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Posts for January, 2016

Remembering William Bishop Again

Jim Burroway

January 6th, 2016

xxxxxx@aol.com
To: Editor@boxturtlebulletin.com
Subject: William Bishop

Mr Burroway

Would you please contact me at XXX-XXX-XXXX or email xxxxxx@aol.com. I am the niece of William Bishop. Thank you.

William Bert Bishop. Photo courtesy of the Bishop family.

William Bert Bishop. Photo courtesy of the Bishop family.

Most of our Daily Agenda stories involve rather ordinary and otherwise anonymous people who, but for that one event, would have lived their lives unnoticed by all except their family and loved ones. This probably would have been true for William Bishop, 29, if it weren’t for that one thing that would bring his young life to an abrupt end in 1955, in his Miami Beach apartment.

His story was featured in yesterday’s and today’s Daily Agenda. Here’s a recap: On January 5, 1955, William had met Thomas Francis McDonald, 21, who newspapers would describe as a “burly 210-pound Korean War veteran.” Thomas had abruptly left his wife and six-month-old daughter behind in Eatontown, New Jersey on December 28 (PDF: 21.6 MB/44 pages, see page 33), following a fierce argument that reportedly left him “despondent.” The papers also said he was depressed over the death of his parents, although his mother would later show up to testify at the trial. McDonald headed south, covering over 1250 miles before checking into the Tuscany Motel in Hollywood, Florida, just north of Miami. We don’t know when he arrived in Hollywood, but we do know that on January 5, he made his way nine miles south on highway A1A to a bar on 74th street in Miami Beach where he met William. They had a few drinks, played some shuffleboard, and sometime during the course of the evening, William invited Thomas to his 82nd street apartment.

After that, it’s mostly he-said/he-said, except one of them would be dead. What everyone did agree on, mostly, was that when William’s roommates discovered his body the next morning on the enclosed porch, it was clothed in what was described as a silk dressing gown (although some reports would describe him as nude), with his hands tied behind his back with an extension cord and a sash from his gown, and a towel and handkerchief stuffed in his mouth as a gag.

Now even this story might have come and gone like any other murder story, and William Bishop’s name might has slipped back into that same obscurity from where it came. But two things conspired to revive his memory more than half a century after his not-quite three-decade life had ended. First, William’s death came after one of Miami’s worst “lavender scares” ever to take place. That scare was the product of a fierce headline war between the scrappy afternoon Miami Daily News and its larger morning competitor, the Miami Herald. While both papers had engaged in anti-gay skirmishes more than a year before, it was the August 1954 murder of an Eastern Airlines male flight steward and the subsequent “discovery” of a large gay community in Miami that sent both papers into a running battle over who could provide the most sensational headlines and shrillest alarms — and capture the most readers. The witch hunts had mostly died down by December, but not before a fresh round of anti-gay ordinances were passed, bars and beaches were raided, names and photos were plastered on the front pages, and countless people were fired and their lives ruined. William’s murder took place against that historical backdrop, and for two days in January, it earned the same sensationalistic and hyperbolic coverage in the local press as the numerous other stories over the previous five months.

The second thing that helped to bring William’s memory back to life was the Internet, and the decision by Google to digitize and post online several editions of the Miami Daily News. That historical trove has since been removed (temporarily, I hope), but it did allow me to write two items for the Daily Agenda about William’s murder and McDonald’s arrest and conviction. And that allowed Judy Bishop Sewell, William’s niece, to find a few answers to questions she had about her uncle’s death, answers that none of the older family members were willing to provide while they were still alive. She emailed me last April, and we spoke briefly on the phone a few days later. We then followed up with another conference call that also included her brother, Chip Bishop. Together, we pieced together a much clearer picture of who William Bishop was, and the impact his death had on the family.


William Bishop with Judy Bishop Sewell

William Bishop with Judy Bishop Sewell. Photo courtesy of the Bishop family.

William grew up in the paper mill town of East Millinocket, Maine, the youngest of six boys. As an adult, he honed his hairdressing skills in nearby Millinocket, where he opened his own beauty shop. Chip is too young to remember him, but Judy was about thirteen years old when William was murdered.  “I remember his kindness,” Judy said, “and I remember that he would play with me and I know that he bought me some clothes. And as a young kid, that was just wonderful. And there was always something that he was going to give me, and I think that we went to the circus one time. And also, he gave me one of the vanities at his shop when he left. And I just remember him as being a warm person and a favorite of my father’s brothers.”

William worked at Serene's Beauty Shop in Millinocket, just a few miles west of East Millinocket. The beauty shop was located under the green awning on the right hand side. (Image via Google Streetview.)

William worked at Serene’s Beauty Shop in Millinocket, just a few miles west of East Millinocket. The beauty shop was located under the green awning on the right hand side. (Image via Google Streetview.)

Millinocket had been founded in 1899 by the Northern Development Company, which later became the Great Northern Paper Co. East Millinocket was founded eight years later. Both were, in essence, company towns. Williams father worked at the mill in East Millinocket, as did just about everyone in town. “The mill paid a very good salary,” said Judy. “I think that I had a wonderful childhood growing up in that town. I made friends there that I’ve kept in touch with for … well since I went to grammar school. … It was a nice town to grow up in. It’s now very much on the decline with no industry there. People are moving out, the kids not staying because there are no jobs. It’s kind of a depressed area.”

Chip added: “Back in the time that we’re talking about, well when the company came in, they built the town, they helped people to build the houses. They put everyone in a square, divided it into house blocks, and they gave everyone land and they help them build the houses. And so it was a very tight community. It wasn’t spread out geographically at all. It was bunched straight up. It was a town where they all worked in the same place, and where everybody knew everybody else’s business. And there was a lot of gossip and a lot of talk, and they would go on and it would spread like wildfire. You were apt to hear something from somebody in town before you would hear it from your own relatives, the way the gossip and the wildfire would spread.”

William Bishop with two nieces. Photo courtesy of the Bishop family.

William Bishop with two nieces. Photo courtesy of the Bishop family.

While we don’t know for certain, it appears that gossip and wildfire, precipitated by a particularly embarrassing brush with the law, may have led to William’s move to Florida. Sometime around 1952 or 1953, William was arrested on what Judy remembered as a sodomy charge. “I saw a little cutout of an article in Mom’s jewelry box about it. But I didn’t know even what sodomy was at the time. I know as I read that article that he had been arrested, and then as I got older I remembered that article. I went snooping in my mother’s jewelry box and I found it with some other articles that she had saved – not about William but about other people. And I thought, well, that kind of answers the question about why one day we all went to Bangor, and I think it was when William either went there for a trial or went there to discuss this charge that had been brought up with a lawyer. But I remember us going to Bangor and my mom said we have to go, and it’s about William. And I never heard anything else about it.” Judy remembered pestering her parents about what sodomy meant, but “I just couldn’t drag it out of them.”

