TODAY IN HISTORY:
Execution in New Netherlands: 1646. The New Netherlands Colony court sentenced “Jan Creoli, a negro,” for a second “sodomy” offense. The record stated: “this crime being condemned of God…as an abomination, the prisoner is sentenced to be conveyed to the place of public execution, and there choked to death, and then burnt to ashes….” The rationale was cited as Genesis c. 19; Leviticus c. 18: 22, 29. The margin of the court record states: “he was executed at New Haven.”
[Source: Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 90.]
Supreme Court Declares Physique Magazines Non-Pornographic: 1962. In the 1950s, Herman L. Womack published three beefcake magazines: MANual, Trim and Grecian Guild Pictorial. Although the magazines were marketed to gay men, they made no mention whatsoever of homosexuality, instead presenting themselves as bodybuilding and physique magazines. In 1960, the postmaster in Arlington Virginia seized a shipment of the three magazines and declared that because the magazines were marketed to gay men, they were obscene and therefore “nonmailable,” even though the magazines contained no actual nudity. (Models wore “posing pouches” to conceal their genitalia.) In other words, it wasn’t that the photos themselves were pornographic, but that the gay audience made the photos pornographic and therefore illegal. Womack sued in federal court, but after the court granted the govermnent’s move for summary judgment, he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
On June 25, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in MANual Enterprises v. Day that the materials in question were not pornographic. Writing for the majority, Justice John Marshall Harlan II wrote that the photos themselves were not “patently offensive” or “indecent.” “[We] need go no further in the present case than to hold that the magazines in question, taken as a whole, cannot, under any permissible constitutional standard, be deemed to be beyond the pale of contemporary notions of rudimentary decency.” And since the magazines didn’t reach that level of indecency, it didn’t matter who the materials were being marketed to. The mere portrayal of the male nude — even if it happens to be the portrayal of the gay male nude — “cannot fairly be regarded as more objectionable than many portrayals of the female nude that society tolerates.” If nude or semi-nude photos marketed to straight men weren’t pornographic (Playboy had already been around since 1953), then similar photos marketed to gay men couldn’t be pornographic either.
35 YEARS AGO: Rainbow Flag Debuts: 1978. The original rainbow flag, hand-dyed by Gilbert Baker, first flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade on June 25, 1978. The original 1978 flag consisted of eight stripes, with each stripe assigned a specific meaning. From top to bottom, the stripes were:
- hot pink: sexuality
- red: life
- orange: healing
- yellow: sunlight
- green: nature
- turquoise: magic
- indigo: serenity
- violet: spirit
After Harvey Milk’s assassination on November 27, 1978, demand for the flag went up sharply. But since Gilbert had hand-dyed his flag and hot pink fabric wasn’t available as a commercially available color, the top stripe was removed and the flag became a seven stripe flag. Then, the story goes, organizers planned to hang rainbow flags vertically from lamp posts for San Francisco’s 1979 pride celebration and they noticed that the lamp post would obscure the middle stripe. Another version of the story had it that it was cheaper to produce a six-stripe flag because flag makers could sew two stripes together, and then sew together three two-stripe blocks. Whatever the explanation, the turquoise stripe was dropped, the indigo was changed to royal blue, and the rainbow flag became the familiar six-stripe flag we’ve come to know ever since.
The rainbow flag is now a world-wide symbol for LGBT communities everywhere, and it has come to mean many things to many different people. For some, it’s a gesture of visibility, a way of saying we’re here. For others, its a reminder of all that we’ve gone through as a community. And some in the LGBT community consider it a silly expression of separatism and self-segregation from society. In 2007, Gilbert Baker penned an essay to explain what the flag meant to him. He describes growing up gay in Middle America and being harassed while serving in Viet Nam. He was sent stateside to work as a nurse in San Francisco, where he met Harvey Milk:
Stationed in San Francisco as a nurse, I cared for the wounded. I also met my closet [sic] friend and mentor, Harvey Milk. Harvey had an aggressive charm that attracted the wicked and the wise. His charisma and fearlessness are at the heart of all I hold dear.
Harvey was a pioneer, a trailblazer, and with the community by his side, he became a San Francisco Supervisor. One day he said to me that we needed a logo, a symbol. We needed a positive image that could unite us. I sewed my own dresses, so why not a flag? At Harvey’s behest, I went about creating our Rainbow Flag. I had never felt so empowered, so free.
My liberation came at a painful cost. In the ultimate act of anti-gay violence, Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated. The bullets were meant for Harvey, to silence him, and, by extension, every one of us. Uniting a community cost him his life.
I remember when I was still coming out how reassuring it was for me to see it and know that it marked a place of safety and refuge. And even now, when I go to a strange town and I see a small sticker on a doorway or a car’s bumper, I know that I’m among friends.
Larry Kramer: 1935. He is probably the most pissed-off gay man in America. His defenders will say that has has as many reasons to be pissed off as anyone. Kramer’s crotchety reputation goes way back, to his 1978 novel Faggots, which was widely denounced, by gay people anyway, for his critical portrayal of promiscuity in the gay community.
