Two men watching the Gay Pride parade in New York City, USA, June 1984. (Barbara Alper via Getty Images)

'The First Amendment Created Gay America'

The radicals who dominate today’s gender-identity movement forget why we’ve come so far.

Jamie Kirchick was a byline before he was a friend. I read him back when I used to religiously read The New Republic, and, naturally, I assumed he was old and wizened. When I found out he was a year older than me and getting scoops like this, I was what I think of as good jealous: I wanted to know how he did what he did so I could figure out how to do it myself.

In the years that followed—at Tablet, at The Wall Street Journal, and at The New York Times—I got to see Jamie’s work up close as his editor. I watched as he pitched the kind of smart, nuanced, scoop-ey pieces that editors like me always craved.

Having written about Zimbabwe, Hungary, Jared Kushner and Chelsea Manning, now comes Jamie’s most ambitious and personal project yet. Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington is being published today, and it is already reeling in rave reviews.

In the piece below, Jamie draws on research from his book to tell the story of how some in the gay-rights movement have turned their backs on the most important weapon gay-rights activists ever had: free speech. —BW

Rich Tafel and Urvashi Vaid had almost nothing in common. 

Tafel is a white Christian minister, an entrepreneur, and the founder of the Log Cabin Republicans, the leading group for gay and lesbian GOPers. Vaid, who died earlier this month at the age of 63, was an Indian-born progressive activist and a former director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the “intersectional” wing of the gay-rights movement. 

During their heyday in the 1990s, when issues like gays in the military, gays in the Boy Scouts, government funding for HIV-AIDS research, and same-sex marriage dominated headlines, the buttoned-down Tafel and the crunchy Vaid perfectly embodied their respective factions of that amorphous constituency known as the “LGBT community.”

But despite their many differences, this unlikely pair was united by a then-radical notion: that, as Tafel put it, “gays and lesbians deserved the right to live their lives as they wanted to.” Neither had any illusions about the other. “She knew I opposed her post-modern progressive Marxist agenda for the movement,” Tafel told me in an email, “and she opposed what she saw as my hetero-normative, neoliberal agenda, but we genuinely liked each other.” 

For a very vocal portion of the alphabet people these days, gays and lesbians who do not accede to the full progressive agenda are traitors, the moral equivalent of a Jewish Nazi or a Black member of the Ku Klux Klan. In a move that few gay and lesbian people actually support, the organizers of this summer’s LGBT Pride Parade in San Francisco have banned uniformed gay police officers from marching.

Vaid saw things differently. She understood that legal equality for gays and lesbians could not be won from one side of the political spectrum, that having people with conservative bona fides making the case was essential. According to Tafel, Vaid “insisted I be invited” to the regular meetings of executive directors of gay organizations, most of whom were partisan Democrats. At one such meeting, “she played a clip of me getting screamed at by far-right activists and said to the group, ‘This is what activism looks like, and it doesn't require a lot of money.’” Tafel in turn invited Vaid to Log Cabin Republicans confabs, and the two engaged in a series of lively public debates about how best to achieve their shared goals.  

“She and I created a special friendship,” Tafel said. “We both took hits from our side for being friends.” This sort of cross-ideological personal affinity is “unimaginable today,” he lamented. “We’ve lost the ability to disagree on strategies but respect each other as we fight for the same cause.”

Vaid practiced a commitment to pluralistic values that is vanishingly rare within our elite liberal institutions, where, second only to race, issues of gender and sexual orientation are the topic around which the lack of respect for viewpoint diversity and the pressure to conform are most pronounced. 

Take, as but just the latest example of this unfortunate trend, the group of worthies selected to be grand marshals at next month’s New York City Pride March. Soon to join the ranks of luminaries upon whom this honor has been bestowed—a group including Billy Jean King, Sir Ian McKellen, and Edith Windsor—is Chase Strangio, the transgender ACLU attorney who endorsed banning the book of an author who has reported on the dramatic spike in gender transitioning among girls.