We don’t know the specific charge against William, nor the circumstances behind it. An 1857 law provided from one to ten years imprisonment for anyone found guilty of “the crime against nature.” (It was repealed by the state legislature during a comprehensive revision to the criminal code in 1975.) We don’t have any indication that William was ever imprisoned. Nor do we know whether he was found guilty of a lesser charge.

But we do know that by 1954, he had moved to Miami Beach, a city that he was probably familiar with. “William and his mother would often go to Florida for several weeks to a month during the winter,” recalled Judy. He re-established himself as a hairdresser and it seems the he was doing pretty well for himself. He was living in a rather nice apartment located just two short blocks from the beach. He shared that apartment with two other roommates: William H. Tower, a florist who was twenty-two years old at the time of William’s death in 1955, and Edward B. Hedgepeth, twenty-seven and also a hairdresser.

“Edward Hedgepeth, left, and William H. Tower, William Bishop’s roommates, being escorted to a telephone in a neighboring apartment by Miami Beach police officer. (Photo by the Miami Daily News.)

For the rest of William’s story in Miami Beach, we now have to turn to the city’s newspapers. Now in those days, newspapers could usually be counted on to be sympathetic to the murder victim and antagonistic to the perp. Not so in this case. The Miami News reminded readers four times — twice in the headlines — that Bishop was a hairdresser. It also described his roommates as “hysterical” twice, a coded description that at the time was reserved almost exclusively for women. Despite the apartment still being the legal private residence for two surviving roommates, police allowed a reporter to roam through the entire apartment where he found a desk “littered with reading matter about homosexuals, including the book, ‘Strange Loves,’ by Dr. LaForest Potter.” Police also gave the reporter a close-up look at William’s body:

Bishop’s hands were tied behind him with a man’s handkerchief and the dressing gown sash, which were twisted together. The wrists and ankles were bound together with the electric extension cord, and a dish towel and another handkerchief were knotted around the face as a gag. … John Berdeaux, sheriff’s homicide investigator, said: “It looks to me like a sadistic murder.”

Detective Charles Sapp handcuffs Thomas F. McDonald. (Photo by the Miami Daily News.)

McDonald — “who has a wife and 6-month-old child,” the Miami News quickly assured its readers — was arrested the next day and charged with murder. Newspapers throughout Florida and the wire services across the country consistently described McDonald as a “burly 210-pound Korea War veteran” every bit as often as they described Bishop as a “hairdresser,” who McDonald had no choice but to kill because Bishop “tried to make some improper advances towards me. I hit him with my first three or four times, and he struck back and got me on the jaw twice. He fell when I hit him again.” McDonald also had no choice but to tie him up “because I figured he might follow me,” what with Bishop being unconscious and all. McDonald also insisted that he wasn’t gay. “I never had any use for them and I still don’t,” he protested. The newspapers’ subtext was clear: they both were guilty — and the murderer was also a victim. “It was almost like a put-down to William,” said Judy, “when it was noted in the newspaper that he was a hairdresser, and that kept coming up. Why did they have to repeat it so many times?”

William’s family found out about his murder the same way everyone else did: through the papers. Judy was in school when “one person came up to me, and it was when that article in the Bangor Daily News happened. She came up and said, ‘Did you know your uncle was murdered in Florida?’ And I was absolutely stunned. That’s how I found out.”

She continued: “I went home for lunch and I told my mom what had happened, and I think she said, ‘Your grandmother just found out in the newspaper that William had been murdered.’ So I don’t think anybody called to break the news. I was always told that they found out in the newspaper, which to me is just not right.”

Judy doesn’t remember there being a funeral, nor does she remember anyone in the family talking about William’s death. “I mean, it was like nobody was supposed to know about this. … Which seemed strange to me, you know? I think the family was dysfunctional in the fact that I suspect they knew that there was something, quote-unquote, ‘wrong’ with William, that he wasn’t like the other brothers. I think they just kind of dismissed it and nobody wanted to talk about it.”

She and Chip both think that the family’s discomfort over William’s sexuality and the circumstances surrounding his death were compounded by other dynamics in the family. “I think he grew up in a dysfunctional home because his mother, my grandmother, was an alcoholic,” said Judy. “And I think children that grow up in a home where there’s a parent who is an alcoholic have a very difficult life.” Chip added that William’s mother “also had man-friends that came over a lot and played cards, drank, and whatever… Mom used to talk about.”

“He had five other brothers that lived a very hard life,” Chip added. “I mean, my dad dropped out of high school in the eighth grade to go work in the woods to help the family. My dad went into the service and had a very bad time in World War II, where most of the people in each of his squads were killed. He came out, like, the only guy, a couple of times. He did a lot of killing over there in Italy. He come back and, my mother always told me, was very hardened. He wasn’t the same guy when he came back. So I would image when this came out about William, he did not want to hear this at all! And I suspect that, he also had a couple other brothers that also served, and they were probably of the same mentality and feeling that they did not want this. I think they really did everything that they could to suppress it.”

McDonald went on trial that May, where he repeated his claim that Bishop made improper advances. McDonald reacted by hitting Bishop on the head with an ash tray and tying him up. One press report included this detail:

McDonald said he thought of the idea (of tying Bishop up) after recalling how he had seen GIs in Korea bound and gagged the same way — the only difference being the soldiers had been shot through the head.

Other reports stated that the medical examiner determined that Bishop had been “abused sexually.” Judy wondered whether there was some post-traumatic stress playing out. “If William made an advance and he was uncomfortable maybe, it might have just triggered pure rage in this man. I don’t know. I’m just guessing. … I think his war experiences had an effect on him. It couldn’t help but have an effect.” She also noticed that McDonald only had two defense witnesses: his wife, Joan, who was then twenty-one years old and raising their infant daughter, and a “Mrs. J.E. McDonald” of Chelsea, Massachusetts. “It was just so sad to read that. It must have been terrible for that family as it was for our family. And it was interesting, too, that McDonald’s mother lived in the Boston area and that’s where I live. She lived in Chelsea, right outside Boston, and I live in Ashland, which is about twenty-five miles west.”

As we ended our phone conversation, Judy was reflective: “I’ve thought a lot today about his pain in being a gay man and probably not getting any support from family and friends. That’s got to be very hurtful. And I wonder if William didn’t divorce himself from the family when he went to Florida to live, if he had just had enough and wanted to start anew. Because with the sodomy episode in Maine and the small town gossip, it must have been gut-wrenching for him.”

