Opinion | The Case for Gay Reparation

Following in Spain’s footsteps, in 2009, the British government issued an official apology to Alan Turing, the World War II code breaker, 57 years after he was sentenced to a chemical castration for being gay. (Mr. Turing killed himself two years later.) In his announcement, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, “While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him.” The Turing apology — and his subsequent pardoning in 2013 — were followed a few years later by a national pardon of thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted of crimes under sexual-offense laws. Such laws, which in Britain, as in much of the English-speaking world, have traditionally applied only to men, were used in convicting some 65,000 people.

In 2016, Germany announced it would make financial reparations from a fund of 30 million euros to anyone convicted under Paragraph 175, a provision in the German criminal code that was employed by the Nazi regime to force homosexuals into concentration camps and that remained on the books until 1994. A reported 140,000 people were arrested under Paragraph 175, though only about 5,000 of them were still living in 2016. The government also pledged to expunge the records of some 50,000 people jailed because of their sexual orientation.

Since 2017, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand and several Australian states have issued apologies to gay and bisexual men and other members of the L.G.B.T. community convicted for consensual same-sex activities before they were decriminalized and have announced plans to expunge the records of their convictions. Canada’s apology was preceded by a report written by the country’s leading gay rights organization chronicling systemic anti-gay discrimination and accompanied by a payout of $85 million to the victims of the so-called gay purge, a policy of government-sanctioned discrimination that lasted until the 1990s and that caused thousands to lose their jobs and face prosecution.

Certainly, the case for gay reparation in the United States is as compelling, if not more so, than in other Western democracies. President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 Executive Order 10450, which called for the expulsion of homosexuals from all levels of the federal government, contributed to the “Lavender Scare” — the hunting of homosexuals throughout the federal bureaucracy, from the post office to the military to the diplomatic corps. It also ushered in decades of initiatives, court rulings and laws that demeaned and demonized homosexuals — such as Anita Bryant’s 1977 Save Our Children Campaign, which depicted gay men as pedophiles; Bowers v. Hardwick, a 1986 Supreme Court ruling that upheld sodomy laws at a time when most democratic nations were already dismantling such laws (that ruling would not be overturned until 2003); and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the infamous 1993 policy that allowed homosexuals to serve in the armed forces if they kept their sexual orientation a secret. That policy alone was responsible for the dismissal of some 13,000 men and women, including medical doctors, fighter pilots and Arabic translators, by the time it was revoked in 2011.

But if history is any guide, gay reparation faces an uphill struggle in the United States. After all, American society is still debating the merits of reparations for slavery. Moreover, although polls reveal that the issue of gay rights no longer divides the American public, it remains salient to the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, social conservatives, who control the party’s social agenda, have already attacked the idea. In 2010, the radio show host Michael Medved said that “any campaign for gay reparations would fall flat because there’s no evidence whatever that today’s homosexuals are the heirs to a long, bitter heritage of discrimination that spans generations.” He added that unlike black people, homosexuals “exercise a great deal of choice about just how public they want to embrace gay identity — or to claim a victim’s status.”

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