Justin Trudeau’s epic apology to sexual minorities in Canada for decades of “systemic oppression, criminalization and violence” stands as a stark reminder for LGBT Americans that our history of ruinous discrimination remains officially unrecognized —much less apologized for — in the United States. LGBT political history here is either ignored, mocked, rewritten or simply erased.
For Canadians, this is an exciting time of “truth and reconciliation,” an honest recognition by the government of a terrible history so that it may not be repeated again and society can move on.
For LGBT Americans, confronted by the hostility of the Trump/Pence administration, we must insist that our history, in all of its shameful dimensions, be recognized at least by legislators and the judiciary. Only in this way, may we lay the groundwork for a formal federal recognition in years to come. Our equality depends upon it. No history. No equality.
All of us must answer the fundamental question faced by citizens when it comes to “Truth and Reconciliation”: Do you want to remember? Or do you want to forget? In her authoritative book on non-judicial truth seeking, “Unspeakable Truths,” Priscilla Hayner asks leaders of countries who have suffered the worst state-sponsored crimes, this direct question. It is easy enough to forget. Most recently, here in Washington, our major LGBT film festival Reel Affirmations declined this year to screen the award-winning documentary “The Lavender Scare,” the story of a homosexual witch-hunt at the State Department. The investigations and terminations rose in part from Sen. Joe McCarthy’s and his Counsel Roy Cohn’s vile demagoguery. Even today, we live in the shadow of Cohn, President Donald Trump’s attorney and closeted mentor who died of AIDS in 1986. Do we want to remember or forget Roy Cohn in Donald Trump’s Washington?
Do we want to remember or forget the fate of tens of thousands of federal workers investigated and fired, professional lives ruined, personal lives shattered by the animus administered by the U.S. Civil Service Commission and the Office of Personnel Management attorneys? Want to remember or forget J. Edgar Hoover’s “Sex Deviate” national investigation program? Do we want Chief Justice John Roberts to remember or minimize this awful era of animus, as when he mocked our history by characterizing it as mere “snippets” in his dissent in the same-sex marriage case U.S. v. Windsor?
Compared to Canada, we have taken baby steps. When the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director John Berry officially apologized in 2009 to gay civil rights pioneer Dr. Franklin E. Kameny, he delivered a heartfelt and personal statement, but without reference to the thousands of LGBT Americans who were branded perverts, investigated and ruined right there in the OPM building.
Years later, in 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a strong formal apology to those State Department employees who were investigated and fired during the “Lavender Scare,” but that was only about the couple of hundred employees fired by the State Department.
Taking a different route, in 2015, The Mattachine Society met with the OPM General Counsel. We briefed her on the ugly story revealed by hundreds of pages of never-before-released memoranda, legal briefs and correspondence from the Office of the General Counsel of OPM and its predecessor the Civil Service Commission. These documents revealed massive legal resistance to LGBT civil equality, laden with vile insults about “nasty” homosexuals.
We asked for a statement of recognition and apology. No such statement was ever issued. We later learned that such a letter had been drafted and approved. However, due to an unprecedented hacking of OPM records in 2015, a new leadership team was brought in, who along with career attorneys, killed the letter of apology altogether.
As part of its Truth and Reconciliation initiative, Canada will construct a memorial to the many individuals who suffered the animus and discrimination of a hostile government. Can you visualize such a memorial here? Would it be a lavender splash of paint splattered onto the exit of the Office of Personnel Management where so many thousands were ushered out? Or might it be a picket carried high by Frank Kameny, Lilli Vincenz and other members of the Mattachine Society who picketed their way into a meeting with hostile government lawyers? Might our best Truth & Reconciliation project be a renewed determination by all of us to simply learn and remember?
Charles Francis is president of The Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., mattachinesocietywashingtondc.org.