HeadstoneAt the time we spoke on the phone, she and Chip didn’t even know where William was buried. A few days later, I got a couple of emails from Chip. The ring that McDonald stole was recovered and had been returned to the family. The diamond was removed and placed in a new setting. It is now a treasured heirloom. Chip was also relieved to find William’s final resting place in the East Millinocket Cemetery — William’s info was missing from the cemetery’s registry. “It really made my day in knowing his five brothers were able to step up and do right by William,” he wrote. He also noticed that the headstone got William’s name backwards — “Bert William” instead of William Bert.


Here is some additional biographical information that I’ve been able to uncover:

Thomas Francis McDonald, William’s killer, was born on March 13, 1933 in Everett, Massachusetts, to David C. McDonald and Jessie E. (Marshall) McDonald. He died on July 29, 1994 in Boston at the age of sixty-one, which suggests that he was paroled sometime before he died. If his daughter is still alive today, she would be sixty-one years old. If his wife, Joan, is still alive, she would be eighty-two.

Edward Bernard Hedgepeth, one of William’s roommates, was born on January 20, 1927 in Nash County, North Carolina. He apparently changed his name in 1956, just a year after the murder, to Edward Bernard Edwards, taking his mother’s maiden name. He was still living in Miami in 1984 and in North Miami in 1992. He passed away there on January 4, 2002, just shy of his seventy-fifth birthday.

William H. Tower, William’s other roommate, was born sometime around 1932 or 1933. I have been unable to find any further information about him. If he is still alive today, he would be eighty-three years old.

If you or someone you know has any information about William Bishop or anyone else in this story, please contact me here.

Publisher pulls David Barton’s book of lies about Jefferson

Timothy Kincaid

August 9th, 2012

Former Texas Republican Party Co-Chair and evangelical “historian” David Barton is a darling of conservative Christians who believe that America is a Christian Nation and that God hand-selected very devout men to bring about it’s creation and that whole “separation of church and state” thing is just a fiction created to exclude Christians from their rightful role in government. He has for several years appeared on Christian television with stories that confirm their beliefs.

Earlier this year he set out to “debunk” the horrible lies that liberals and atheists were saying about revered Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. In his book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, Barton bets his reputation on articulating just how and why history backs up his claim that Jefferson was a devout Christian (of Barton’s flavor) who opposed slavery, and that the Founding Fathers really set out to enshrine religious principles in the Constitution rather than protect the citizenry from religious coercion.

He just rolled snake eyes.

Evangelical Christian professor and blogger Warren Throckmorton was long been on a campaign of debunking Barton’s absurd assertions. In May, he and fellow Grove City College professor Michael Coulter authored Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, in which they use documents (often more complete examples of Barton’s snippets) to disprove his revisionist history.

This encouraged others to take a closer look at Barton’s historical claims. For example, Greg Forster writing for First Things, a project of The Institute on Religion and Public Life, found his claims about John Locke to be, well, let him say it:

I should note for the record that I’m not only a conservative (both theologically, as an evangelical, and politically, as a Republican) but one with a track record of defending Locke against claims that he was a deist or that his philosophy is antithetical to Christianity. As providence would have it, just over a week ago I published an article on how Locke’s Reasonableness helped me come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Yet Barton’s attempt to fit Locke into his larger historical narrative forces him into numerous distortions. Moreover, the article contains a number of incidental facutal errors that don’t even advance his thesis, indicating that his inability to write reliable history stretches beyond ideological cheerleading and into outright incompetence.

Criticism mounted – much of it from fellow conservative Christians who were offended by the blatancy of the dishonesty. But the final straw was when a coalition of Cincinnati area pastors – including several African-American pastors – threatened to boycott the Christian book publisher that printed Barton’s book.

Bishop Dwight Wilkins, president of The Amos Project, said, “We have privately approached Thomas Nelson about our concerns, with no resolution.” The pastors/church leaders pointed to four major concerns the group has with The Jefferson Lies:

1. It glosses over Thomas Jefferson’s unorthodox and heretical beliefs about Jesus Christ;
2. It minimizes and justifies Thomas Jefferson’s racism;
3. It excuses Thomas Jefferson’s practice of enslaving African-Americans.
4. The Jefferson Lies is riddled with factual distortions and falsehoods.

Rev. Damon Lynch said, “David Barton falsely claims that Thomas Jefferson was unable to free his slaves.” In fact, Jefferson was allowed to free his slave under Virginia law, but failed to do it. The Jefferson Lies glosses over Jefferson’s real record on slaveholding, and minimizes Jefferson’s racist views.

So today David Barton’s publisher, Thomas Nelson, has announced that they will cease publication and distribution of The Jefferson Lies. Because, ironically, it is lies: (World)

Casey Francis Harrell, Thomas Nelson’s director of corporate communications, told me the publishing house “was contacted by a number of people expressing concerns about [The Jefferson Lies].” The company began to evaluate the criticisms, Harrell said, and “in the course of our review learned that there were some historical details included in the book that were not adequately supported. Because of these deficiencies we decided that it was in the best interest of our readers to stop the publication and distribution.”

Barton stands by his story, asserts that other publishers are ready to take up the book, claims Throckmorton is nuts, and blusters about a room full of PhD’s who endorse him but insist on remaining anonymous. But he has taken a serious blow. In the field of history, your credibility is your meal ticket. Once it has been proven that you’re a liar, you no longer have much to contribute.

The last of the first: Axel Axgil

Timothy Kincaid

November 1st, 2011

Eigel and Axel Axgil. photo - Rex Wockner

There are few opportunities to be first at anything. And even fewer to be first at a truly revolutionary social declaration that would ultimately come to receive sanction in nearly all of Western Europe, much of the Americas, and which is growing to become the accepted minimum of civilized nations.

But Axel Axgil and Eigel Axgil were first.

In 1989, they were the first couple in the world to receive official state-sanctioned recognition under Denmark’s new Registered Partnership Law. This honor was in recognition of the decades long campaign for rights that the two had made their life’s work. Axel is credited for being the founder of the Danish gay rights movement in 1948.

Eigel passed away in 1995 and Axel left us on Saturday. In tribute, let’s consider the words of advice he gave in 1989:

“Be open. Come out. Keep fighting. This is the only way to move anything. If everyone comes out of the closet then this will happen everywhere.”

A Same-Sex Marriage In 1877

Homer Thiel

August 15th, 2011

[Homer Thiel is a Tucson-based historical archeologist, genealogist, and a good friend of mine. An article he wrote, “An 1887 Same-Sex Marriage In Nevada,” appears in this month’s issue of American Ancesters, published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Copies of the magazine can be purchased for $4.95 plus shipping by calling 888-296-3447. And you can check out the day-to-day happenings in Homer’s World at his blog.]

