Are America’s Absurdly Homophobic Ways Just Buried in History?

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U.S. sentiment regarding LGBTQ rights and gay marriage, as well as general comfort level with the spectrum of gender and sexuality in the U.S., has improved tremendously over the years. Historically, though, things have been incredibly difficult for the LGBTQ community, a truth worth acknowledging and remembering as we consider policy and social sensitivity going forward. Difficult may not be the most illustrative word — bigoted and homophobic serve better. A series of government papers recovered from where they’ve lain since the 1960s gives a pretty startling and clear example of the institutional prejudices in place not so many years ago.

One set of documents shows a correspondence that took place in 1963 between an administrative official and a fellow employee. The official asked whether or not a formerly gay employee could be “rehabilitated” through years of marriage and therein become an acceptable employee once more. The answer? While it was not impossible for “rehabilitated” gays to continue employment, it was a rarity. “Some feel that ‘once a homo, always a homo,’” said John W. Steele, in charge of government personnel matters with the Civil Service Commission, according to The New York Times.

“Our tendency to ‘lean over backwards’ to rule against a homosexual is simply a manifestation of the revulsion which homosexuality inspires in the normal person,” said Steele. Four months prior to this exchange, President L.B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which disallowed discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or country of origin.

The New York Times reports that government practices and considerations like the example given went on for ten years after that. In explaining why homosexuality posed a workplace problem within the federal government, Steel stated that, “Although there are some dissenting voices, our society generally regards homosexuality as a form of immoral conduct,” going on to note that “sexual perversion” constitutes a national security concern in that it opens employees up for greater risk of extortion and blackmail.

Ultimately, the United States has improved greatly since the 1960s — of that there can be no doubt. Same-sex marriage, while more divisive than simply looking at public reception, can be a good barometer of public acceptance across the U.S.. So far, 18 states have legalized same-sex marriage, while 32 still have a ban in place — some of which are in the process of overturning it or considering appeals. Compared to 1996, when 68 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll said they believed same-sex marriage was not valid, 2014 showed 55 percent saying same-sex marriage should be valid. Additionally, all age groups are showing increases in equal rights support, according to Gallup, not just the younger generations. Finally, Republicans, especially younger Republicans, are increasingly accepting of same-sex marriage — with a Pew Research Poll showing 61 percent of Republicans under the age of 30 in favor of same-sex marriage, and only 35 percent opposing it.

In terms of institutional governmental improvements, the military provides a decent example with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s discussion of gays and lesbians in the military. With “don’t ask don’t tell” repealed, Hagel spoke at a gay pride rally on how openly serving gay and lesbian troop members have made “our nation and our military stronger, much stronger.” He also stated in an interview with ABC’s This Week that he would be “open” to reviewing the military’s policy on transgender military members, explaining hesitance to changes as the issues surrounding transgenders in the armed forces is considered “a bit more complicated because it has a medical component to it.”

So are conditions improving? Yes. However, even to this day there has been homophobic legislation regarding business, and corporations have seen its own issues with LGBTQ acceptance. It wasn’t so long ago — 7 years compared the fifty or so that have passed since The New York Times documents — that General Peter Pace, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was demanding “don’t ask don’t tell” continue because he believed “homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts.

“I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is okay to be immoral in any way. As an individual, I would not want [acceptance of gay behavior] to be our policy, just like I would not want it to be our policy that if we were to find out that so-and-so was sleeping with somebody else’s wife, that we would just look the other way, which we do not. We prosecute that kind of immoral behavior,” said Pace in an interview with The Chicago Tribune.

Another recent example of U.S. policy that has been shaped by homophobia is the Arizona SB 1062 bill, which made it all the way through the state legislature before being vetoed by Arizona Governor Janice Brewer in February of 2014. The bill would have made it so that businesses in Arizona could choose, based on religious beliefs, to refuse services to members of the LGBTQ community. Luckily, the bill had considerable economic disadvantages and had large business interests such as the Super Bowl Host Committee and Delta Airlines voicing disapproval, or else the largely Republican legislature may have had its way.

Both concerning and uplifting is the April example of Mozilla Firefox’s Chief Executive Officer, Brendan Eich, who supported California’s Proposition 8 — the 2008 ban on gay marriage. He had donated $1,000 dollars to support Prop. 8 in 2008, and as a result, company employees were uncomfortable working under him. OkCupid asked customers not to use their site on the Mozilla browser. It claimed that leadership that did not support love for all should not be supported. Eich eventually stepped down after the scandal played out.

On a more serious note, hate crimes against LGBTQ individuals aren’t seeing the same improvement. According to the FBI’s Hate Crime Report, anti-gay crimes increased in 2011 to 1,508, compared to 1,016 seen in 1996. This is particularly salient as general stats on hate crimes are actually improving, having gone down since 1996 by nearly 30 percent, or 2,537 incidents. This means that while other cases of violence are decreasing, extremist sentiment against gays are not seeing the same degree of improvement.

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