Whitewashing Gay History

Photo: Jin Lee/Bloomberg/Getty Images

When the news came last June that the New York State Senate had voted to legalize same-sex marriage, I was at a dinner party that felt like New Year’s Eve, only with genuine emotions. Everyone at the table—straight, gay, young, old—was elated. Later, as my wife and I headed home past an Empire State Building ablaze in the rainbow colors of Pride Week, we were still euphoric at having witnessed one of those rare nights when history is made. Same-sex-marriage adversaries constantly proclaim that gay unions threaten “traditional” marriage. But in truth, it’s a boon to discover that a right you’ve taken for granted is so treasured by others that they’ll fight to get their fair share of its rewards—and its trials.

Fran Lebowitz is correct to remind us that not all gay people (any more than all straight people) are beating down the doors to what she calls “the two most confining institutions on the planet, marriage and the military.” But for those who have been, the dawning of marital equality and the demise of “don’t ask, don’t tell” are twin peaks in the checkered cavalcade of American social justice.

Since that night, the good news on gay civil rights has kept coming. This month alone, legislative and judicial actions have made same-sex marriage the law in Washington State and Maryland and nudged it closer to reality in California and, Chris Christie notwithstanding, New Jersey. A Valentine’s week New York Times–CBS News poll, echoing others over the past year, found that Americans now favor marriage over separate-and-unequal civil unions as the legal option for gay couples; less than a third of the public believes that gay families should be denied both. Each day the gay-rights bandwagon attracts unexpected recruits in the vein of the legal odd couple of Ted Olson and David Boies. No less a pitchman than Lloyd Blankfein is making public-service ads for same-sex marriage. Bill O’Reilly is defending Ellen ­DeGeneres from American Family Association vigilantes demanding that JCPenney ditch her as a spokesperson. Being in with the gays, it’s clear, has become a savvy (if not necessarily selfless) way to attach a halo to almost any troubled brand, from Goldman Sachs to some precincts of the Rupert Murdoch empire (though not the New York Post or Wall Street Journal, the only major dailies in the state that disdained large front-page headlines after the Albany victory).

Compared with the other civil-rights battles in America, especially the epic struggle over race that has stained and hobbled the nation since its birth, the fight over gay equality is remarkable for its relative ease, compact chronology, and the happiness of its pending resolution. There’s no happier ending to any plot than a wedding. But, as last June’s celebration has gradually given way to morning-after sobriety, it’s also clear that something is wrong with this cheery picture. Two things, actually.

The first is obvious: Full equality for gay Americans is nowhere near at hand. One of America’s two major political parties is still hell-bent on thwarting and even rolling back gay rights much as Goldwater Republicans and Dixie Democrats (on their way to joining the GOP) resisted civil-rights legislation and enforcement in the sixties. In most states, sexual orientation can still be used to deny not only marriage but also jobs and housing, as well as to curtail adoption rights. America’s dominant religions remain largely hostile to homosexuality, and America’s most cherished secular pastime, professional sports, is essentially a no-gay zone. The bullying of gay and transgendered children remains a national crisis. While Nielsen tells us that gay concerns and characters are “the new mainstream” of television—figuring in 24 percent of broadcast prime-time programming last season—we do not yet live in the United States of Glee.

The second thing that’s wrong with the picture is far less obvious because it has been willfully obscured. In the outpouring of provincial self-congratulation that greeted the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York, some of the discomforting history that preceded that joyous day has been rewritten, whitewashed, or tossed into a memory hole. We—and by we, I mean liberal New Yorkers like me, whether straight or gay, and their fellow travelers throughout America—would like to believe that the sole obstacles to gay civil rights have been the usual suspects: hidebound religious leaders both white and black, conservative politicians (mostly Republican), fundamentalist Christian and Muslim zealots, and unreconstructed bigots. What’s been lost in this morality play is the role that many liberal politicians and institutions have also played in slowing and at some junctures halting gay civil rights in recent decades.

It was, after all, the trustees of the Smithsonian Institution, not a Bible Belt cultural outpost, who bowed to pressure from the militant Catholic League just fifteen months ago to censor the work of a gay American artist who had already been silenced, long ago, by AIDS. It was a Democratic president, with wide support from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who in 1996 signed the Defense of Marriage Act, one of the most discriminatory laws ever to come out of Washington. It’s precisely because of DOMA that to this day same-sex marriages cannot be more than what you might call placebo marriages in the eight states (plus the District of Columbia) that have legalized them. DOMA denies wedded same-sex couples all federal benefits—some 1,000, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and veterans’ programs—and allows the other 42 states to ignore their marriages altogether.