Opponents of same sex marriage would like everyone to think that the desire for gays and lesbians to marry their partners is a very recent phenomenon. A while ago, when I was reading through 19th century Arizona newspapers, I came across a cryptic mention of a same sex marriage that took place in 1877 in Nevada. Further research revealed the fascinating life story of Sarah Maud Pollard, who, as Samuel M. Pollard, married in Tuscarora, Elko County, Nevada Territory to Marancy Hughes on September 29, 1877. An article I prepared on Pollard has just appeared in American Ancestors magazine, published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. A condensed version of Pollard’s life story is presented here.

Sarah Pollard was born in 1846 in New York, the daughter of a middle class merchant family. After working in a shoe factory in Massachusetts and sewing shirts in New York, she headed west to Colorado in the 1870s. She caused a stir because of her masculine appearance. Around 1876 she moved to Nevada and took up wearing male clothing in order to find work and she started calling herself  “Sam.” She met young Marancy Hughes, born in 1861 in Missouri, and actively courted her. Hughes’ family hated Pollard and the couple eloped on September 28, 1877.

New Orleans Times-Picayune article about the Pollard marriage, June 23, 1878. (Click to enlarge.)

They were happily married for six months, and then Marancy broke the secret. The small silver-mining town of Tuscarora, Nevada was transfixed by the story. The matter ended up in court and after Marancy testified, a dramatic re-union took place. Stories about the troubled marriage were carried in newspapers across the country (even appearing in a New Zealand paper). The couple broke up two more times, before Marancy moved on to a marriage with a man in 1880.

Sarah moved to Minnesota to start a new life by 1883, working by herself on a farm. The story of her successful farming career again made national newspapers, which noted she wore a bloomers-type outfit while plowing. By the 1890s she had met a woman named Helen Stoddard, a schoolteacher who was born in 1864 in Vermont. In later census records Helen was listed as her partner or companion. Sarah died in 1929, and Helen paid for her arrangements at a local funeral home, the owners puzzling over the relationship of the two women.

The stories of gay and lesbian Americans prior to recent times have largely been lost or hidden. Within my own family, a lesbian great aunt has been “straightened up.” Sarah Pollard is an unusual case in that is has been easy to locate information on her unconventional life in late 19th and early 20th century America. Like thousands of modern-day Americans, she wanted to marry her same sex partner. Her first relationship failed, large because she took on a masculine role, a major taboo of the time. Later she returned to feminine attire, while taking up a typically masculine career, and settled into a second, long lasting partnership with Helen Stoddard.

Last Known “Pink Triangle” Holocaust Survivor Dies

Jim Burroway

August 4th, 2011

Rudolf Brazda, who is believed to be the last surviving gay Holocaust survivor, has died at the age of 98. The Berlin branch of the Lesbian and Gay Association said that he died on Wednesday. He died peacefully in his sleep in a nursing home, where he resided since last June.

Born in 1913, Brazda grew up in Meuselwitz near the Czech border, where he frequently ran into trouble with local authorities over his homosexuality. Meuselwitz later became the site for a subcamp for the Buchenwald concentration camp. Brazda spent three years from 1942 through 1945 at Buchenwald, after having been convicted of homosexuality by the Nazis as a “repeat offender.” After the war, he moved to the Alsace region of eastern France. Last year, he co-authored Itinerary of a Pink Triangle about his internment, forced labor, beatings, and harassment. The book is not yet available in English.

During the Nazi regime, an estimated 54,000 men were arrested by the Nazis under Paragraph 175, the criminal code which outlawed male homosexuality. Upwards of 15,000 of them were sent to concentration camps, where it is estimated that approximately 60% died. The end of the war meant liberation for the much larger interned populations of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, and other undesirables, but allied forces often returned gay men to post-war prisons to continue to serve out their terms. Homosexuality wasn’t formally decriminalized in Germany until 1994.

Brazda’s funeral will be held on Monday. In accordance with his will, Brazda’s remains will be cremated and his ashes placed alongside those of Edward Meyer, his life partner of more than 50 years who died in 2003.

Earlier this year, Brazda was awarded France’s Legion of Honor. An interview with Brazda was posted on YouTube last October.

YouTube Preview Image

Gender challenging caveman

Timothy Kincaid

April 6th, 2011

Questions about gender and gender roles are certainly not new ones. A recent excavation in the Czech Republic illustrate that atraditional sexuality was recognized 3,000 5,000 years ago. (Mail Online)

During that period, men were traditionally buried lying on their right side with the head pointing towards the west; women on their left side with the head facing east.

In this case, the man was on his left side with his head facing west. Another clue is that men tended to be interred with weapons, hammers and flint knives as well as several portions of food and drink to accompany them to the other side.

Women would be buried with necklaces made from teeth, pets, and copper earrings, as well as domestic jugs and an egg-shaped pot placed near the feet.

The ‘gay caveman’ was buried with household jugs, and no weapons.

Whether gay, transgender, intersexed, or for some other reason, exceptions to very rigid gender rules suggest a knowledge of divergence and perhaps even an acceptance.

Kameny On Your Kindle

Jim Burroway

March 23rd, 2011

…the government’s policies…are a stench in the nostrils of decent people, an offense against morality, an abandonment of reason, an affront to human dignity, an improper restraint upon proper freedom and liberty, a disgrace to any civilized society, and a violation of all that this nation stands for.

LGBT pioneer activist Frank Kameny fired off those words in a petition he filed with the Supreme Court. The petition was to appeal a lower court decision upholding Kameny’s firing from his job as an astronomer for the Army Map Service in 1957 because of his homosexuality. Gay people were prohibited from Federal employment due to a 1953 Executive order by President Eisenhower. The Supreme Court denied his petition to overturn that Executive Order fifty years ago this week.

Kameny’s historic petition has not been available, until now. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s denial of that petition, Petition Denied, Revolution Begun: Frank Kameny Petitions the Supreme Court is now available as a Kindle ebook. Editor Charles Francis created the edition along with some background information.

Frank Kameny with an original picket from 1965

Kameny went on to co-found the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., which in 1963 launched a long campaign to overturn sodomy laws. He participated in the very first picket line in front of the White House on April 17, 1965. He was also an instrumental player in the fight to remove homosexuality from the American Psychological Association’s list of mental disorders. In 1971, he became the first openly gay candidate for the U.S. Congress when he ran for D.C’s non-voting Congressional delegate.

In 2009, the U.S. government officially repudiated Kameny’s firing when John Berry, the openly gay Director of the Office of Personnel Management, delivered a formal apology during a special OPM ceremony in his honor. Upon receiving the apology, Frank Kameny tearfully replied, “Apology accepted.”

Frank Kameny is 85 and is still active in Washington, D.C. His home was designated as a D.C. Historic Landmark by the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Review Board in honor of his activism. His papers are now in the Library of Congress, and a collection of original picket signs, a “Gay is Good” button (he invented the phrase), and other memorabilia are a part of the Smithsonian’s collection.

