Note: This article first appeared at Huffington Post.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of state laws that ban same-sex couples from getting married. The historic case has attracted a wide array of amicus briefs; People For the American Way Foundation joined religious and civil rights groups on a brief urging the Court to reject discriminatory marriage bans and challenging “religious liberty” arguments opposing marriage equality.
One fascinating brief was filed by the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. The original group by that name was led by Frank Kameny, an astronomer who was fired from his federal job for being gay and led some of the earliest gay-rights protests in the nation’s capital in the 1960s. The name and legacy have been revived by local activists Charles Francis and Pate Felts for the purpose of documenting decades of systematic anti-gay discrimination by the federal government. In partnership with pro bono attorneys from the firm of McDermott Will & Emery, the new Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. is engaged in strategic “archive activism.” They are using the Freedom of Information Act to unearth a “culture of animus” that permeated the U.S. Civil Service Commission – now known as the Office of Personnel Management – and to bring to public light previously closed records about investigations challenging workers’ “loyalty” and “suitability.”
“The investigation and firing of gay and lesbian federal employees was like shooting fish in a barrel for the General Counsels and legal staff of the Civil Service Commission,” says Francis. “The animus, almost sports-like in their writings, is documented in decades of legal advisory files we discovered this year at the National Archives.”
Among the historical tidbits unearthed by the project: Nancy Reagan turning down a plea from a dying Rock Hudson for help getting into another hospital; and anti-gay activist Gary Bauer’s no-holds-barred, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort to keep the White House from including a gay person on the nation’s first AIDS commission.
The Mattachine Society’s project is about preserving the historical record, but it also has an important legal purpose, which is demonstrating that anti-equality laws and regulations have long been grounded in hostility, or animus, that is not a permissible justification for discrimination. Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissent from the Supreme Court decision in Windsor, which overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, demonstrates the importance of this archival work. Roberts suggested there is insufficient evidence – he waved it away as “snippets of legislative history” – to demonstrate that DOMA’s purpose was to “codify malice.” Added Roberts, “I would not tar the political branches with the brush of bigotry.”
There’s no escaping the brush of bigotry, the reeking stench of bigotry, exposed by the Mattachine Society’s brief, which links to more than 35 historical documents that demonstrate the ways that the Civil Service Commission, often in partnership with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and other law enforcement agencies, investigated people suspected of sexual “perversion” and robbed them of their federal jobs and careers.
From the amicus:
For decades, this animus was one of the basic assumptions of American life. It was so persistent, so prevalent, and so instrumental to the way that we structured our institutions, treated our fellow citizens, and organized our lives that, in retrospect, it is often overlooked….
For decades, both federal and state governments targeted and persecuted homosexuals, individuals suspected of being homosexual, and even those believed to have engaged in homosexual acts, regardless of actual sexual orientation. The stated rationale shifted over time—from concerns about national security to code words, such as “suitability”—but the point was always the same: government officials, federal and state, high and low, felt a complete revulsion toward homosexuals and wanted to purge the country of even the hint of homosexuality.
Animus, therefore, was a culture. And with that culture came a language. For decades, government officials referred to homosexuality in official, often highly confidential or privileged communications, as “unnatural,” “uniquely nasty,” “immoral,” “deviant,” “pervert[ed],” and an “abomination.” Even the FBI had a term for the program that it designed to rid the government of homosexuals—the “Sex Deviate Program.” Once it attached, whether based in fact or mere speculation, the label of homosexuality remained forever fixed. As one senior executive official wrote, “once a homo, always a homo.” And, as one state legislature put it, what homosexuals wanted was “recognition.” And “recognition” was something to fear….
The effort to purge “sex deviates” began well before President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 Executive Order 10450, but that action explicitly made “sexual perversion” a disqualification from federal employment. Congress was in on the act as well. The Mattachine amicus quotes from a 1950 document from the US Senate Subcommittee of the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Department:
There is no place in the United States Government for persons who violate the laws or the accepted standards of morality, or who otherwise bring disrepute to the Federal service by infamous or scandalous personal conduct . . . . It is the opinion of this subcommittee that those who engage in acts of homosexuality and other perverted sex activities are unsuitable for employment in the Federal Government.
The federal government also worked in concert with anti-gay activities being carried out at the state level. One of the documents uncovered by Mattachine’s Freedom of Information Act requests is a 1963 note from Civil Service Commission General Counsel L. V. Meloy to Charley Johns, chairman of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee on Homosexuality and Citizenship.