The history of liberal culpability in such government-mandated discrimination should not be locked in a closet now. To forget any history is to risk repeating it. To forget this particular history is to minimize or erase the struggles of gay men and lesbians whose lives and fundamental rights were trampled routinely for decades in America, with cruel and sometimes deadly results. Many of those eyewitnesses to that ugly history are no longer around to tell it. It’s a measure of how much amnesia persists that the relatively recent nonfiction events recounted in The Normal Heart, the breakthrough drama of the AIDS crisis, came as news to so many in the audience at its 2011 Broadway revival. That work’s indefatigable author, Larry Kramer, felt compelled to stand outside the theater after the final curtain and hand out a flyer imploring ticket holders to “please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened.”

And Kramer’s play, first produced in 1985 and covering events in New York City from 1981 to 1984, captures only the early days of what would keep spiraling into a systemic national failure to respond to a public-health catastrophe as the body count kept rising. The reason for that failure is one that polite people don’t want to talk about anymore: Because the first conspicuous victims of AIDS were sexually active gay men—a minority lacking civil rights and often regarded as morally defective or worse—too many Americans across the entire political spectrum could easily justify looking away, and did. Remembering what happened is essential if politicians, particularly liberal politicians, are to be prodded or, if need be, shamed into bringing the unfinished tasks of equality to the finish line.

One relevant chapter of this often-obscured past unfolded during the not-so-distant year of 1977. That was when the hero of New York’s same-sex-­marriage law, Andrew Cuomo, then 19, made his political bones as an aide to his father Mario’s unsuccessful race for New York mayor against Ed Koch. That campaign was indicative of the political climate around homosexuality, even in theoretically enlightened New York City, that would allow AIDS to rage out of control once it hit four years later.

The Cuomo-Koch contest played out just as explosive battles over gay rights were being joined around the country. It was in 1977 that Harvey Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming California’s first openly gay official—a victory that would end with his assassination the following year. It was also in 1977 that Anita Bryant, a pop singer and onetime Miss America runner-up, mounted her “Save Our Children” campaign to repeal a Miami ordinance protecting homosexuals from discrimination in jobs and housing. Bryant called gay people “an abomination,” but such invective didn’t prevent her cause from winning the endorsement of the Dade County Democratic Party—or of Florida’s governor, Reubin Askew, a Democrat so progressive that George McGovern had offered him the vice-presidential slot on the 1972 ticket. The anti-gay rage whipped up around Miami by this crusade inspired the bumper sticker KILL A QUEER FOR CHRIST and the beating and hospitalization of a gay man. Once Bryant’s referendum won, by more than a two-to-one margin, thousands of New Yorkers marched from Sheridan Square to Columbus Circle in protest. But repeated efforts by New York activists to get their own City Council to extend the city’s Human Rights Law to include gay citizens had died in committee two years earlier and would not be passed until 1986.

What most New Yorkers did not know about gay people in 1977 could—and did—fill a five-column article in the Times (albeit relegated to page 41). It breathlessly reported that “increasingly, the homosexual community is very much one of lawyers, physicians, teachers, politicians, clergymen, and other upper-class professional men and women,” many of whom “tend to live like their heterosexual counterparts.” This account was actually a bit above par for the Times news pages of that period. The executive editor, A. M. Rosenthal, banished the word gay in the paper except in quotes and radiated a homophobia that intimidated gay employees to stay in the closet rather than risk being banished to career Siberia. “There wasn’t a single openly gay reporter or editor in the newsroom,” says Charles Kaiser, a former Times reporter and the author of The Gay Metropolis, and there wouldn’t be for the rest of the decade. Not that other ostensibly liberal publications of the period always had higher standards. In 1970, Harper’s had devoted eleven pages, replete with photos of pouting male mannequins, to the essayist Joseph Epstein’s tortured explanation of why he “would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth.” Speaking of his sons, Epstein wrote that “nothing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual.” In 1978, The Village Voice published a front-page polemic arguing that gay civil rights shouldn’t be a matter of public concern.

