of the most important documents in American history, an eloquent and passionate defense of civil disobedience.
Anti-Trump/Racism/War protest in London, England, 4 Feb 2017. (Flicker / Loco Steve)
So I understand some of my more active friends who say, “screw their feelings. Say it loud and proud and make sure they know we will not sit down. We will not settle down. We will not slow down and wait for the rest of y’all to learn that we are human too. And we will act up and actually make your position untenable to maintain. Boy, do I respect that.
But I don’t think it is the only way to make progress. The fact is there are some people in power who will double down on their position when you present them with such an aggressive approach. But that doesn’t mean they are unreachable.
I was watching CNN not long ago and saw this guy, Daryl Davis, a black man who has been befriending members of the KKK in Massachusetts. And after many years, some of them have actually left the KKK. When they come in regular contact with a black man, a friend, who always recognizes their humanity, who refuses to look at them as just bed sheets and burning crosses, some of them can’t help but begin to see his humanity in return.
Daryl Davis. (Flickr / GeneralcDibs)
But — and I can’t overstate this point — it would be an astonishing mistake to believe it is the responsibility of every person of color to go befriend some klansmen. It is white people’s responsibility to deal with the klan. It is our moral failure for not challenging these men and women on their racism. To expect, or even suggest to a man whose ancestors were lynched and tortured and segregated by these terrorists, that you know what is gonna be the key to getting them to stop treating you like subhumans, you need to go have some afternoon tea with them. Make ’em feel good. Disarm ’em with a couple jokes and find some common ground.
But if Daryl Davis feels called to go into the lion’s den of hate and be some superhuman kind of apologist for humanity, God bless him. But it’s not the only way to bring about progress.
It is often the case that the more polite, inoffensive members of a social justice movement are the ones that get celebrated by the next generation. The rabble rousers get remembered as the ones who held the movement back, if they get remembered at all. We pretend Dr. King and Ghandi and Rosa Parks and Abraham Lincoln were the only ones doing the work.
But that’s a revisionist take at history. The truth is no movement has ever succeeded that didn’t have this internal struggle. Those who tried to get under the skin of their opponents, and those that tried to appeal to their better angels.
No movement toward justice is won by an individual. It is fought tooth and nail, amidst setbacks and heartaches, by a team of committed warriors. And like any team, there are different positions. If one woman stands up and pushes harder than you’d like her to, that doesn’t make her a bitch. That may be her spot on the team. And if another guy is working toward building long-term relationships, hesitant to make the people he knows too uncomfortable, that may not mean he is weak towards the movement, that he cares less than you. That is his position on the team.
Frank Kameny became the godfather of the gay rights movement in good part because he cared so much about decorum. He forced the courts to see our humanity. But the Stonewall rioters were successful too, and not despite, but because of their lack of decorum, their unwillingness to play along by the rules. And when a shocked nation woke up to an emboldened movement of trans and lesbian and gay leaders in the streets, horrified by what they saw, there was Frank Kameny and others ready to hold their hand and walk them through how this was a civil rights issue that needed to be addressed. They may have disagreed on each others’ tactics, but they were an effective team.
Now, there’s one other thing that needs to be addressed. Both extremes can be used as an excuse to not actually deal with the real work of fighting for justice. Some who are wanting to move slow and hold a person’s hand as they walk with them towards Black Lives Matter or gay rights — or whatever cause — they can easily hide behind the relationship, too afraid to risk losing it to try and improve it.
I’m guilty of this all the time. In trying to listen and earn a person’s trust, I’ll fail to share my perspective, always thinking they’re not quite ready yet, when maybe the truth is, I’m the one not ready.
And then on the other side, the vocal rabble rousers can hide behind the need to fight and call out social injustices and forget to build relationships at all. There’s a fair critique of social justice warriors looking to correct any politically incorrect utterance. Sometimes I just think Let it go for a second! Come back to it later! Do you think they’ll actually change if every time you call them out they can feel your disdain from miles away?
If you so wall yourself off that you never have to actually be friends with anyone who says something stupid, then you aren’t actually changing the world.
Put it this way — if they don’t feel comfortable saying something a little racist, or a little sexist, or a little transphobic, or whatever around you, there’s no chance they’re gonna listen when you call them out on it. You don’t have to enjoy it, but but if you can’t learn to create a little safe space to mess up in the relationship itself, then what hope is there for growth?
So the next time you hear someone fighting for justice in this world, try to think less about are they fighting for this in the way I want them to? And more about the content of what they’re saying.
Because the tone may not be right for you, but it may be just what someone else needs to hear. There’s no one size fits all to justice. No perfect way to approach it. No silver bullet to change a person’s mind.
Again, I’m not saying there is no such thing as a line protestors can cross. There clearly is. But don’t just knee-jerk assume that because someone makes you uncomfortable that they are hurting the cause.
So to the agitator’s, keep up the good work. We need you. And to those who work with decorum, keep up the good work too. We need y’all. What makes a good activist? One that knows they’re a part of something bigger than themselves that is going to take a team of all types to win.🔷