Entries from: April 2013

60th anniversary of federal government’s gay purge

act2c-imgThe renewed effort to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act launched last week came days before the 60th anniversary of a defining moment in LGBT history, when thousands of employees and contractors were purged from the federal government because they were gay or lesbian.

On April 27, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order calling for the removal of homosexuals from all federal agencies. Gay and lesbian government workers were immediately fired or resigned out of fear of being publicly outed.  Even LGBT people working in the private sector whose jobs required them to have a federal security clearance were also fired or resigned.

The supposed justification for the purge was that homosexuals were a godless, immoral group who would work with communists to overthrow the government, thereby posing an imminent threat to national security.

While many remember the “Red Scare” of the mid-20th century, the purging of LGBT government employees, dubbed the “Lavender Scare,” today rarely receives its due as a catalyst for the LGBT equality movement. In 2004, David K. Johnson helped bring the historical moment to light in his book The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.

This summer, a documentary titled “The Lavender Scare” is set to hit theaters and film festivals. Gay Politics spoke with Producer/Director Josh Howard and Executive Producer Kevin Jennings about the making of the film and the importance of the Lavender Scare, both 60 years ago and today.

GP: What was your motivation in creating the film?

JH: Our aim is to shed light an important aspect of LGBT history that has never received the attention it deserves.  There are many, many movies and books about the Cold War and the McCarthy Era, but the story of how gay men and lesbians were systematically driven from their government jobs during that time has never been fully told.  Thousands and thousands of LGBT people fired; by contrast, only a couple of hundred suspected Communists lost their jobs.  The history books don’t acknowledge this, and as a result few very people know about it.  It’s a dramatic example of the ways in which the role of the LGBT community is often overlooked and marginalized in the telling of American history. The Lavender Scare will help to correct the historical record and bring this story to a broad audience.  As we have learned all too well, if our community doesn’t speak out on its own behalf, nobody is going to do it for us.

KJ: We also felt that if we didn’t make this film now, it could never be made.  Fewer and fewer people who lived through the witch hunts are still alive.  In order to tell this story, we need the first-hand accounts of both the victims of the witch hunts and the government officials who were in charge.  We have been successful in locating and interviewing enough key players to be able to construct a compelling film, but we knew our window of opportunity was closing.  In fact, one of the key players in the story is Frank Kameny, who became the first person to fight back against the government’s policy of firing LGBT people, and went on to devote his entire life to the fight for LGBT rights.  We spent three days filming interviews with Frank.  Sadly, he passed away shortly thereafter.

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Out state lawmakers fight for transgender rights

tomammianoOpenly gay and lesbian state lawmakers are spearheading efforts in multiple states to pass laws protecting transgender people.

In California, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (pictured) is fighting to protect California’s transgender students from discrimination in schools. Last week, he introduced legislation that would grant students the right to use public school bathrooms and participate on sports teams that match their expressed genders, according to  the Associated Press.

Discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation is already illegal in California, but Ammiano’s bill would be the first in the country to specifically address transgender students’ right to use the restroom and join the sports team that corresponds with their gender identity.

Just next door, Nevada law does not currently protect people from discrimination based on gender identity. Pat Spearman, an openly lesbian state Senator, introduced a bill Monday that would make Nevada the next state to include gender identity in its hate crimes statute.

Sen. Spearman, who said she was the victim of an attack when she was 21, emphasized the importance of adding gender identity to existing hate crimes laws. “Whenever crimes are committed by perpetrators and they are clearly committed only on the basis of a particular aspect of that person’s characteristics, then I think justice requires us to act,” she told a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The Las Vegas Sun reported that supporters from the community filled the room, overflowing into the hall. No one present opposed the bill.

In Maryland, openly gay state Sen. Rich Madaleno and ally state Sen. Jamie Raskin have proposed the Fairness for All Marylanders Act of 2013, which would add gender identity to the list of protected identities under the state’s hate crimes statute. The measure died in committee in 2012, but supporters are confident that the important bill will pass this year.

