Editorial: Looking back at our history, looking forward to the future
by Fred Kuhr, co-editor
October is LGBTQ+ History Month, and openly gay Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline — the lead sponsor of the Equality Act, which seeks to outlaw anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination across the country — is one of the “icons” being honored this year by lgbthistorymonth.com. Another member of our community being honored as an icon is Deputy White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
In being honored this year, Cicilline and Jean-Pierre are in the company of such notable LGBTQ+ luminaries as Susan B. Anthony, W.H. Auden and Janis Ian.
This month reminds us that it is important both to look at where we are right now as a community, but also where we came from in the past, so that we may appreciate how far we’ve come and understand how far we still have to go.
Not coincidentally, October 11 is National Coming Out Day. In this month’s issue of the newsletter, Democrats Abroad LGBTQ+ Caucus Chair Bob Vallier looks at some of the history behind our communal coming out of the closet so that we may better understand all that we have gone through as a political movement for equality.
Part of that coming out took place 10 years ago last month. In September 2011, President Barack Obama — with then-Vice President Joe Biden at his side — signed the repeal of the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.” That policy forced LGBTQ+ service personnel to keep quiet about their sexual orientation or gender identity under penalty of discharge. Over 100,000 LGBTQ+ servicemembers were discharged under the policy.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, and many in the community were angered by this. But Clinton, who wanted a full repeal of what was then an all-out ban on LGBTQ+ service personnel, was blocked by Republicans in Congress — a situation that is nothing new for Democratic presidents who want to do something progressive in the interest of equality and justice. So a compromise was reached, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became the policy.
What’s hard to remember given how far we’ve come is that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was indeed progress in the mid-1990s. Clinton may have given us a policy that no one liked, but it took a cultural shift over the next 15 or so years in order for Obama to be able to repeal it.
One more example why it’s important to look back in order to look forward.
(Editors’ note: As of this issue of the newsletter, Fred Kuhr and Irene Chriss will be the co-editors.)
by Fred Kuhr
President Joe Biden used the biggest diplomatic platform in the world — the United Nations General Assembly meeting last month — to admonish nations with anti-LGBTQ+ regimes.
“We all must defend the rights of LGBTQI individuals so they can live and love openly without fear,” Biden said during his in-person address to world leaders on September 21.
“The future will belong to those who embrace human dignity, not trample it. The future will belong to those who unleash the potential of their people, not those who stifle it. The future will belong to those who give their people the ability to breathe free, not those who seek to suffocate their people with an iron hand,” Biden said. “ … As we pursue diplomacy across the board, the United States will champion the democratic values that go to the very heart of who we are as a nation and a people — freedom, equality, opportunity and a belief in the universal rights of all people.”
Biden was praised by some, but denounced by others, for the speech.
The Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ+ lobby group in the United States, thanked Biden “for recognizing the urgent need to protect members of the LGBTQI community abroad, especially in countries where there is a threat of danger from their government and extremist groups.”
But the Log Cabin Republicans, the GOP LGBTQ+ group, issued a statement stressing their anger at Biden for addressing the issue without mentioning the previous president. Biden’s Republican predecessor did announce a campaign to decriminalize homosexuality globally in 2019, but the campaign was reportedly ineffective and did little work toward the goal.
A day before speaking to the U.N., Biden celebrated the 10th anniversary of the repeal of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which allowed LGBTQ+ military personnel to serve as long as they kept their sexual orientation or gender identity a secret. The policy was repealed in 2011 under President Barack Obama.
“Ten years ago today, a great injustice was remedied and a tremendous weight was finally lifted off the shoulders of tens of thousands of dedicated American servicemembers,” said Biden. “The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ … helped move our nation closer to its foundational promise of equality, dignity and opportunity for all.”
Biden added that over 100,000 LGBTQ+ service personnel were discharged under the discriminatory policy. Many received “less than honorable” discharges, meaning they cannot access veteran benefits.
“As a U.S. senator, I supported allowing servicemembers to serve openly, and as vice president, I was proud to champion the repeal of this policy and to stand beside President Obama as he signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act into law,” said Biden. “As President, I am honored to be commander-in-chief of the strongest and most inclusive military in our nation’s history.”
Biden also praised some high-ranking LGBTQ+ Americans currently serving.
“Today, our military doesn’t just welcome LGBTQ+ servicemembers, it is led at the highest levels by brave LGBTQ+ veterans, including Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn Skelly, who served under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” said Biden. “I was [also] gratified to appoint the first openly gay Senate-confirmed cabinet member, Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserves and an Afghanistan veteran who joined the military under the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy.”
Also commemorating the 10th anniversary of the repeal, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a directive to restore benefits and honorable status to veterans discharged under the policy as well as those discharged for being HIV-positive.
The September 20 announcement reaffirmed that veterans who were discharged under the discriminatory policy could get their veteran statuses changed. That means these veterans would have access to a wide range of Veterans Affairs benefits, including health care, burial benefits, and pensions.
In making the announcement, Kayla Williams, the assistant secretary for public affairs in the Veterans Affair’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, noted, “The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ … recognized what so many of us already knew to be true — that one’s ability to serve in the military should be measured by character, skills, and abilities, not who one loves.”
Members of Congress are also proposing legislation regarding these new policy directives. Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who is openly gay, has reintroduced the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, a bill that would correct military records and grant benefits to LGBTQ+ servicemembers.