Two years later, he would find himself in the middle of another whirlwind, but this one wasn’t of his making: a strange new set of diseases began claiming the lives of close friends. In 1982, Kramer convened a meeting in his apartment that led to the founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Three years later, he would be forced out of GHMC due to controversy over his confrontational style. At another meeting in 1987 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York, Kramer asked two-thirds in the room to stand up, told them in five years they would be dead. “If my speech tonight doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If what you’re hearing doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men will have no future here on earth. How long does it take before you get angry and fight back?”
The fight back found its voice in the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP). Their first target was the Food and Drug Administration, which was accused of moving slowly to approve badly needed AIDS medications that had already been made available in Europe. While controversial at the time, ACT-UP’s confrontational tactics made people with AIDS visible and impossible to ignore. They were no longer faceless patients of victims, but people fighting for life. That visibility is credited by many within the FDA and the National Institutes of Health with effecting real changes in national health policy.
Meanwhile, Kramer kept writing. In 1985, he wrote the mostly-autobiographical play The Normal Heart, which portrays his reaction to the rise of AIDS in New York City as portrayed through the character of writer/activist Ned Weeks. Frank Rich wrote in his New York Times review, “The playwright starts off angry, soon gets furious and then skyrockets into sheer rage.” Liz Smith at the New York Daily News called it, “a damning indictment of a nation in the middle of an epidemic with its head in the sand.”
In 1989, he published a collection of essays in Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist, which was revised and expanded in 1994. In 1992, he wrote the play The Destiny of Me as a sequel to The Normal Heart. It became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2004, he gave a controversial speech at the Cooper Union five days after the re-election of President George W. Bush that became the book, The Tragedy of Today’s Gays. In his usual hyperbolic fashion, he characterized the election as the death knell for gay rights:
George Bush won his Presidency of our country by selling our futures. Almost 60 million people whom we live and work with every day think we are immoral. “Moral values” was top of many lists of why people supported George Bush. Not Iraq. Not the economy. Not terrorism. “Moral values.” In case you need a translation that means us. …he new Supreme Court, due any moment now, will erase us from the slate of everything possible in no time at all. Gay marriage? Forget it. Gay anything, forget it. Civil rights for gays? Equal protection for gays. Adoption rights? The only thing we are going to get from now on is years of increasing and escalating hate.
Which goes to show that he’s not always a prophet in the wilderness. Sometimes he’s just plain wrong. But he has used his Cassandra complex to great effect in lighting a fire under an often-complacent gay community. In 2011, he told Metro Weekly’s Chris Geidner that anger is “a wonderfully healthy emotion.” In 2011, The Normal Heart was revived on Broadway and brought to a whole new generation of theater-goers. Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey won Tony Awards for Best Performance by a Featured Actress and Actor, and the production won Best Revival of a Play. A film version for HBO is in the works, with a cast that includes Julia Roberts, Joel Grey, Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parson, Alfred Molina, Alec Baldwin, and Matt Bomer.
50 YEARS AGO: George Michael: 1963. He may be a talented performer, but what a hot mess he’s become since 1996′s “Fastlove,” his last single to make it onto the U.S. charts. He started out as half of Wham!, which he formed with his school chum Andrew Ridgeley in 1981. The first album Fantastic reached number 1 on the U.K. charts, and their second album Make It Big hit number one in the U.S. Wham!’s 1985 tour of China was the first by a major Western music group, generating worldwide attention. Two Wham! singles, 1984′s “Careless Whisper” and 1986′s “A Different Corner,” both featured Michael as a solo singer, and were sufficiently successful to guarantee a promising solo career.
Wham! came to an end in 1986, and the following year, Michael’s album Faith featured his sexy voice and his sexy butt to propel the singles “Faith” and “I Want Your Sex” to the top of the charts. But his recording output was sporadic: Listen Without Prejudice came out in 1990, and he waited until 1996 to release Older. Songs from the Last Century came out in 1999 and Patience in 2004. As far as solo albums go, that’s about it.
It was a few years after the release of Older when his personal problems started to become public ones. In 1998, he was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public toilet in Beverly Hills, a charge which effectively outed him as gay. He was arrested again on similar charges in London’s Hampstead Heath in 2006. In 2007, he was arrested in Northwest London when police found his car blocking traffic and him behind the wheel zonked out on drugs. He’s had several other drug arrests since then.
In 2011, he began his Symphonica tour when his health took a severe turn. He was admitted to a hospital in Vienna on November 21 complaining of chest pains. A few days later he was put in intensive care for over a week after developing pneumonia. After emerging from intensive care, he remained in the hospital for three more weeks, and was finally discharged on December 21. Two days later, he publicly acknowledged that doctors there had saved his life and that he had undergone a tracheotomy. His attraction to drama wasn’t over with yet. In May 2013, he somehow managed to fall out of a passenger seat of a Range Rover and onto the M1 motorway, requiring his airlift to a hospital with for minor head injuries.
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