Good-bye and thank you John Gruber

Timothy Kincaid

March 22nd, 2011

The last member of the original Mattachine Society has died. (SFGN)

In April of 1951, Gruber and his boyfriend Konrad “Steve” Stevens attended a meeting hosted by a gay advocacy group soon to be known as the Mattachine Society. Soon Gruber and Stevens were invited to join the other founders: Harry Hay, Rudi Gernreich, Chuck Rowland, Bob Hull and Dale Jennings. According to historian John D’Emilio, it was Gruber who suggested the name Mattachine Society for the new group, inspired by Hay’s talk about medieval “mattachines.”

“Gruber and Stevens were the only two of the original seven without strong left-wing ties or sympathies,” wrote the historian John Loughery, “but their physical charm, youth, and eagerness made them highly desirable additions and a speedy and significant difference in attracting new members.” Gruber readily embraced his “newly chosen family,” and brokered a meeting between the Society and Gruber’s famous friends Isherwood and Hooker.

Gruber was 23 when he joined Mattachine and I’m sure he had no idea how this little group of sexual outlaws and political outcasts with quirky personalities and no template to follow would place the first stones in what would be the foundation for a world-wide gay political movement.

(Bay Area Reporter Obituary)

Two Psychiatrists Advocate For Gays In the Military — In 1945

Jim Burroway

June 1st, 2010

In any society where males are herded together in closely-knit, interdependent groups, the problem of homosexuality invariably manifests itself. Such has been the case in the military service, to the extent that a greater of homosexuals have come under the scrutiny of psychiatrists than ordinarily are observed in civilian life. We have had the opportunity to study a large group of homosexuals, and our experiences have led us to believe that the subject of homosexuality is not as nebulous as one might gather from the literature. It became increasingly apparent to us that it has been unnecessarily distorted and confused by a conglomeration of viewpoints, and that clarification of the homosexual personality has been long in order.

That was the opening paragraph to a study published in the March 1945 edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry. Titled “The Homosexual as a Personality Type,” the article was written by Lt. Herbert Greenspan and Commander John D. Campbell of the U.S. Navy Reserves, two psychiatrists tasked with providing psychiatric counseling and evaluations for Navy personnel who had fallen under the suspicion of being “unfit for military service.” Many of those referred to the authors were suffering from a variety of legitimate mental and emotional disorders, but some were referred because they were suspected of being gay.

The psychiatric profession in 1945 had no official position on whether homosexuality was a mental disorder.  The first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,which would define what was and was not a mental illness, wouldn’t come out until 1952. When it did, homosexuality made the list and stayed there for another twenty years.

But back in 1945 the debate was still underway. But unlike later debates, that one wasn’t between whether gays were normal or ill. The choice then was between being mentally ill or a criminal delinquent (or both; diminished capacity didn’t always garner much sympathy for gay people in some quarters). While the two opposing camps were arguing it out in the professional literature, those arguing for the mental illness model were clearly gaining ground. And they were easy to identify; they tended to describe gay people using the relatively new word “homosexual,” or perhaps, occasionally, the not yet anacronistic “invert.” 

But you were also just as likely to enounter journals describing gay people as delinquents, sexual deviants and perverts. Seeing these terms today is jarring, especially when you read them being used with the same professional detachment that was used in describing someone as an asthmatic, autistic, hysteric or schizophrenic — four more conditions which, like homosexuality, were often blamed on poor parenting or bad character. In that light, the emerging opinion that homosexuality was a neurosis was actually the more enlightened opinion.

And this is what makes Greenspan and Campbell’s 1945 article particularly interesting. They went beyond the “enlightened” position and argued that homosexuals were actually quite normal. They called homosexuality “a congenital anomaly rather than a disease,” although they based that opinion on some decidedly unscientific observations:

Additional substantiation for the biological theory of homosexuality is found in the predominance of female characteristics in these individuals. Much has been said both pro and con as to the significance of these and disagreement is still pronounced. However, it has been our experience that the majority of inverts display evidences of physical as well as psychic traits of effeminacy — an effeminate manner, appearance, temperament and interests. Delicacy of speech and movement, high-pitched voices, esthetic interests, feminine body configuration and “white-collar” occupations were particularly noticeable.

Greenspan and Campbell’s reasons for supporting a biological basis isn’t compelling by today’s standards.  But their methods, such as they were, were standard practices at the time. Casual observances were routinely the basis for a whole range of supposedly scientific theories throughout the “soft” sciences. Just a few years later, Alfred Kinsey’s would try to fix that by introducing a measure of mathematical precision to the study of human sexuality. But even that pioneering effort was abysmally primitive and seriously flawed by today’s standards. Yet, for another thirty years, as unreliable as those statistics were, they were the best we had. Given that context, Greenspan and Campbell can be forgiven of their lack of scientific rigor. It’s just the way things were back then.

But what they lacked in statistical sophistication, they made up for with some pretty compelling logic. Blaming “bad environment” for criminal behavior was an emerging theme in psychiatry, and it was in this sense that Greenspan and Campbell chose to address the environmental issues which supposedly would have driven these men to “social delinquency”:

Further contradiction of the environment theory can be found in the obvious fact that there is a much stronger environmental force acting on the individual to become heterosexual, than homosexual. Most of our patients originated from small communities where there was every influence and reason to conform with accepted sexual practices. Yet, the direction of their original sex impulse persisted in spite of an environment which not only fostered, but made it mandatory that they comply with heterosexual demands. By the same token as acquired homosexuality, why did not heterosexuality become acquired? It would appear that there is a force at work in the homosexual, physiological in nature, which is more powerful than the family customs, laws and social expectations of his environment. Apparently, these so-called contrary sexuals cannot acquire heterosexuality, even under favorable circumstances, as some would have us believe that homosexuality can be acquired under conditions far less conducive.

This passage shows that Greenspan and Campbell were keenly aware of the intense pressures their gay subjects struggled with. But despite those pressures, their charges were still unable to conform to the dictates of the day. Clearly they were not mere criminals.

But were they mentally ill? Greenspan and Campbell looked again at their charges and said no. The men they saw were fully functioning, competent, conscientious, empathetic, nondelusional, nonpsychotic — in short, they suffered none of the conditions that people with mental illnesses experienced. Further, the authors were impressed by their gay charges’ adaptability to their hostile environments, and they admired their clients’ many talents — the very same Nöel Coward-like characteristics which likely brought them to their superiors’ attention in the first place:

The homosexual personality is usually intelligent, and frequently above the average. His mental processes do not differ in many respects from those of the normal individual… Evidences of his homosexual constitution are found in his hobbies, artistic interests, pseudosophistry, feeling of intellectual superiority and pursuit of a career. Esthetic interests in art, music, literature, the theater, etc., are particularly common. Dealing in the abstract entices the homosexual mentality, probably more on an emotional than an intellectual basis, and represents a sublimation of his homosexual tendencies. Many dabble in poetry, art, sculpture and drama; a delicate appreciation of colors, fabrics and the arts usually resolves in such occupations as beautician, music teacher, actor, bookkeeper, etc. In the military service we find homosexuals in the capacities of hospital corpsmen, yeomen and chaplain’s assistants. In our experience it was unusual for a homosexual not to like music in one form or another.

