August, 2015 · By Justin Bengry
UK Labour Party leadership contender Andy Burnham recently proposed automatic pardons for all men convicted of historical homosexual offences that are no longer crimes. This has been an ongoing conversation in the UK, which in 2013 granted WWII Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing a posthumous royal pardon. The issue reappeared in the lead up to this year’s May 7 general election, when Labour’s then-leader Ed Miliband came out in favour of case-by-case pardons for living individuals and also posthumous cases. David Cameron and the Conservatives soon followed suit, likewise promising that if were they to form the next government, men convicted of historical offences would be pardoned. Burnham’s announcement has reinvigorated this question of whether all men should have similar convictions deemed spent, pardoned or erased.
A well-publicised petition supported by Turing’s family, activists like Peter Tatchell, and celebrities like Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephen Fry demands that a royal pardon be extended to all men convicted under ‘anti-gay’ laws. More than 600,000 people have signed the petition demanding the state ‘Pardon all of the estimated 49,000 men who, like Alan Turing, were convicted of consenting same-sex relations under the British “gross indecency” law (only repealed in 2003), and also all the other men convicted under other UK anti-gay laws’. As a historian of Britain’s LGBTQ past I cannot sign this petition nor support anything more than pardons for living individuals.
August, 2012 · By Justin Bengry
Recent furor over Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s funding of organizations explicitly opposed to same-sex marriage has made consumers across the political and social spectrum evaluate how their spending habits are in fact political decisions.
Opponents of marriage equality and some free market supporters have asked what gay men and lesbians hope to achieve by calling for boycotts against Chick-fil-A. Many see economic action against Cathy and Chick-fil-A as anti-Capitalist, even un-American, arguing incorrectly that it violates his freedom of speech. The history of queer economic activism, however, demonstrates just what is at stake, and what boycotting can achieve.
Even before the modern homosexual rights movement gained momentum in the 1970s, gay men and lesbians recognized the relationship between economic forces and human rights. Already in 1963, in response to UK tabloid press sensationalism that vilified homosexuals, author Douglas Plummer called on gay men and lesbians to boycott publications that demonized them. “If homosexuals stopped buying those particular newspapers,” he foresaw, “some circulations would drop by many hundreds of thousands of copies.” Plummer recognized the economic clout that homosexuals might have, but before a larger coordinated community existed, his call for economic action went unanswered.
Following the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, in which gay men and lesbians stood against police raids and harassment in New York, a greater community began to form. This wider community soon saw economic action as a strategic tool against state and legal oppression. Just five years after Stonewall the Los Angeles Police Department responded to the threat of a boycott against Hollywood businesses by revising its policies toward gay Angelenos.
And in 1977 the most famous gay boycott demonstrated the potential of economic action to oppose anti-gay sentiment and further build a cohesive community. In January, Dade County (Miami) passed an ordinance to prohibit discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. In order to overturn it, Florida Citrus Commission spokeswoman, entertainer and former Miss Oklahoma Anita Bryant formed Save Our Children, which collected sufficient signatures to force the issue to a voter referendum. The stage was set for the first time for coordinated national action among a broad spectrum of gay men and lesbians.
Responding to Bryant’s anti-gay positions and her links to the Citrus Commission, calls for a boycott of Florida orange juice rang out across the nation. As today, gay leaders and ordinary citizens were mixed about the tactic of using a boycott to oppose personal beliefs and business interests. Some questioned the desirability of silencing Bryant or threatening her employment through economic action against her employer. Others worried about a boycott’s effects on economically vulnerable farm workers. In California, however, columnist Harvey Milk, who would become the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, called on the city, unions, and gay leaders to boycott Florida orange juice. He argued that buying orange juice amounted to “supporting a person who is preaching hatred towards every Gay person.” Milk, who continued to promote gay equality while he sat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, would be assassinated the following year.
According to Herndon Graddick, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Cathy and Chick-fil-A are responsible for some five million dollars in donations to “anti-gay” organizations like the American Family Association and the Family Research Council as well as support for organizations that promote therapies to “turn” homosexuals straight. Chick-fil-A’s support for “the biblical definition of the family unit” has now made this an issue not only for gay men and lesbians, but for a broader range of consumers. The debate is not restricted to those whom it most directly affects, but instead to anyone who might use their money to support Cathy’s business and his cause, or to deny them funds by boycotting Chick-fil-A and spending their money elsewhere.
