The U.S. Can't Move Forward on LGBTQ Rights Without Reparations


It is generally hard to know when a social revolution has achieved its goals. In the case of the American gay rights revolution, however, it appears that this is an easy one to call. At least as far as the national media is concerned, the view that gay rights have been decisively won has become conventional wisdom. Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution is one of the best-known journalistic accounts of the struggle for gay rights in the U.S. That book’s premise is pointedly echoed by a 2019 article in The Atlantic titled “The Struggle for Gay Rights is Over.” But America’s gay rights revolution seems unfinished or incomplete in the absence of a national reckoning with the country’s shameful history of systemic discrimination and violence towards the LGBTQ community. The absence of this reckoning makes the U.S. an outlier among Western democracies with a history of repression of homosexuality.

In recent years, the idea of “gay reparations,” broadly understood as policies intended to make amends for the legacies of systemic gay discrimination and violence, has become something of a global phenomenon. In 2017, the British Parliament enacted Turing Law, a legislation that conveyed an apology and a posthumous pardon to those convicted of “gross indecency,” a criminal charge intimately associated in British history with the persecution of gay men since the Victorian era. It honors Alan Turing, the famed computer scientist credited with breaking German military codes during World War II. In 1952, Turing was convicted of gross indecency, after confessing to a homosexual relationship with another man, and forced to undergo chemical castration. Britain’s example has been emulated by Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand. Germany has offered financial compensation to those who faced prosecution under Paragraph 175, the infamous portion of the German Penal Code that criminalized same-sex attraction dating to 1871; it also built a national monument to the victims of the so-called “Gay Holocaust,” the unknown number of gay males who perished in Nazi concentration camps. As part of a policy of “moral rehabilitation,” Spain has pledged to wipe clean the criminal records of some 5,000 gays and lesbians imprisoned under the homophobic laws of the Franco regime.

Given the variety of gay reparations available, which one should the U.S. embrace? For the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., the most prominent American organization demanding gay reparations, the United States should emulate the British example. In particular, the “Mattachines,” whose name references a pre-Stonewall gay rights organization that fought for acceptance of homosexuality within the legal and medical establishments, want an acknowledgement and an apology from the US Congress for the Lavender Scare, the witch-hunt of homosexuals triggered by President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 executive order banning “perverts” from working in the federal government. That order occasioned the firing of thousands of federal employees on the suspicion of being homosexuals and forced many to undergo lobotomies, insulin-induced comas, and gay conversion therapy with the aim of changing their sexual orientation at federal institutions such as Washington, D.C’s St. Elizabeths Hospital. An acknowledgment and apology, the Mattachines contend, will be a giant step toward realizing “full citizenship” for gay people, a type of ethical citizenship that is not only concerned with rights and responsibilities but also with repairing indignity and degradation.