“Many of the most vulnerable people in the LGBT community are left with no legal protections in our state laws,” Sen. Madaleno said. “I come before you today as the sponsor of Senate Bill 449 with my good friend from Montgomery County and ask you to fix this omission and ensure that all Marylanders, including my transgender sisters and brothers, are afforded protection under our anti-discrimination laws.”

Governor O’Malley told the Washington Blade last week that he is “absolutely” reaching out to lawmakers to urge them to pass the bill.

Photo: Sacramento Bee

Honoring LGBT African-American trailblazers in politics

As we celebrate Black History Month, Gay Politics honors the African-American, openly LGBT elected and appointed officials who have made a difference through their service in government. These individuals have shown the true diversity and leadership potential of the LGBT community.

Today the Victory Fund is working to grow the number of LGBT people of color serving in public office.  With this year’s endorsement of Lawrence Robinson for Phoenix City Council and Dwayne Crenshaw for San Diego City Council, we hope to amplify LGBT African-Americans’ voices within the political sphere.

And now a look back at just a few of the trailblazing figures who have added to the rich histories of the LGBT and African American experiences in the U.S.

OESherryHarrisSherry Harris became the first Victory Fund-endorsed candidate to be elected to public office when she won a seat on the Seattle City Council in 1991. Harris helped to pass resolutions condemning anti-LGBT discrimination and helped get a Domestic Partnership registration law passed in Seattle. Her work on HIV/AIDS included securing more funding for prevention, directing the Health Department’s coordination of services, passing a resolution supporting the AIDS Cure Act, and leading the effort to establish an AIDS Memorial Park.

“It is always difficult to be first. Someone has to forge the way. If there is a lesson for the gay community as well as the black community, which can be gleamed from my election, it is that we begin to honor and embrace our diversity. We are not a homogeneous species—each human is complex and multi-faceted. If we don’t learn to celebrate our differences we won’t be able to make a difference. I believe that every human being has come here to contribute to making a difference in his or her own unique way,” said Harris.

batts_deborahDeborah A. Batts shattered the glass ceiling within the federal government’s judicial branch when President Clinton appointed her to the U.S. District Court in New York. After 18 years of service to the people of New York, she took senior status last year on her 65th birthday. Batts once commented that “being a lesbian is definitely an important part” of her life, but clarified that it is one of many important facets of her life: “I am also a very devoted mother, I’m an attorney, a former prosecutor, and I’m an African American.” In a culture that previously propagated that LGBT people were somehow deviant or untrustworthy, Batts’ appointment to the federal bench marked an important milestone in the movement for equality.

ron_odenThe people of Palm Springs, Calif., elected the country’s first openly gay African-American mayor in 2003. Ron Oden had previously served on the Palm Springs City Council for eight years. Throughout his tenure, Mayor Oden doubled the city’s budget and Palm Springs saw more economic growth than ever before. He was also apologetically vocal in his determination to promote diversity and consistently partnered with the Palm Springs branch of the NAACP, the Palm Springs Human Rights Task Force, and the Palm Springs Human Rights Commission.

simmonsDenise Simmons became the first out lesbian African-American mayor of Cambridge, Mass.—the first to lead any American city, for that matter. Prior to serving as mayor, she was a member of the Cambridge City Council, where she worked to help make Cambridge City Hall the first municipality to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples in 2004. Simmons earned a reputation for being able to calmly diffuse tense situations, to promote community dialogue, and to foster a sense of unity within the city regardless of who you are, what you look like, or who you love.

simone-bellGeorgia’s District 58 elected Simone Bell, the country’s first African-American lesbian to serve in a U.S. state legislature. In a 2009 interview with Gay Politics, Bell emphasized her commitment to serving her community as an out lawmaker: “Our district is beautifully diverse, filled with hardworking and engaged voters who love their communities and want to continue on the road of progress…I am passionate, prepared and committed to continue to work hard for all of the people when I reach the General Assembly as I have for the past twenty years.  My sexuality is not a barrier to reaching my goals and I believe the people of District 58 will not allow it to be a barrier to reaching their goals.”