Consequently, Greenspan and Campbell found huge differences between these well-functioning gay men and those who suffered from genuine mental illnesses:

The psychopath is erratic, impulsive, restless, unreliable and devoid of conscience. He suffers with a poverty of emotion which makes it impossible for him to experience any qualms about his misdeeds or others’ misfortunes. The homosexual is the exact antithesis of all this, for we find him conscientious, reliable, well-integrated and abounding in emotional feeling and sincerity. The homosexuals observed in the service have been key men in responsible positions whose loss was acutely felt in their respective departments.

…Both the psychiatric and social status of the invert is becoming increasingly more clear with the advancement of clinical psychiatry, and it is encouraging to note that society is being weaned away from the fallacy that homosexualism is a crime. We are gradually coming to the realization that the homosexual suffers from a regrettable sexual anomaly, but otherwise is a normal, productive individual, who is neither a burden nor a detriment to society.

Sixty-five years later, LGBT servicemembers are still being kicked out of the military, and their losses are still being acutely felt. Some things haven’t changed. Not yet, anyway.

But it soon will, because sixty-five years later, we did pass another milestone that Greenspan and Campbell predicted. It was just this year, for the first time in history, that a clear majority of Americans finally determined that LGBT people are normal, productive people who are neither a burden nor a detriment to society.

Progress has been frustratingly slow, hasn’t it? Greenspan and Campbell were a whole lifetime ahead of everyone else. It’s nice to see the rest of the world finally start to catch up.

Stories From the Frontlines: A Love Letter to a G.I.

Jim Burroway

May 28th, 2010

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) kicked off its “Stories From the Frontline” series as part of a campaign specifically targeted toward adding the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Authorization Bill, which the SLDN saw as the best opportunity to repeal the ban on gays in the military. With yesterday’s votes in the Senate Armed Services Committee and in the full House of Representatives, that strategy has come to fruition.

And so it is fitting that on the day before Memorial Day weekend, the SLDN’s final letter is in the form of a love letter written during World War II, on the occasion of their anniversary. The letter was originally published in the September 1961 issue of ONE Magazine. (You can read about ONE Magazine and the amazing contribution it made to furthering freedom of speech for LGBT people here.)

The letter, as published in the September 1961 issue of ONE Magazine. (Click to enlarge)

Dear Dave,

This is in memory of an anniversary – the anniversary of October 27th, 1943, when I first heard you singing in North Africa. That song brings memories of the happiest times I’ve ever known. Memories of a GI show troop – curtains made from barrage balloons – spotlights made from cocoa cans – rehearsals that ran late into the evenings – and a handsome boy with a wonderful tenor voice. Opening night at a theatre in Canastel – perhaps a bit too much muscatel, and someone who understood. Exciting days playing in the beautiful and stately Municipal Opera House in Oran – a misunderstanding – an understanding in the wings just before opening chorus.

Drinks at “Coq d’or” – dinner at the “Auberge” – a ring and promise given. The show 1st Armoured – muscatel, scotch, wine – someone who had to be carried from the truck and put to bed in his tent. A night of pouring rain and two very soaked GIs beneath a solitary tree on an African plain. A borrowed French convertible – a warm sulphur spring, the cool Mediterranean, and a picnic of “rations” and hot cokes. Two lieutenants who were smart enough to know the score, but not smart enough to realize that we wanted to be alone. A screwball piano player – competition – miserable days and lonely nights. The cold, windy night we crawled through the window of a GI theatre and fell asleep on a cot backstage, locked in each other’s arms – the shock when we awoke and realized that miraculously we hadn’t been discovered. A fast drive to a cliff above the sea – pictures taken, and a stop amid the purple grapes and cool leaves of a vineyard.

The happiness when told we were going home – and the misery when we learned that we would not be going together. Fond goodbyes on a secluded beach beneath the star-studded velvet of an African night, and the tears that would not be stopped as I stood atop the sea-wall and watched your convoy disappear over the horizon.

We vowed we’d be together again “back home,” but fate knew better – you never got there. And so, Dave, I hope that where ever you are these memories are as precious to you as they are to me.

Goodnight, sleep well my love.

Brian Keith

(Reprinted with permission of ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, www.onearchives.org, ONE Magazine, September 1961)

Exodus Co-Founder: Gay Kids Ending Up On Our Doorstep

A multi-part video interview series with Michael Bussee, co-founder of Exodus International turned critic.

Daniel Gonzales

April 19th, 2010

As we learned earlier this month the thinly veiled  ex-gay front group “American College of Pediatricians” issued a letter to school officials across the country advocating ex-gay therapy for teens questioning their sexual orientation.

Prior to the 2005 controversy where 16 year old Zach Stark was sent to the Love In Action residential ex-gay program against his will few people were aware that children are forced and coerced into exgay programs against their will.

However as this video interview with Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee shows, children have been victims of the ex-gay movement since it first began.  The details are in many ways even more upsetting than Zach’s experience:

(transcript after the jump)

Read the rest of this entry »

Paul Cameron’s experience with censorship

Timothy Kincaid

March 24th, 2010

paul cameronPaul Cameron longs for the good ol’ days when homosexuality was taboo, outlawed, considered a mental illness, a cause for lobotomies or other bizarre experimentation, and unacceptable in polite society.

In a strange turn of events, Cameron’s Family Research Institute briefly got a chance to relive those days, but from the other side. In a move reminiscent of the 50’s, FRI’s March 2010 newsletter was deemed obscene by the US Post Office. (Colorado Springs Gazette)

On March 4, according to the complaint sent to the Postal Service by Cameron’s attorney, the newsletter was delivered to the bulk mailing office on Fountain Boulevard and was initially approved for bulk mailing.

The next day, however, Cameron’s group was informed by postal supervisor Paul Hill that it did not qualify for the nonprofit mailing rate because it violated the regulations against mailing material that was “obscene” and incited forcible resistance to the government, the complaint stated.

Hill later told the group’s representative that the initial decision had been reviewed and the newsletter would be accepted at a slightly higher pre-sorted rate, which Turner said is about 3 cents per piece more than the nonprofit rate.