It’s this atmosphere that explains why another woman of Miss America fame—Bess Myerson, who, unlike Anita Bryant, had won the crown—was dragged into a New York mayoral contest between two liberals. Koch was a Greenwich Village bachelor, at the time a scarlet letter of assumed homosexuality second only to being a hairdresser. Myerson was drafted as his steady campaign companion—if not a girlfriend, exactly, a hand-holding BFF—to stave off the accusation that dare not speak its name except in below-the-radar whispers. The Cuomo campaign did what it could to encourage those whispers by running ads trumpeting its candidate as a “family man.” As Election Day approached, posters of mysterious provenance reading VOTE FOR CUOMO, NOT THE HOMO appeared in Brooklyn and Queens.

Both Cuomos have long denied having anything to do with those posters. They could not, however, deny their ostentatious playing of the “family man” card. Whatever went down in 1977 was enough to move Andrew Cuomo to later apologize privately to Koch for the tone of the race. Asked in a recent Times interview if he believed the younger Cuomo was blameless for the homophobic posters, Koch said: “I honestly don’t know. I’d like to believe it. But I don’t know.”

What we do know is that Andrew Cuomo deserves every bit of credit he has received for making same-sex marriage a top priority of his young governorship and for moving heaven and earth—deep-pocketed donors, recalcitrant Albany politicians, and sometimes-disorganized gay activists—to get the job done. If that feat of governance, among others, makes Cuomo a likely presidential prospect for the post-Obama Democratic Party, it’s well earned. But it doesn’t obliterate the record of what came before, including his standoffish relationship to gay-civil-rights battles for much of his preceding three-decade public career. He followed rather than led on marriage equality, not endorsing it until he ran for attorney general in 2006, years behind Eliot Spitzer (who did so in 1998) and David Paterson (1994). By the time Cuomo could act as governor, the issue was a win-win for him in Democratic politics, locally and nationally, the path having been paved by other fighters before him and by fast-moving polls confirming an ever more gay-friendly America. Yet even the preeminent gay magazine The Advocate failed to confront him on his record in its worshipful cover story marking New York’s marriage law; that past was journalistically Photoshopped out of existence. At a time when the most powerful Democrat in the nation still cynically purports to be “evolving” on same-sex marriage, the cautionary tale of Andrew Cuomo’s tardy evolution, particularly if told openly by Cuomo himself, might move hearts and minds in the White House much as his example helped sway once-hostile lawmakers in Albany.

Bill Clinton has also worked hard to spin and skate away from his history on gay issues. His presidential record looks good only when contrasted with the literally lethal passivity of Ronald Reagan, who didn’t think AIDS warranted a speech until 1987, six years into the epidemic and his presidency. Reagan is a very low bar, and that lets Clinton off the hook for a legacy that’s had a far more lasting and egregious impact than any failings, youthful or otherwise, of Andrew Cuomo. Clinton knows it, too. In his thousand-page memoir, My Life, he somehow didn’t find the space to so much as mention the Defense of Marriage Act. While “don’t ask, don’t tell” can be rationalized (by some) as a bungled rookie effort at compromise during his early months in office, DOMA is indefensible. Though now deemed unconstitutional by the Obama Justice Department—and, last week, by a Bush-­appointed federal judge in California—it is still in full force.

The bill was strictly a right-wing political ploy cooked up for the year of Clinton’s re-election campaign. It had no other justification. In the spring of 1996, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal anywhere in the country or a top-tier cause for many gay leaders; it was solely in play in a slow-moving court case in Hawaii. But fear and demonization of gay men was off the charts: In 1995, a record 50,877 Americans with AIDS died—a one-year count rivaling the 58,000 Americans lost in the entire Vietnam War. The Christian Coalition, under the Machiavellian guidance of the yet-to-be-disgraced Ralph Reed, saw an opening to exploit homophobia to galvanize a Republican base unenthusiastic about Bob Dole. In a consummate display of bad taste, Clinton announced that he would sign DOMA that spring just two days after the Supreme Court, in a rare national victory for gay rights, struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment that had barred anti-discrimination laws benefiting gay men and lesbians. In the months to come, Clinton’s stand on DOMA gave political permission to many nominally liberal Democrats to join Rick Santorum, Jesse Helms, and Larry Craig in voting for the bill that September—among them Charles Schumer (then in the House) and the senators Joe Biden, Tom Harkin, Frank Lautenberg, Patrick Leahy, Joe ­Lieberman, Carl Levin, Barbara Mikulski, Patty Murray, and Harry Reid. Only fourteen senators, also Democrats, had the courage to vote against it.