Legislation would end Scouts’ tax exemption in Calif.

lara221An openly gay California state senator has proposed a bill that would strip tax exempt status for youth organizations that openly discriminate.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara introduced the “Youth Equality Act” Tuesday in the midst of the nationwide debate over the Boy Scouts of America’s controversial anti-gay policy. If it passes, the legislation would revoke the tax exempt status of youth organizations (including student groups organized through private and public schools) who discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Our state values the important role that youth groups play in the empowerment of our next generation; this is demonstrated by rewarding organizations with tax exemptions supported financially by all Californians,” said Lara. “SB 323 seeks to end the unfortunate discriminatory and outdated practices by certain youth groups by revoking their tax exemption privilege should they not comply with our non-discrimination laws.”

Supporters of the bill say they recognize it directly targets the Boy Scouts’ discriminatory policy, particularly as the organization’s national leadership debates the rule throughout the coming months. The Board of the Boy Scouts is expected to reconsider its anti-gay policy in May.

“I thought it was necessary for California to make sure we don’t condone the discriminating practices of youth groups like the Boy Scouts of America,” Lara said. “We’ve given the Boy Scouts ample time, and they’ve chosen not to address this issue.”

The bill would require a two-thirds vote in the state legislature to pass.

Documentary explores lives of LGBT Americans in politics

Promo Card FEB2013Harvey Milk knew the power of telling his own story. The first openly gay elected official in California, Milk urged LGBT people to seek political office so that their influence would grow as colleagues learned more about them and their lives. But as Milk’s own story shows us, out candidates have faced numerous obstacles that test their courage and resolve.

Breaking Through, a documentary film nearing release, explores the powerful personal stories of elected officials who ran as openly LGBT—and won. The film includes interviews with U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Fort Worth, Texas, City Councilman Joel Burns, and several other out lawmakers who overcame seemingly impossible barriers and became beacons of hope to LGBT people around the world.

Cindy L. Abel, the film’s Director/Producer, served on the Victory Fund Board for eight years, including two years as Co-Chair. She founded Atlantis Moon Productions in 2007 to create film-related projects that would launch conversations and impact popular culture.

Gay Politics spoke with Abel this week about the genesis of Breaking Through and her hopes for its impact once it’s released.

GP:  Where did the idea for Breaking Through come from?

CA:  Throughout much of my life, I didn’t know many truly openly LGBT people. When I learned about the Victory Fund, a whole world opened up. I learned of elected officials who were not only pursuing but achieving their dreams. What I had been told couldn’t be done, they were doing. They’d been there all along, but I hadn’t known about them.

After serving on the Victory Fund board for eight years, I was still inspired by those who were running for, and in many cases winning, elected office. I want others, who might be thinking – as Arkansas State Rep Kathy Webb did after witnessing Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination as Vice President, “I felt I could do anything as a woman, but not as a lesbian” – to realize that’s a false choice.

GP:  Why is it important to tell these stories?

CA:  Sen. Baldwin said, “It’s critical that we tell our stories; we can’t make progress without doing so.” And she’s right. We’ve shown clips of the film in a few places and also had conversations with strangers while traveling. I remember meeting one 76-year old gay man who was in tears after seeing excerpts of the film at the OUT on Film Festival. “When I was struggling in my teens and twenties, I tried to kill myself for almost a decade. If I’d seen a film like this back then, it would’ve changed everything: please get this out there so others don’t have to go through what I did.”

GP:  Sen. Tammy Baldwin, City Councilman Joel Burns, and several other well-known LGBT people participate in the film. How have elected officials reacted to the idea of being involved?

CA:  They’ve all been incredibly generous with their time. For example, Sen. Baldwin gave us two hours for the interview and b-roll – that’s unheard of for an elected official! – and then provided archival photos and news clips.

Every person we interviewed went out of their way to make time in jam-packed schedules (much to the headache of their staff) and why? Joel Burns put it this way: “If one gay kid, who is holding a gun in their hand, thinking of taking his life, sees this movie and puts down that gun, then it’s worth it.” Continue reading »