The infamous Johns Report wallowed in salacious descriptions of “the special world of homosexuality” and warned of “aggressive homosexuals” seeking recognition and legal equality. The report described teachers engaging in sex in public bathrooms and little league coaches seducing teenagers, asserting, “The plain fact of the matter is that a great many homosexuals have an insatiable appetite for sexual activities and find special gratification in the recruitment to their ranks of youth.” The report included a glossary of “sex offenses” that were illegal under Florida law and eight pages of homosexual slang and “deviate acts.”
Meloy’s letter asking for “several copies” of the report said that the “Federal Government has related problems in this area and … [the] investigation will shed additional light on a most difficult problem in suitability for government employment.” The Florida committee specifically targeted gay teachers but also resulted, according to the Mattachine amicus, in the removal of at least 37 federal employees.
The brief also documents that the Civil Service Commission shifted its strategies in response to court rulings challenging its policies. The brief goes into some depth documenting the case of William Dew, an African American Air Force veteran. Dew was married with a pregnant wife when he was fired from his job as an air traffic controller in 1958 for having admitted years earlier as part of a job application to the CIA that he had experimented with gay sex when he was in college. After a six-year legal battle, culminating in the Supreme Court agreeing to hear Dew’s appeal, the government settled with him. But rather than loosening the CSC’s anti-gay policies, the government strengthened its resolve in the wake of the Dew settlement and, in the words of the Mattachine amicus, “demonstrated its willingness to use all of its resources to crush homosexuals and those who engaged in homosexual acts with its suitability standards.”
Following a 1969 DC Circuit Court ruling that challenged the firing of federal workers for something that had nothing to do with the performance of their jobs, the CSC General Counsel at that time, Anthony Mondello, argued that federal agencies would have a hard time attracting quality workers if applicants knew they might have to work with “people who repeatedly engaged in serious misconduct offensive to community standards.”
The CSC and its successor, the Office of Personnel Management, continued to target gay federal employees throughout the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s.
The Mattachine Society brief ends with an appeal to the Court’s history of addressing anti-gay animus:
The Dew case is important for another reason as well—one that goes to the heart of the cases now before this Court. For decades, there was no limit to the animus meted out against LGBT Americans and no end to its reach. It poisoned every institution in the United States and seeped into the lives of all Americans, not merely those of gays and lesbians. So too, the language of animus became commonplace among those in the highest positions in government: “homo,” “sexual deviant,” “pervert,” “abomination,” “uniquely nasty,” and other derogatory terms and phrases were used with bureaucratic ease as a way to define, cabin, and limit the citizenship of LGBT Americans. As the Dew case perfectly illustrates, the animus even extended to those who were not gay.
It was the courts—and in the case of Dew, this Court—that ultimately stepped in to set the course right. This Court knows animus when it sees it, and it has a well-established line of cases overturning laws that by their text, background history, and effect, relegate a class of citizens to second-class status. See, e.g., Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996); Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003); and United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013). Indeed, this Court has already recognized the long history of discrimination and animus against homosexuals. See, e.g., Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 571.
The newly revealed documents cited herein merely reinforce what this Court already knows. For decades, there was a culture of animus against LGBT Americans that permeated every aspect of American life and every American institution. In many places, that culture continues to this day. To say that the marriage bans now at issue are not somehow the product of this historical animus is to ignore reality. We may not see the air that feeds the flame. But, for decades, animus against LGBT Americans fed the flames of hatred, revulsion, and disgust from which the current marriage bans arose.
The Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. is optimistic about the impact of its brief. “The government attorneys who administered the federal ban on homosexuals have met their match in our pro bono counsel McDermott, Will & Emery’s powerful amicus brief," says Francis, "The McDermott brief is a lasting account of an unconstitutional ‘culture of animus’ embedded through seven Presidencies.”
On Friday PFAW Foundation joined the Anti-Defamation League and an expansive coalition of religious and civil rights organizations in submitting an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to rule state-level marriage bans unconstitutional in the four marriage cases before them this term. One specific religious conception of marriage, the signers argue, should not define our nation’s laws on it.
The brief outlines instances in our country’s history in which discriminatory laws have been justified on the grounds of “religious and moral disapproval,” from laws supporting slavery to segregation to discrimination against women. But, the signers note, the Supreme Court has rejected these types of arguments over and over – and should again with regard to the marriage bans.
The brief also takes apart the “religious liberty” arguments of those opposing marriage equality, noting that overturning the bans will not threaten freedom of religion since religious groups will still be able to define what marriage means in their tradition:
[C]ontrary to the arguments of some who defend the marriage bans, invalidating the bans will not jeopardize religious liberty. As an initial matter, the cases before this Court concern whether same-sex couples are entitled to the benefits of civil marriage. Religious groups will remain free, as they always have been, to choose how to define religious marriage and which marriages to solemnize…. Religious liberty should serve as a shield, not as a sword to discriminate against members of a disadvantaged minority group.