Or consider Isaiah Lee, the man arrested earlier this month for assaulting Dave Chappelle during a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. “I identify as bisexual . . . and I wanted him to know what he said was triggering,” Lee told the New York Post about the comedian whose jokes about the alphabet community have earned him unending ire from a people once known for its ribald sense of humor. “Next time,” Lee warned, Chappelle “should consider first running his material by people it could affect.” Forget the heckler’s veto. This is the assailant’s injunction.

In March, ostensibly in the name of defending transgender people, hundreds of Yale Law School students disrupted a bipartisan panel on civil liberties, drowning out a conservative speaker with shouts of “Protect trans kids!” When the professor presiding over the event told the crowd that their behavior was in violation of the school’s free speech policies, she was met with raised middle fingers. 

The disgrace at Yale reflects a worrisome trend among the rising generation of LGBT people. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, LGBT students are significantly more likely to support “shouting down a speaker or trying to prevent them from speaking on campus” than their straight peers.

Finally, in a message directed to its LGBT staff following accusations that it was “institutionally transphobic,” the head of BBC News explained, “You’ll hear things you don’t personally like and see things you don’t like—that’s what the BBC is, and you have to get used to that.” Recounting the “extremely hostile” meeting at which this guidance was delivered, one journalist present described it as “having to explain journalism to idiots.” 

This is just a tiny sampling of the many incidents that have transpired at major institutions over the past year in which some disagreement over the ever-evolving orthodoxy related to LGBT issues erupted in controversy. 

Collectively, they signal a remarkable, two-pronged shift in our culture. On the one hand, such assertiveness would have been unimaginable not two decades ago, before gay people had the right to marry or serve openly in the military. In 1970, more than 70% of Americans agreed with the statement that “Homosexuals are dangerous as teachers or youth leaders because they try to get sexually involved with children.” Today, according to Gallup, that same percentage of Americans (including 55% of Republicans) supports the right of gay people to marry. In our increasingly polarized society, one of the few issues about which there appears to be any consensus is equality for gay people.

Accompanying this positive change across the broader American culture, however, has been an unfortunate development noticeable among some self-appointed LGBT spokespersons and our ostensible “allies,” who seek to shut down anyone chary of toeing their increasingly narrow and abstruse party line. The archness that was once so central to gay culture, a product of having to develop a thick skin and embodied by icons such as Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Fran Lebowitz and John Waters, has been replaced with a moralistic hectoring redolent of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. That censoriousness would become such a prominent feature of gay life is a tragedy born of ignorance or revisionism, considering that every advance gay people have made in this country has been the result of the exercise of free expression.

The struggle of gay people to achieve social acceptance and legal equality has always been a struggle against silence. Established in 1950, the Mattachine Society, America’s first, sustained gay-rights organization, was named after a medieval French band of itinerant, masked troubadours—les matassins—who could only convey the truth about their corrupt monarchical rulers from behind the safety of a disguise. The role of the homosexual in mid-century America, the brave founders of that organization posited, was to serve a similar truth-telling function. 

The following year, an author named Donald Webster Cory released The Homosexual in America, the first book published in the United States to discuss homosexuality from a sympathetic perspective. “Until we are willing to speak out openly and frankly in defense of our activities, and to identify ourselves with the millions pursuing these activities, we are unlikely to find the attitudes of the world undergoing any significant change,” he wrote. It was a plea for honesty that Cory himself was only partially willing to undertake: “Donald Webster Cory” was a pseudonym for Edward Sagarin, a married perfume salesman.

The first gay rights cases to reach the Supreme Court challenged laws that deemed gay publications “obscene,” and therefore illegal. It was an August 1953 cover story in ONE, the first gay magazine in the United States, presciently entitled “HOMOSEXUAL MARRIAGE?,” that prompted Los Angeles postal officials to seize all copies. (This was still a time when merely uttering the word “homosexual” was taboo. Upon the first outing of an American politician in 1942, the majority leader of the United States Senate decried an “offense too loathsome to mention in the Senate or in any group of ladies and gentlemen.”) ONE’s editors appealed all the way to the highest court in the land (without the assistance of the ACLU, which at the time declined to involve itself in cases challenging anti-gay discrimination). In 1958, ONE won. 

