In mid-June, LGBTQ history was made in the US Congress when Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced a first-ever resolution “apologizing for the federal government’s discrimination against LGBTQ federal workers and members of the military for over a period of at least 70 years.”
Championed by the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., an organization that takes its name from the pre–Stonewall era group that sought to advance gay civil rights, the resolution was inspired by previous official apologies in American history, including the Acknowledgement and Regret for the Chinese Exclusion Laws (2012), an apology to Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II (1988), and the apologies issued to African Americans for slavery and Jim Crow by the US House of Representatives and the US Senate in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
Among the episodes in the history of anti-gay discrimination and violence in the United States for which the Mattachine Society is seeking an apology from the American government is the arrest of 1 million gay men (one every 10 minutes) from the end of World War II through the 1960s on a wide range of indecency charges, including sodomy, dancing, kissing, or holding hands. There’s also the Lavender Scare, the mid-century witch hunt triggered by President Eisenhower’s 1953 executive order that resulted in the firing of some 10,000 federal workers on the suspicion of homosexuality. That was far more than were dismissed during the Red Scare, the persecution of federal workers suspected of being Communist or of being under the influence of Communism.
Americans know even less about the use during the 1950s and ’60s of “gay conversion therapy” at federal institutions, like Washington, D.C.’s St. Elizabeths Hospital, the first federally operated facility intended to treat the mentally ill. While under treatment at St. Elizabeths, an unknown number of federal workers suspected of homosexuality were subjected, against their will, to barbaric and experimental therapies such as lobotomies and insulin-induced comas with the intension of erasing or altering same-sex attraction.
The extent to which many Americans are familiar with official anti-gay discrimination is likely limited to “don’t ask don’t tell,” the infamous 1993 policy that allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexual orientation a secret. By the time the policy was repealed, in 2011, it had caused the dismissal of 13,000 gays and lesbians from their jobs.
The Mattachine resolution introduced this month comes on the heels of other acts of “gay reparation” at the state and local level. In 2019, the New York Police Department offered an apology for the 1969 violent raid at the Stonewall Inn, the event that sparked the Stonewall Riots. Soon after, the San Francisco Police Department offered its own apology for the Compton’s Cafeteria riot of 1966, an act of resistance against police brutality by the transgender community. In 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a clemency initiative that allows LGBTQ Californians convicted for “vagrancy, loitering, sodomy or other laws used to prosecute people for having consensual adult sex” to apply for a pardon. Newsom also issued a posthumous pardon to the late civil rights leader Bayard Rustin for his arrest in 1953 after being seen having sex with another man in parked car.
Because Americans know so little about the profound history of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the United States, it’s not surprising that there has been never been a national discussion about gay reparations. As a result of this, misconceptions and outright myths abound about what gay reparations actually are.
Based on the experience of nations like Spain, Britain, and Germany, gay reparations are best understood as policies intended to make amends for a history of systemic anti-gay discrimination. But the movement is not one-size-fits-all; nor is it driven by gay people demanding financial compensation simply for claiming an LGBTQ identity, as some foes of the gay community have contended. Instead, the gay reparations movement encompasses a small but eclectic constellation of approaches to repairing the damage done by state-sponsored anti-gay discrimination and violence, with each approach entailing its own policies and philosophical emphases for how to repair that damage.
Among gay reparations, “atonement” is the most popular, and, arguably, the least controversial. It requires only an official apology from the government that conveys an admission of wrongdoing and a pledge to do better going forward. Britain’s Alan Turing Law, enacted in 2017, pioneered this approach. It granted an apology and a posthumous pardon to some 65,000 men convicted of homosexual offenses, of whom 15,000 were still alive. The law honors the memory of the brilliant mathematician credited with accelerating the end of World War II by cracking Germany’s military codes. Turing was sentenced to chemical castration in 1952 for having admitted to a consensual sexual relationship with another man. He was also fired from his government job. Thrown into despair by the nation for which he had done so much for, Turing reportedly committed suicide in 1954. Britain has also apologized for exporting its homophobic laws to its former colonial possessions.
Also prominent is “rehabilitation,” which seeks to restore the character and reputation of those persecuted for their sexual orientation and gender identity. In Spain, LGBTQ people are allowed to petition for “moral rehabilitation,” which includes expunging any records that may have resulted from a criminal prosecution.
There’s also “compensation,” which entails financial payment to the victims of anti-gay discrimination for the loss of wages and pensions that may have resulted from time spent in prison or in a mental institution because of homophobic laws and policies. Canada and Germany are two prominent examples. In both cases, the government established a fund to be disbursed to anyone claiming financial harm because of prosecution for a homosexual offense. Rounding out gay reparations are “remembrance,” or the commemoration of past events of anti-gay discrimination and repression, such as Germany’s memorial to the homosexual men who perished in concentration camps (the so-called “Gay Holocaust), and “truth-telling,” which demands a state-sanctioned narrative that speaks of systemic abuse toward the gay community.
Two factors in global politics account for the seemingly sudden rise of the gay reparations movement. The first one is that “reparations” is now a better and more widely understood concept. A second and less apparent factor is the advent of what some have called the “Age of Apology.” This includes nations apologizing to other nations, but also governments apologizing to their own citizens for historical injustices.
Ultimately, however, the main driver behind gay reparations is found within the gay rights movement itself and its struggle for “full citizenship.” Traditionally, scholars such as T.H. Marshall have defined citizenship as a legal status that emphasizes rights protected by the state and responsibilities to society at large, such as the right to vote and the chance to own property. But in recent years, a more expansive definition of citizenship has emerged that seeks to sketch the non-legal dimensions of citizenship, such as dignity and respect, and more generally a sense of belonging within the political community. It is this newer understanding of citizenship that is driving the gay reparations movement abroad and at home.
Success for the Mattachine resolution in Congress is far from certain. A more modest resolution, the “Lavender Offense Victim Exoneration Act,” or LOVE Act, introduced in 2017 that would compel the federal government to review employee terminations at the State Department during the 1950s and 1960s “due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation” went nowhere in a Republican-controlled Senate.
But there’s reason to hope. The current reckoning with racial injustice should remind Americans that racism and homophobia have always traveled hand-in-hand in American history, a point underscored by the propensity of white supremacists to label civil rights leaders “homos” and “queers.” Moreover, when it comes to gay rights, the United States is slower than many other democracies. By the time marriage equality became US law nationwide, some 20 nations had already legalized gay marriage.
The call for gay reparations offers yet another reminder of how steep a climb the American struggle for LGBTQ equality continues to be.