This amicus brief was one of a stunning array of briefs filed in the Supreme Court last week in favor of marriage equality, including briefs signed by more than 2,000 clergy; 200 police officers, EMTs, and firefighters; 400 companies, including forty of the nation’s largest corporations; more than 200 mayors; and more than 300 conservative leaders.
Last week, People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch reported on a Christian Post column by right-wing commentator Larry Tomczak in which he warned that Hollywood is “promoting homosexuality” by “targeting innocent and impressionable children.” In particular, Tomczak attacked Ellen DeGeneres, whom he wrote “celebrates her lesbianism and ‘marriage’ in between appearances of guests like Taylor Swift to attract young girls.”
The column caught the attention of none other than Ellen herself, who responded to Tomczak on her show this week.
She told Tomczak: “First of all, I’m not ‘married.’ I’m married. That’s all,” adding “I don’t even know what it means to ‘celebrate my lesbianism.’”
She then revealed her true “gay agenda”:
The federal court ruling striking down Mississippi’s ban on same-sex couples getting married is worth reading for many reasons. Paul wrote earlier about U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves’s compelling explanation of the role of the courts in protecting Americans’ constitutional rights. The ruling is also filled with rich historical detail about the extent to which the state of Mississippi and the federal government have discriminated against LGBT citizens over the years, as well as the ways in which groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the notorious Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission used anti-gay rhetoric and innuendo in their attacks on African American civil rights leaders and institutions.
This history is an important rebuttal to bogus claims by anti-gay activists that gay people do not need to have their rights protected in law because they have never suffered from discrimination.
Quotes from the opinion, with citations removed for readability:
Any claim that Mississippians quietly accommodated gay and lesbian citizens could no longer be made in the 1960s, when prejudice against homosexuals (and other groups) became more visible during the civil rights movement. Segregationists called their opponents “racial perverts,” while U.S. Marshals – summoned to enforce civil rights – were labeled “sadists and perverts.” Klan propaganda tied together “Communists, homosexuals, and Jews, fornicators and liberals and angry blacks – infidels all.”
One Klan photo showed a black man touching the crotch of the white man sitting next to him, attempting to make the link between racial equality and homosexuality explicit.
Civil rights leaders had predicted the attack. In selecting the Freedom Riders, James Farmer had conducted interviews to weed out “Communists, homosexuals, [and] drug addicts.” “We had to screen them very carefully because we knew that if they found anything to throw at us, they would throw it,” he explained.
This reflected society’s notion that homosexuals were “undesirables.” It also placed civil rights leaders in the position of seeking rights for one disenfranchised group while simultaneously seeking to avoid association with another disenfranchised group. Mississippians opposed to integration harassed several civil rights leaders for their homosexuality. Bill Higgs was a prominent gay Mississippi civil rights lawyer. He was targeted for his activism, convicted in absentia of delinquency of a minor, and threatened with “unlimited jailings” should he ever return to Mississippi.
He never did.
Reeves also discusses the case of Bayard Rustin, the openly gay African American civil rights activist who organized the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The most interesting part of Rustin’s story, though – and the reason why he merits more discussion here – is that he was subjected to anti-gay discrimination by both white and black people, majority and minority alike. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, a black Democrat, threatened to feed the media a false story that Rustin was having an affair with Martin Luther King, Jr., unless Dr. King canceled a protest at the Democratic National Convention.
Other persons within the civil rights movement were similarly “put off by Rustin’s homosexuality.” Roy Wilkins, an NAACP executive, “was particularly nasty to Bayard Rustin – very hostile,” in part because he “was very nervous about Bayard’s homosexuality.” Dr. King eventually had Rustin resign “because of persistent criticism of Rustin’s homosexuality and Communist ties and because of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell’s threat.”
Rustin reemerged years later as one of the principal organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A. Philip Randolph and Dr. King wanted Rustin as the march’s chief organizer, but Wilkins pushed back “because [Rustin] was gay . . . something which in particular would offend J. Edgar Hoover.” The group ultimately “decided Randolph would be in charge of the march, that Rustin would be the principal organizer, but that he would stay somewhat in the background.”
The concern about offending Hoover was prescient, as the FBI Director and other top officials soon moved to use Rustin’s homosexuality against him. In August 1963, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and President John F. Kennedy urgently reviewed the transcript of a FBI wiretap in which Dr. King acknowledged Rustin’s homosexuality. A day later, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina “rose in the Senate to denounce Rustin for sexual perversion, vagrancy, and lewdness.” FBI “headquarters badgered the field offices for new details” of Rustin’s sex life for months.
