The final body count reached 918 men, women, and children. The nation was horrified. Deceived by their pastor, Jim Jones, on November, 18, 1978, almost a thousand members of ãThe Peopleâs Temple Agricultural Communityä committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. Newspapers around the world featured photos of their bodies lying face down in the jungle. In the center of that hellish scene there was a chair on a platform where Jones had sat preaching paranoia and urging his people to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid. Above the platform was a sign reading: ãThose who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.ä It is ironic that Jones had posted that famous Santayana quote permanently above his pulpit. If only 918 men, women and children had taken those words seriously. Unfortunately they did not.
People were stunned by the tragedy but at the same time most observers were certain that it could never happen to them. ãJones was a phony,ä they assumed. ãAny person with half-a-brain would not be deceived by San Franciscoâs Elmer Gantry.ä In fact Jones was an ordained minister of good standing in the United Church of Christ. In the beginning his sermons were Bible-based and socially progressive. Famous guests at his Sunday morning services included Vice President Walter Mondale and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Long before leading his congregation to Guyana, Jones was appointed Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Commission and honored for his work on behalf of race relations, public housing and hunger alleviation in an impressive testimonial dinner attended by the Governor of California and other powerful political and religious figures.
People who were stunned by those photos from Jonestown also assumed quite incorrectly that Jonesâ victims were poor, uneducated and vulnerable to deception. In writing a book and filming a documentary on Jonestown[i] (ãDeceived: the Jonestown Tragedyä) I was surprised to learn that many of Jonesâ victims were intelligent men and women with grad school degrees and impressive career records. How easy it is even for the so called well-informed to forget the lessons the past has taught us. This one lesson alone might have saved them: ãNo matter how much you love and trust an authority figure when he isolates you from your friends and family, when he uses fear to keep you in place, when he begins to make unreasonable demands and refuses to answer your questions with reasonable answers, run for the jungle.ä
These are the best of times for LGBTQ people. After decades of slow and painful struggle, the tide is turning. Full equality seems well within our reach. We deserve time off to celebrate the amazing victories of recent years.
However, before we think weâve won the war against ignorance and intolerance we need to recall Santayanaâs warning ãThose who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.ä Before we begin to forget the years of struggle that got us to this place, before our memories dim, it would be wise for us LGBTQ people to make a serious effort to preserve our own unique American history. One powerful, permanent way to remember our past would be a National LGBT Museum built alongside the other great museums in Washington, DC. I canât tell you how many times museum visits have slapped me awake.
Have you walked through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC? No words can match the emotional impact of those collections of hair, shoes and eyeglasses removed from Jewish victims. How important it is to remember that once a great nation was duped into insanity by a mediocre Austrian painter. Perhaps it is more important for people of faith to remember that most Christian leaders in Germany goose stepped with the Nazi deceivers. While very few Christian pastors and theologians risked their lives to condemn Hitler, men like Dietrich Bonheoffer were hanged for opposing Nazi tyranny. Needless to say, memories of the Holocaust include thousands of our LGBT sisters and brothers who were cast into concentration camps under Paragraph 175 of the anti-sodomy law of the German Criminal Code. When WWII ended, gay prisoners were the last to be released from prisons and Paragraph 175 was not officially revoked in Germany until 1994.
Have you visited the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Alabama? One exhibit features an ordinary window looking out on an old, red brick church just across the street. It seemed like a strange non-exhibit until I read the simple plaque under the window: Birminghamâs 16th Street Baptist Church. I stood there blinking back tears as I pictured Ku Klux Klansman Robert Chambliss placing dynamite near that very church stairway, lighting the fuse and watching from a distance while four little girls skipped into view. How important it is to remember that our nation too has a terrible history of intolerance and injustice. Perhaps it is even more important for people of faith to remember that not one Southern preacher, in fact not one Northern preacher, used his pulpit to condemn lynching during those terrible lynching years. Of course there were exceptions; white preachers like the Rev.
Robert Graetz and his wife Jean were ostracized, harassed, arrested and their home bombed twice because they supported Dr. King at every stage of his work in Birmingham.[ii] Once again, history reminds us of the unjust suffering of gay men like Bayard Rustin, the genius behind Kingâs March on Washington, who was sacrificed by Dr. King and the other Civil Rights leaders because his homosexuality ãmight shame the movement.ä
Museums like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, keep memories alive that relate, if sometimes only indirectly, to our lives as LGBTQ Americans. Itâs time we built a museum of our own to focus directly on our unique past. A repository for memories that could help guide us in the present (as we continue moving toward full equality) and protect us in the future (when once again our enemies gather to reverse the rights we have gained.)
Our National LGBTQ Museum might include the dramatic and rather terrifying early history of same-sex acts in Colonial America where British settlers arrived carrying King Henry VIIIâs ãBuggery Act 1533ä making sodomy a capital crime. The Puritans landed carrying well marked Bibles they would misuse to arrest, try and even execute homosexuals. The new Puritans are still misusing those verses against us. No one knows the names of the thousands of homosexual Americans who suffered shame, imprisonment and even death during those Colonial times. But we can learn from history that our struggle for full equality began even then.
Thomas Jefferson has been vilified for making castration the punishment for sodomy in his Criminal Code for Virginia (1777). ãA woman guilty of sodomy,ä Jefferson wrote, ãwas to be punished by cutting through the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least.ä For a moment I thought very badly of Thomas Jefferson; however ending the death penalty just one year after the Declaration of Independence makes Jefferson a kind of hero. In fact, without even knowing it he was launching our seemingly endless struggle to overturn all same-sex sodomy laws. Those laws were not overturned until June 26, 2003, when the Supreme Court decided (6-3) that private sexual conduct is protected by the U.S.