When the time came for Clinton to sign DOMA, he was sufficiently embarrassed that he did so at midnight. He declared in a statement that the legislation’s enactment should not “provide an excuse for discrimination, violence or intimidation against any person on the basis of sexual orientation.” Two years later, Matthew Shepard would be strung up in Wyoming, and a decade later George W. Bush, in league with Karl Rove, would make a statement almost identical to Clinton’s when he endorsed a constitutional marriage amendment in a similar election-year pander. “As this debate goes forward,” Bush intoned in 2006, “every American deserves to be treated with tolerance and respect and dignity.” Like Clinton, he knew he was enabling the exact opposite. While the family-values ayatollahs who gathered for Bush’s announcement had expected a Rose Garden event, someone in the White House felt guilty enough to offload the dirty deed into the shadows—a furtive ten-minute presidential appearance in a small auditorium in the Executive Office Building.

Neither Bush nor Clinton has ever owned up to what he did, let alone made amends for it. At a Human Rights Campaign forum for presidential candidates in 2007, Melissa Etheridge had the nerve to confront Hillary Clinton for her husband’s record of having thrown gay Americans “under the bus” while in office—a charge that Bill Clinton would dismiss later as “a slight rewriting of history.” It’s Clinton who has done the rewriting, and not slightly, claiming that DOMA was “a reasonable compromise in the environment of the time.” Reasonable for his own political calculation, yes, but hardly for the gay Americans who have paid for it ever since.

Andrew Cuomo has traveled far from the late seventies—as so many of us have—and so has Bill Clinton from the nineties. The former president came out for same-sex marriage in 2009. But words are cheap. Clinton’s lip service might actually mean something if he spent his own current financial and political capital to help undo the second-class citizenship for gay Americans that was codified on his watch. Whatever his good works overseas, it’s past time for the entrepreneur of the Clinton Global Initiative to phone home—and to galvanize the liberal Democrats who followed his lead in ratifying DOMA, many of them still in office.

We are now in another election year, and one in which both leading presidential candidates in the GOP preach the most hard-line anti-gay positions of their respective churches. Nothing is ever certain in politics and, unlikely as it may seem, one of them could win. We could yet end up with President Santorum, who lumps homosexuality with “man on dog” sex and even vows to reinstate Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Or with President Romney, who lately boasted of how hard he fought to prevent Massachusetts from becoming “the Las Vegas of gay marriages”—a claim he made only days after accepting an endorsement from that paragon of “traditional” marriage, Donald Trump, in Las Vegas. Though a cadre of conservative financiers, at least one with a gay son, helped bankroll Cuomo’s successful strong-arming of Republican same-sex-marriage votes in Albany, there doesn’t seem to be a single major Republican donor or leader, or even a mainstream conservative pundit, with the guts to call out these candidates or the party’s congressional leadership on their corrosive anti-gay rhetoric and agenda.

The GOP is on the wrong side of history for sure, with gays no less than Hispanics and every other minority group. Generational and demographic turnover is remaking America even as the right tries to turn back the clock. But over the shorter term, the party’s hard line will continue to inflict real injustice on citizens of all stripes—not just on gay adults (whether they are seeking marriage or not), but on gay kids struggling to find a safe place for themselves in the world and straight children who love their gay parents. So uninhibited is the animus of the Republican base that it thought nothing of booing a gay Army captain serving in Iraq when he presumed to ask a polite question via YouTube during a campaign debate on Fox News. Not one of the nine presidential candidates onstage spoke up to defend the soldier.

That’s why the celebrations in New York last June, while merited, must be seen as provisional. That’s also why Democratic leaders who profess fierce advocacy of gay civil rights must be held to account. Back in a day that was only yesterday, too many of them also fell silent—and when it counted most. While same-sex weddings are indeed a happy ending, they are haunted by the ghosts of many gay men, too many of them forgotten, who died tragically and unnecessarily while too many good people did nothing. Like Andrew Cuomo, those good people could yet make a big difference and, in the bargain, exorcise the multitude of past sins they keep hoping the rest of us will forget.

Whitewashing Gay History