As Reeves makes clear, this kind of persecution was not only reserved for civil rights activists.
Rustin’s story speaks to the long tradition of Americans from all walks of life uniting to discriminate against homosexuals. It did not matter if one was liberal or conservative, segregationist or civil rights leader, Democrat or Republican; homosexuals were “the other.” Being homosexual invited scrutiny and professional consequences.
These consequences befell quite a few Mississippians. Ted Russell, the conductor of the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, lost his job and his Belhaven College faculty position after he was caught in a gay sex sting by the Jackson Police Department. In the early 1980s, Congressman Jon Hinson drew scrutiny for frequenting an X-rated gay movie theater in Washington, D.C., and although he won reelection, he resigned when he returned to Washington and was caught performing gay sex acts in a Capitol Hill bathroom. As early as 1950, the State’s flagship institution of higher learning, the University of Mississippi, “forced three homosexual students and one faculty member to leave the university” because it “did not tolerate homosexuality.” Lesbian instructors at Mississippi University for Women were pushed out of their jobs, while students at other Mississippi public universities were expelled for their homosexuality. A 1979 article on gay Jacksonians said “most” remained closeted because “they fear losing their jobs, friends and families.”
Reeves discusses the anti-gay actions of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which was created in 1956 to maintain racial segregation by any means necessary.
Sovereignty Commission “[i]nvestigators and local officials also targeted local blacks and outsiders involved in civil rights activities as being sexually deviant.” They singled out Rust College, a private historically black institution, on reports that instructors there were “homosexuals and racial agitators.”
Those with power took smaller, yet meaningful, actions to discourage gay organizing and association in Mississippi. The State refused to let gay rights organizations incorporate as nonprofits. The newspaper at Mississippi State University – student-led, with an elected editor – refused to print a gay organization’s advertisement notifying gay and lesbian students of an off-campus “Gay Center” offering “counseling, legal aid and a library of homosexual literature. An advisor to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that the Jackson Police Department took “a series . . . of maneuvers to harass members of Jackson’s gay community.” “As of 1985 not a single university campus in Mississippi recognized a lesbian and gay student group.”
Reeves’s ruling also makes clear that official discrimination is not only in the state’s past.
In 1990, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed a trial judge who declared that a mother, who was a lesbian, could not visit her children in the presence of her female partner. In Weigand v. Houghton, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed a trial judge who refused residential custody to a father in large part because he was in a long-term relationship with another man. A dissent complained that the father’s sexuality had impaired the court’s judgment, since the child would now have to live with “the unemployed stepfather [who] is a convicted felon, drinker, drug-taker, adulterer, wife-beater, and child-threatener, and . . . the mother [who] has been transitory, works two jobs, and has limited time with the child.”
In 2002, one of Mississippi’s justice court judges, frustrated with advances in gay rights in California, Vermont, and Hawaii, “opined that homosexuals belong in mental institutions.” Although he was reprimanded and fined by the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated the sanctions. It was more important for gay citizens to know that their judge was biased and seek his recusal than to “forc[e] judges to conceal their prejudice against gays and lesbians,” it wrote. The “Commission urges us to ‘calm the waters’ when, as the guardians of this state’s judicial system, we should be helping our citizens to spot the crocodiles.”
Reeves details a number of recent complaints and lawsuits challenging discriminatory treatment by state and local governments as well as legal inequities such as the fact that Mississippi law permits a single person to adopt a child but not gay or lesbian couples.
This kind of restriction was once supported by pseudoscience. We now recognize that it actually “harms the children, by telling them they don’t have two parents, like other children, and harms the parent who is not the adoptive parent by depriving him or her of the legal status of a parent.”
Reeves concludes the historical section of the ruling this way:
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That is as true here as anywhere else. Seven centuries of strong objections to homosexual conduct have resulted in a constellation of State laws that treat gay and lesbian Mississippians as lesser, “other” people. Thus, it is easy to conclude that they have suffered through a long and unfortunate history of discrimination.
People For the American Way joined local activists at a park in downtown Louisville on Friday to protest Kentucky's ban on marriage equality for same-sex couples.
The "Love Will Win" rally came in response to last week's federal appeals court decision that upheld laws against same-sex marriage in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. Currently the Commonwealth doesn't even have to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally in other states.
Protesters are hopeful this setback will pave the way for a Supreme Court reversal, bringing marriage equality to the South and the rest of the nation.
Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, said that he’s disappointed by the decision but pleased by the prospects of getting a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I think we all knew the sixth circuit was going to rule against LGBT freedom to marry,” Hartman said. “The sixth circuit is the most overturned circuit at the Supreme Court in the entire nation."
Thus far, 32 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.
Yesterday, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in favor of equality, striking down same-sex marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt delivered the ruling for the panel, which applied heightened scrutiny because the bans are applied on the basis of sexual orientation, and concluded that the state laws violate the equal protection rights of lesbians and gays who wish to marry. The court took note of the particular harm marriage bans impose on families:
“To allow same-sex couples to adopt children and then to label their families as second-class because the adoptive parents are of the same sex is cruel as well as unconstitutional. Classifying some families, and especially their children, as of lesser value should be repugnant to all those in this nation who profess to believe in ‘family values.’”
The ruling follows the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeals of five states seeking to reverse similar cases in which a lower court ruled state marriage bans unconstitutional. This morning, however, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy temporarily blocked the appeals court ruling and asked for a response from the plaintiffs involved in Idaho’s marriage lawsuit by Thursday at 5 pm.
Yesterday's marriage equality ruling from a federal district court in Florida, like so many before it, strikes down laws preventing same-sex couples from marrying. And like all the ones before it, this ruling isn't a theoretical treatise on the law, but a legal opinion affecting real people.
All of the people suing to vindicate the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution have a story to tell. All of them are important. The judge briefly describes them, such as this lesbian couple:
Arlene Goldberg married Carol Goldwasser in New York in 2011. Ms. Goldwasser died in March 2014. The couple had been together for 47 years. Ms. Goldwasser was the toll-facilities director for Lee County, Florida, for 17 years. Ms. Goldberg is retired but works part time at a major retailer. The couple had been living with and taking care of Ms. Goldwasser's elderly parents, but now Ms. Goldberg cares for them alone. Social-security benefits are Ms. Goldberg's primary income. Florida's refusal to recognize the marriage has precluded Ms. Goldberg from obtaining social-security survivor benefits. Ms. Goldberg says that for that reason only, she will have to sell her house, and Ms. Goldwasser's parents are looking for another place to live.
Think about it: If the grieving Arlene Goldberg loses her house just because she couldn't get married, that is what victory for the Religious Right looks like.
Recall that the Religious Right has not only spent the past thirty or forty years fighting to prevent gays and lesbians from marrying. They have also fought tooth and nail against every advance in civil rights that has come during that time, affecting employment discrimination, child custody, healthcare decisionmaking ... you name it. Victory for them has meant forcibly separating parents from their children, firing gay teachers, making grieving mourners lose their homes, and much, much more.
Fortunately, most Americans don't side with the Religious Right. More and more Americans are recognizing that whatever negative assumptions they may have once had about lesbians and gays were simply not true. And they're realizing that discriminatory policies cause real harm to real people and should be changed. Most Americans don't like the idea of gratuitously hurting completely innocent people.
As for the Religious Right, hurting innocent people isn't just an infrequent or accidental byproduct of the movement's policies. They have been dedicated for decades to denying LGBT people as many legal rights as possible. The harms caused by the absence of those rights is what victory looks like for them.
Finally, some good news: today a federal judge in Florida struck down the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples.
U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, nominated by President Clinton in the 1990s, ruled the 2008 ban unconstitutional on equal protection and due process grounds and predicted that future generations will look back with shock at the views of those who supported the ban:
'When observers look back 50 years from now, the arguments supporting Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage, though just as sincerely held, will again seem an obvious pretext for discrimination,' Hinkle wrote. 'Observers who are not now of age will wonder just how those views could have been held.'
While the decision has been stayed — meaning that couples cannot immediately begin getting married — it is a significant step forward for equality. Congratulations, Florida!
Today the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Virginia’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples.
This is a historic step forward for equality in the South. Beyond Virginia, the ruling will also affect the other states covered by the 4th Circuit, including North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia, which have similar bans in place. In West Virginia, the district judge considering the challenge to the state’s ban said last month that he would not proceed until the federal appeals court had ruled.
In the majority opinion, the judges noted that bigotry and fear cannot be the basis for the denial of equal rights under the law:
We recognize that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable. However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws.
…The choice of whether and whom to marry is an intensely personal decision that alters the course of an individual's life. Denying same-sex couples this choice prohibits them from participating fully in our society, which is precisely the type of segregation that the Fourteenth Amendment cannot countenance.
For those who claim that marriage bans are legitimate because they were adopted by popular vote, the court quoted a Supreme Court case from 1964:
A citizen’s constitutional rights can hardly be infringed simply because a majority of the people choose that it be.
That one sentence perfectly encapsulates why courts matter.