Constitution. We get a new perspective on our recent victories when we remember that ending the sodomy laws took us 226 years.
In March 1778, General George Washington joined Jefferson in ending the death penalty for sodomy, this time in the military. The Commander and Chief of our Revolutionary Forces approved a military tribunalâs decision that a Lieutenant Enslin of Coloradoâs Malcomâs Regiment should not be hanged for attempting sodomy on another soldier. Instead the General sentenced Lieutenant Enslin to be ãdrummed out of camp tomorrow morning by all the drummers and the fifers in the Army never to return.ä That dishonorable discharge ended sodomy as a capital offense in the military, but such began our seemingly endless struggle to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military. That didnât happen until September 20, 2011, when ãDonât Ask. Donât Tellä was finally set aside by the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We get a new perspective on our recent victories when we remember that winning the right for homosexuals to serve openly in the military took us 233 years.
Remembering the past gives us perspective on both the present and the future. Imagine generations of LGBTQ people wandering through our National LGBT Museum, learning for the first time about our own martyrs and our heroes: Seeing pictures of our ancestors who were arrested, put on trial and even hanged for simply loving someone of the same sex; Hearing stories of LGBT Americans and our allies who risked their political careers to end the laws against sodomy and serving openly in the military; Discovering what generations of activists (and frustrated LGBTQ people) have endured to gain the full rights and protections of marriage÷rights and protections these young people might otherwise take for granted. Without that Museum tour those same students might never know about our struggle for LGBTQ civil rights, a struggle that lasted centuries, a struggle that continues to this day.
They will learn about the Mattachine Society (1951), the first national gay rights organization, formed by Harry Hay, who is considered the founder of the 20th century gay rights movement. They will discover the Daughters of Bilitis (1955), the first lesbian-rights organization founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon who are often called our movementâs founding mothers. They will learn about the Gay Liberation Front, about Queer Nation and Lesbian Avengers, and about ACT-UP whose motto ãSilence equals deathä motivated so many of us to become activists. Their relentless (almost always nonviolent) protests on behalf of people with HIV/AIDS helped force political leaders and giant pharmaceutical companies to quit stalling and begin doing justice for people living with that disease.
The Museum could bring to life dramatic moments in our struggle for civil rights, for example: that first gathering of twelve in Troy Perryâs living room that became the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, still the nationâs largest LGBTQ organization (October 6, 1968); the Stonewall ãriotä where our courageous ãTâsä stood up against a police sting operation and helped launch a resistance movement that continues to this day (June 27, 1969). The APAâs decision to remove homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders (1973). The arson attack on an MCC church meeting in a gay bar in New Orleans where 32 died and 15 were grotesquely injured (June 24, 1973). The swearing in of Harvey Milk the first openly gay man elected to public office (January 8, 1978) and his assassination by Dan White just eleven months later (November 7, 1978). The first National March on Washington attended by approximately 75,000 people (1979). And just 14 years later, the March on Washington for LGB Equal Rights and Liberation attended by an estimated 800,000 to one million people (1993).
We have so many LGBTQ heroes whose stories need to be discovered by coming generations: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, James Baldwin, Evelyn Hooker, Truman Capote, Alice Walker, Noel Coward, Willa Cather, Larry Kramer, Barbara Gittings, Morris Kight, Margarethe Cammermeyer, Greg Louganis, names that just begin the list of great LGBTQ people whose lives have had a positive impact on our nation. We also must remember how shame, homophobia, and fear drove people like Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hover to work against the movement and their own interests.
If I were invited to curate an exhibit in our brand new National LGBT Museum, it would tell the story of Christian fundamentalists and their war against LGBTQ Americans. I have spent the last 30 years studying the rise of right wing Christians into places of political and religious power.[iii] Now an integral part of the Tea-Party movement, they are doing it again, rallying their forces to reverse the progress we have made. We should celebrate our victories but we need an emotionally powerful exhibit that reminds us of these words by Coretta Scott King: ãStruggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.ä
In 1994 my husband Gary and I, along with a group of gay and lesbian friends, staged a seven day ãFast for Understandingä in the shadow of James Dobsonâs massive ãFocus on the Family Headquarters.ä On the first day in a radio interview I invited families from Colorado Springs to visit us, to meet a gay couple, to discover that we are NOT in any way like Dobson describes us on his radio broadcasts. By the third day dozens of families were streaming up the hill in our direction.
Late one afternoon a woman with two children in their early teens dropped by for a visit. I greeted them but the mother remained silent. After a rather long pause she said quietly, ãDr. White, I am not gay and I am not Christian. I am a Jewish mother who brought her children to meet you.ä I smiled and began to thank her when she continued. ãThis is not a social visit,ä she said. ãWe know Dobson lies about gays. He lies about a lot of things.ä Again she paused. I could see tears forming in her eyes. I had no idea what would happen next when she said simply, ãLast time they took you first. We must not let that happen again.ä She was remembering Hitlerâs Third Reich and the sudden unexpected arrest of thousands of gay Germans. No one knew it then, but Hitler was testing the general public to see how they would react to mass arrests and concentration camps. When almost no one even noticed that gays were disappearing in the night, Hitler began his campaign to rid Europe of six million Jews.
The people who followed Jim Jones into the jungles of Guyana and then almost without protest drank the Kool-Aid laced with cyanide thought it could never happen to them. The German people heard rumors that Jews would be arrested and carted off to concentration camps but thought it could never happen to them. At this moment, LGBT people know that fundamentalist Christians have a mandate from God to reverse those rights, silence our voices and drive us back into our closets or worse but we are confident that it could never happen to us. I hope weâll post over the entry of our new National LGBT Museum Santayanaâs words: ãThose who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.ä