Cameron does not appear to post his newsletter online in pdf or other whole form. However, the two pieces which we were able to review do not fit the definition of obscene. Offensive, untruthful, and brimming with contempt, but not obscene.

Although FRI is but a vehicle through with Cameron indulges his personal hatred, it is nonetheless a valid non-profit organization and does engage in “educational” activities. And while FRI is listed as a Hate Group by the SPLC (as is anyone who relies too much on Cameron’s claims), the direction of one’s opinion about homosexuality is not cause for denying non-profit status.

Finally the USPS finally did the right thing. After a review by the Postal Service headquarters, the USPS reversed the local decision and restored FRI’s non-profit billing rate.

Ironically, Cameron owes his freedom to mail objectionable materials about homosexuality in part to the “militant homosexual activists” which he so despises. A decision more than 50 years ago by the Supreme Court had cleared FRI from the USPS’ objections to materials about homosexuality.

Up until 1957 material that was depraved or corrupting of young mind was considered obscene. And obscene material was not protected under the First Amendment. But in that year, the SCOTUS changed the definition of obscene to be “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest.”

ONE, October 1954But the relevant application of this decision was the following year in One, Inc. v. Olesen, a gay rights case.

The Postmaster of Los Angeles had declared that the October 1954 issue of One Magazine, an advocacy, education, and general interest magazine for gays and lesbians, was obscene and thus banned from the postal service. The magazine lost in court in March 1956 and at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in February 1957.

But the Supreme Court didn’t even wait for oral testimony and on January 13, 1958, acting collectively, issued a one sentence reversal based on the previous year’s decision thereby determining that material about homosexuality was not necessarily obscene.

So Paul Cameron has a pre-Stonewall gay publication to thank for his postal discount. But somehow I suspect that his “thank you” card has been lost in the mail.

Florida lawmaker wants to bring back Mayberry

Timothy Kincaid

March 8th, 2010

Andy-Barney-OpieFlorida State Rep. Stephen Precourt (R) wants good wholesome movies and television that have family values and none of them nasty gay people. Ya know, just like the good ol’ 60’s type of television which depicted white middle-class people solving real life issues like what to do when Barney and Thelma Lou want to set Andy up on a blind date with her cousin Karen.

Precourt so longs for entertainment from the days of black and white TV that he’s willing to pay good money for it. Well, the public’s good money, that is. (Palm Beach Post)

Movies and TV shows with gay characters could be ineligible for a “family-friendly” tax credit in Florida under a little-noticed provision tucked into a $75 million incentive package that Republican House leaders hope will attract film and entertainment jobs to the state.

The bill would prohibit productions with “nontraditional family values” from receiving a so-called family-friendly tax credit. But it doesn’t define what “nontraditional family values” are, something the bill’s sponsor had a hard time doing, too.

While some folks were having trouble understanding what “nontraditional family values” means, not Charlie Crist.

“Let me define it in the positive,” said Gov. Charlie Crist, who wants lawmakers to approve a $55 million corporate income tax cut he has proposed. “A traditional family is a marriage between a man and a woman. That’s traditional.”

And if you’re still unsure, Precourt has an example

“Think of it as like Mayberry,” state Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando, said, referring to The Andy Griffith Show. “That’s when I grew up — the ’60s. That’s what life was like. I want Florida to be known for making those kinds of movies: Disney movies for kids and all that stuff. Like it used to be, you know?”

Ah, Mayberry. Opie, whistling, fishin’, traditional families… oh, wait.

Was there anyone actually married in Mayberry? Andy? Barney? Aunt Bee? Anyone?

Dr. Carl Weber Can Cure You

Timothy Kincaid

September 24th, 2009

Sometimes we have to recall that there are some extremes out there. And one such person is Dr. Carl Weber of the International Institute for Psychiatric Medical Research.

Dr. Weber, on his website claims:

What is the cure rate for homosexuals?
Virtually 100%. This is not consistent with current teachings but proper treatment in the western nations has not been available to patients since the late 1950s. Those nations which allowed treatment of sexual disorders have had very high cure rates of all psychosexual disorders.

Dr. Weber’s methods are quite international in their research:

Dr. Eric Svenson pioneered work demonstrating electroshock treatments following castration showed great promise for the more seriously disordered. When followed by a strict regiment of drug therapy for life nearly all patients never have return of symptoms. Japanese and Soviet researchers found that combinations of all these techniques for treatment have very high cure rates and insignificant fatalities when performed properly. Lobotomy, castration and electroshock, followed by drug therapy for the most difficult cases had 100% success in curing the patients and under 22% fatality in our own studies conducted in Argentina, Brazil, and Columbia. The milder cases had few fatalities.

Soviet studies by Dr. Sergei Voronkova and Dr. Andre Kotov beginning in 1946 on sexual criminals and children showing deviant sexual development demonstrated castration to be nearly 100% effective when performed early in curing the patient but castration alone is much less effective with older patients. Partial excision of the hypothalamus followed by drug and or aversion therapy is highly effective as his data shows.

Dr. Ryuiji Kajitsuka’s research near Harbin, China concluded that many suffering from various psychosexual disorders responded positively to aversion and chemical therapy when isolated for long periods during the treatments. Typical isolation during treatment was thirty months. Of thirty seven patients twenty three were cured without lobotomy or castration. Only nine were continuing drug therapy after two years and none had been arrested for sexual crimes including sodomy.

Alas, Lobotomy, castration, electroshock, induced vomiting, and years of isolation they are not generally offered in the United States as a cure for homosexuality. But Dr. Weber has hope that that due to “costs associated with treating HIV related disease” laws can be changed.

We are waiting for research to be approved and legal changes regarding the mentally impaired and their supposed right to refuse necessary treatment before we can continue here. Until it is approves it is largely academic. Parents needing treatment for their children must leave the country to have them treated and insurance does not cover the cost.

And loving parents can rest assured that it works. Consider Henry’s story:

Interviews demonstrated aggressive tendency and because of his age [19] castration was performed followed by weeks of further interviews. He continued displaying resentment of males and his doctors in particular. It was apparent that the castration alone could not make him productive and content.

Henry underwent partial excision of the his left frontal lobe and radiation therapy exposure to the hypothalamus 4 weeks after his first surgery. This was followed by aversion therapy consisting of exposure to male genitalia while injections of apomorphine to induce vomiting twice daily. His aggression ceased almost immediately and after only two weeks treatment he no longer showed any symptoms of psychosexual disorders.

It’s hard to imagine why he was resentful or paranoid about doctors. Well, before they hacked out chunks of his brain, that is.

Now, Dr. Weber is an anomaly. His intentions are hardly the medical standard or considered humane by even many of the more strident anti-gay activists. Or, not these days.

But let us not forget that there are still plenty of people walking around today who see homosexuality as such a curse, sin, or social threat that they could readily justify actions such as these in an effort to “cure and rehabilitate” gay people.