“ONE Magazine no longer asks for the right to be heard,” its editor proclaimed, “it now exercises that right. It further requires that homosexuals be treated as a proper part of society free to discuss and educate and propagandize their beliefs with no greater limitations than for any other group.” 

Four years later, in Manual Enterprises Inc. v. Day, the Supreme Court ruled that images in a gay erotic magazine could not be held to a different standard of obscenity than those in a magazine appealing to heterosexuals. 

Each successive advance in the march for gay equality—the first picket for gay rights outside the White House (1965), the Stonewall uprising against police harassment (1969), the decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders (1973)—was enabled by the free speech and association rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. As the gay legal historian Dale Carpenter argued, “the First Amendment created gay America.” 

In addition to betraying this legacy, the constant tone policing, outraged hypersensitivity, and inability to handle criticism so prevalent today within LGBT spaces belie the gay experience on a philosophical level. The first thing gay people intuit about our sexuality is that we have to conceal it, such that coming out is fundamentally an exercise in free expression. The gay writer Edmund White described his homosexuality as being a sort of gift to him as a writer because it “forced me to confess.” Last year, the former Soviet Jewish refusenik Natan Sharansky published an essay about choosing to end his life as a “doublethinker,” or someone who acquiesces to the deceptions of the authoritarian society in which he lives. Sharansky described a process that, to me, sounded remarkably like that of a closeted gay person choosing to no longer live by the lies imposed upon him by what Christopher Isherwood called “the heterosexual dictatorship.”

“Once I had done it, once I was no longer afraid, I realized what it was to be free. I could live in history, a real history, with ups and downs, fits and starts, not the bland, ever-changing history-like-putty dictated by the authorities,” Sharansky wrote. “I could live with real people and enjoy real friendships, not the cautious, constricted conversations of winks and nods among fellow doublethinkers. Most important, I could live without that permanent self-censorship, that constant checking of what you are going to say to make sure it’s not what you want to say. Only then do you realize what a burden you’ve been carrying, how exhausting it is to say the right thing, do the right thing, while always fighting the fear of being outed for an errant thought, a wrong reaction, an idiosyncratic impulse.”

How gay people so dramatically transformed their status for the better—from a world in which a smattering of Sharanskys fought the lonely fight to one in which gay people are widely accepted—is the ultimate David and Goliath tale. 

One especially compelling anecdote from that epic story occurred in 1978, when a California ballot initiative to ban gay people from teaching in public schools, Proposition 6, was on the verge of victory. A young, gay, left-wing veteran of the anti-Vietnam War movement, David Mixner, finagled a meeting with the older, straight, right-wing former governor and leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan. A last-minute intervention against the initiative by the most prominent conservative in the country, Mixner hoped, could prove decisive in its defeat.

Mixner appealed to Reagan’s small government sensibilities and penchant for law and order. Students would lodge scurrilous accusations against teachers, he warned, leading to endless lawsuits. There would be “anarchy” in the classrooms, a word designed to elicit an emotional reaction from Reagan, who as governor had battled student radicals on the Berkeley campus. Just days before Californians headed to the polls, Reagan announced his opposition to Proposition 6, ensuring its defeat. 

By appealing to Reagan on his own terms, Mixner modeled a style of politics that is all but nonexistent in our current debates. Rather than try to convince Reagan to oppose Proposition 6 for Mixner’s reasons, Mixner argued that Reagan should oppose it for Reagan’s reasons. This approach—appealing to an adversary’s concerns, even if you may not share them—is considered heresy now, when the loudest and most popular voices argue for absolutist positions and denounce any sign of compromise or moderation as treason.

Only in a society committed to freedom of expression could a group of people stigmatized as sinners, prosecuted as criminals, and diagnosed as mental defectives improve their status so dramatically over such a relatively short period of time. No one should be committed to defending that freedom more than us. 

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