“All servicemembers who proudly served our country deserve the benefits they are entitled to, regardless of their sexual orientation,” Pocan said. “It is past time that Congress and the Department of Defense correct past injustices by restoring benefits to all LGBTQIA+ servicemembers who served our nation honorably.”
by Bob Vallier, LGBTQ+ Caucus Chair
October 11 is National Coming Out day — in addition to also being Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Italian-American Heritage Day.
For many members of the LGBTQ+ community, this is an important day. A day of awareness and visibility for the community, it was first celebrated in 1988, exactly one year to the day after the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (as it was then called). This was a time when coming out was still risqué, even dangerous, at the height of the AIDS crisis when silence equaled death. Coming out was a political act, and it often had personal and professional consequences. The day was created to support people who took this brave step. It is much easier today than in 1988, or even 1998, to come out of the closet.
But for many if not all us, coming out is something we do every day. It is in many ways a never-ending act. When we get a new work colleague, start a new job, meet new people, interact with others whom we do not know, we are always coming out. Why? Because the default setting is still heterosexual. Indeed, from birth onwards, straightness is presumed as the norm, and we are always socialized and acculturated within straight norms. This is what the feminist lesbian theorist Adrienne Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality.”
Within the logic of compulsory heterosexism, anything that deviates from this norm is deviant or queer. And because heteronormative culture is everywhere, the realization that one is deviant, queer, or not heteronormative must be kept secret. It is a secret that is thought to be a dangerous one, not least because it is anchored in guilt, shame, and fear — feelings that we are wrongly taught to have by the heteronormative culture, that often have negative consequences for our mental and emotional health and for our familial and interpersonal relations, and that disempower us as individuals, as a community, and as a political constituency.
Throughout most of the 20th century (I do not want to adopt too broad of a historical perspective), keeping the secret — staying in the closet — was the norm and a necessity. Homosexuality — a word and a concept that was invented only in the 19th century by mostly German sexologists — was a recognized mental illness until 1974, and a criminal behavior in many states until it was formally decriminalized in the 2003 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas.
Prior to the social and political movements of the 1960s that led to the gay rights movement, prior to courageous trailblazers like Harvey Milk, gay men and women lived furtive, often hidden or underground existences, signalling to each other their status through a series of symbols and codes. Readers of Gore Vidal’s novel “The City and the Pillar” know that gay businessmen in Manhattan would, in the years following the war, wear green ties on Thursday and gather in parks after hours to seek each other out, at great personal risk. And while we are no longer “sick” or “criminal” and don’t have to sneak about, our existence is still fragile. We can still be fired in some states, or denied access to health services, or in some cases, aggressed and beaten. This is why we need a federal law like the Equality Act to protect our rights, and why we still need to engage in the still political act of coming out, every day.
Everyone knows what we are coming out of. The “closet” has existed as a metaphor for our hidden lives since at least the 1950s, though there are many apocryphal stories about the origins of this metaphor. Perhaps we are in the closet trying on the clothes of the opposite sex, play-acting at or performing some gender trouble. Perhaps we are hiding in the darkest corner of the house, the only place where we can be ourselves, out of sight of the disapproving heteronormative gaze. Regardless, the closet is not merely a metaphor — it is also a structure that shapes how we interact with the world, and how we know ourselves, or let ourselves be known.
Being “in” the closet — keeping that “dangerous” secret to ourselves — limits, often severely, the kinds of interactions we can have. When we are “in the closet,” we pay attention to how we use our hands, to the kind of language we use, the way we walk, the glances we cast, the type of handshake or length of a hug we offer. This kind of structure is what philosophers call “epistemological,” and there is indeed an epistemology of the closet.
In fact, “The Epistemology of the Closet” is the title of one the most important foundational essays of queer theory, which I highly recommend. Written in 1990 by the late theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, it helped shape and give academic rigor to the then-emergent field of LGBT studies and queer theory. In a brilliant analysis, Sedgwick compares the structure of the closet to the that of the secret held by Queen Esther. She is keeping a secret — if she keeps it, she betrays her nation, but if she reveals it, she condemns herself to death. Much like Esther, if we stay in the closet, we disempower our community, but if we come out, we risk banishment if not death.
Or at least we did. The situation has changed dramatically since 1990. And one of the reasons it has changed for the better is we came out. Because we continue to come out. Every day. We recognized during the height of the AIDS crisis that we cannot be silent and that we cannot be invisible. We cannot stay in. We must come out. For life.
Every member of the LGBTQ+ community has a coming out story to tell. For those of us of a certain age, it might have been a long and tortured process fraught with risk, for others the realization may have come relatively later in life, but for others still, particularly younger members of the community, coming out is no big deal because they were never in. And they didn’t have to be in, because of supportive celebrations like National Coming Out Day.
But many of our LGBTQ +brothers and sisters still find it difficult to come out, for any number of reasons. They may suffer existentially and emotionally for it. National Coming Out Day exists so that they know that coming out is okay, that it’s safe, and that they will be supported and valued.
So on October 11, we call upon all our friends and allies to send a signal of support — let your closeted friends know (you may not even know who they are) that you are an ally and that we will together continue the fight. Let your out friends know that the act they have been engage in every day since they first came out matters. And what the hell, why not blast that Diana Ross anthem too!
“What’s At Stake in Virginia” with State Delegate Danica Roem
2pm EST / 8pm CET
Feminist Literary Fest’s Simone de Beauvoir Webinar presented by the Global Women’s Caucus
1pm EST / 7pm CET
Scholars Connie Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chavallier present the life and work of the feminist icon.
“Beaten Down, Worked Up” by Steven Greenhouse: A Global Progressive Caucus Book Discussion
12pm EST / 6pm CET