Today In History: “Homo Nest Raided”

Jim Burroway

June 28th, 2009
The Stonwall Inn raid. (NY Daily News)

The Stonewall Inn raid. (Joseph Ambrosini, NY Daily News)

Forty years ago today, in the very early morning hours of June 28, 1969, New York police attempted a raid on a Greenwich Village gay nightclub known as the Stonewall Inn. This wasn’t the first time New York police raided a gay bar, but this was the first time that patrons — for whatever reason; nobody knows exactly why — decided to fight back. The situation escalated into a full-blown riot that night, with more rioting breaking out again the next night and over the next several days.

To get just a small sense of the daily insults those patrons experienced back then, all you have to do is read the news reports about the rebellion. The New York Times buried its first day’s coverage to a very small article on page 33. If coverage was more prominent elsewhere, it was also more contemptuous. Kevin Neff at The Washington Blade posted this mocking report by the New York Daily News:

Homo Nest Raided
Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad

By JERRY LISKER, New York Daily News, July 6, 1969

She sat there with her legs crossed, the lashes of her mascara-coated eyes beating like the wings of a hummingbird. She was angry. She was so upset she hadn’t bothered to shave.

A day old stubble was beginning to push through the pancake makeup. She was a he. A queen of Christopher Street.

Last weekend the queens had turned commandos and stood bra strap to bra strap against an invasion of the helmeted Tactical Patrol Force. The elite police squad had shut down one of their private gay clubs, the Stonewall Inn at 57 Christopher St., in the heart of a three-block homosexual community in Greenwich Village. Queen Power reared its bleached blonde head in revolt.

New York City experienced its first homosexual riot.

Last Thursday, the New York Daily News ran a very different story about the Stonewall riots. This time, coverage was considerably more respectful:

Veterans of those 1969 riots outside of Stonewall – a then Mafia-run, Christopher St. bar that allowed gays to dance and drink – are still focusing on the fights ahead of them, namely legalizing same-sex marriage.

“The parallel is gay people are still fighting to be seen as full human beings and want someone to have and to hold. And the first place we were able to have and to hold is when we danced at Stonewall,” said Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, 61.

Lanigan-Schmidt, who was 18 when he left his parents’ New Jersey home with less than a dollar in his pocket, saw the Stonewall as a place where he could finally be free, a spot where he could slow-dance and socialize openly.

“You felt protected there,” he said. “It became a place that I was able to be myself.”

When a phalanx of police raided the place and broke down its double doors on June 28, launching days of protests outside, patrons had reached their breaking point.

“That night was a joyous night for a lot of us,” said Jerry Hoose, 64, who described the atmosphere as like Carnival, but with energy and purpose.

The great saga of the Stonewall Inn Rebellion has been told and retold like a great legend around the communal fire. It’s a story that would fill a book, and for some that book would be a very sacred one. Instead of trying to retell the whole story, I’ll simply refer you to the Wikipedia page, which is a decent primer on those pivotal events. Better still, look at the original police reports and first-hand accounts at historian Jonathan Ned Katz’s amazing OutHistory.

White House protest, April 1965

White House protest, April 1965

But like all creation myths told around the campfire, this one often presumes that Stonewall was where everything began, that before Stonewall there was nothing. Of course, we know that’s not true. Two and a half years before Stonewall, there was the Black Cat riot in Los Angeles, when patrons at the Black Cat bar fought back against police who tried to arrest them for exchanging New Year’s kisses.  (Police charged one couple for kissing each other “on the mouth for three to five seconds.”) A year before the Black Cat riot, there were sit-ins that led to a riot in San Francisco when Compton’s Cafeteria, refusing to serve its gay customers, called the police. A year before the Compton Cafeteria riot, there were sit-ins at two restaurants in Philadelphia which led to their backing down from similar discriminatory practices. That same year and as a separate set of events, pickets first appeared in front of the White House and Independence Hall. And eleven years before Stonewall, a gay magazine managed to get the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in its favor as it fought indecency charges.

Tensions between LGBT crowd and police continued for several nights after the raid (Larry Morris, New York Times)

Tensions between LGBT crowd and police continued for several nights after the raid (Larry Morris, New York Times)

So if there was a birth of the modern gay-rights movement, it must be marked sometime before Stonewall. To refuse to do so would be to dismiss the remarkable achievements of those who resisted before. The Stonewall rebellion wasn’t much different from previous acts of gay disobedience, but it became different because it happened at a very crucial time.

The Stonewall rebellion caught the American zeitgeist in a way that the Black Cat riot missed, probably because the Black Cat riot, happening when it did in the first few minutes of 1967, was just ever so slightly ahead of its time. America went on to change dramatically between 1967 and 1969. The Summer of Love arrived just a few months following the Black Cat raid in 1967, two beloved leaders were assassinated in 1968, and by 1969 there was widespread campus unrest over the Vietnam War and demands for racial equality. So when Stonewall came around, it wasn’t just a rebellion against a repressive local police force; it became something much bigger because it happened within the context of a much larger set of movements challenging the status quo.

A crowd of gay and lesbian revelers in front of the Stonewall Inn, June 1969, sometime before the raid.

Gays and lesbians in front of the Stonewall Inn, June 1969.

So like all creation myths, it almost doesn’t matter whether Stonewall was the first but only that it happened. It’s Stonewall that has become our touchstone, to stretch a metaphoric pun. And as a touchstone, Stonewall is global. The very word no longer needs translation. Simply utter “Stonewall,” untranslated, to anyone speaking any language today (In Russian for example, just say “Стоунволла,” pronounced “Stounvolla”), and people will know instantly what you’re talking about. I said Stonewall is our creation myth, but since many see it as the birth of the modern gay rights movement (rightly or wrongly), maybe it’s better to say that it’s our Nativity Story. We’ve divided our history between pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall just like Christianity divided the calendar based on another historic Nativity. And as with that Nativity, Stonewall marked the arrival of a new era and nothing would be the same ever again.

But that metaphor — Stonewall as a Nativity story — is unsatisfactory as well. We’re not an ancient people seeking to understand where we came from, nor are we a people awaiting a long-promised messiah who will come to save us. We are American citizens claiming our birthright. While Stonewall is now a universal touchstone the world over, the story of Stonewall is, for us Americans at least, a solidly American story more than anything else. Because they fought back, the Stonewall Inn became our Lexington and the defiant leaflets which littered the streets in the immediate aftermath were our Declaration of Independence. Stonewall reminds us that this imperfect Union still has not delivered on its promises to all its citizens, and Stonewall spurs us on to make this Union more perfect. Stonewall is yet another milestone in our country’s ongoing journey to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. That noble task is not yet finished.

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