Economic action against Chick-fil-A is unlikely to dissuade Cathy from supporting or funding groups dedicated to fighting marriage equality. But despite the media interest and apparent success of former Arkansas Governor and Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee’s August 1 “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” history shows us that queer economic action and boycotts can in fact have broader successes beyond the immediate issue at hand. Economic action against Chick-fil-A implicates all consumers of fast food, asking them to make decisions with their dollars either to support marriage equality or to fund Cathy and anti-equality groups. The explosion of support across social media suggests increasing demand for marriage equality beyond just gay men and lesbians.
In the end, the boycott against Florida Orange Juice and the backlash against Anita Bryant failed to prevent the overturning of Dade County’s anti-discrimination ordinance. In the immediate context of Miami, the boycott seemed to have failed. But most local and national gay and lesbian organizations nonetheless highlighted the action’s success in creating a national movement devoted to gay and lesbian human rights that contributed to the mobilization of a national consciousness.
Twenty years after the Stonewall Rebellion, protesters on Fifth Avenue in New York rallied together around the cry “We’re Here, We’re Queer, and We’re Not Going Shopping.” By 1989 they recognized that their choices as consumers could be strategically employed to support some businesses or boycott others for their employment practices, marketing and advertising or promotion of social and political causes. In 2012, a US election year, consumer choices are even more political as they become mainstream news and affect policy statements among future candidates.
Like the Florida orange juice campaign, which solidified a national gay and lesbian political movement, non-violent economic action against Chick-fil-A is likely to have greater impact beyond protesting the specific policies of this fast food restaurant and its executives. It may in fact galvanize a broad coalition of gay men, lesbians but significantly also allies in support of marriage equality in the US. This concrete expansion of the movement for marriage equality beyond those whom it affects directly to include progressive men and women, religious leaders, and average folks everywhere may turn out to be the greatest strength of this economic action.
This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
28 August 2012.
January, 2010 · By Justin Bengry
Recent events at the American Historical Association’s annual conference in San Diego have raised questions about how we as historians consider homosexuality and LGBTQ issues, both in our own research and teaching as well as the professional as a whole. At the AHA, queer scholars, scholars of sexuality, allies, and other supporters expressed concerns about events taking place at the Manchester Grand Hyatt because of its association with Douglas Manchester, a prominent supporter of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. Many observed a boycott of the hotel, finding accommodation elsewhere and avoiding panels at the Hyatt. Others participated in mini-conference sessions specifically addressing LGBTQ issues and histories.
This interest in contemporary gay and lesbian issues at our national conference also forces us to consider how we, as historians, address gay and lesbian histories on a smaller scale in our own work. After all, it is in the university with our students where many of us will have the greatest impact. This is not to say that we as historians should make it our mission to teach a particular politics in the classroom. Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, faiths, and political positions. We can respect these perspectives, and the positions of our students, even as we seek to explore questions of contemporary relevance that might be fraught with personal passions and politics.
At one AHA mini-conference session on Proposition 8, Jennifer Manion (Connecticut College) evaluated historians’ engagement with LGBTQ lives and histories. Even as queer history has grown as a subfield in the last two decades, and an increasing number of dissertations explore gay and lesbian questions, too often professors’ treatment of LGBTQ history is little more than neglect. Few textbooks incorporate more than a couple paragraphs on gay and lesbian lives. Arguably, for many professors, fitting queer topics into already full syllabi means dropping another subject in favor of what many colleagues, chairs, and tenure committees might see as only a relatively small, marginalized group. But, argues Manion, even ongoing interest in a few important or successful books like George Chauncey’s Gay New York has amounted to little more than tokenism, rather than a genuine reconceptualization of what and how we teach.
Which brings us back to the first question: Why teach queer history? Very often, history is in fact the study of the present. Our research and publications can inform heated questions that society must still deal with. Is this not also the case with same-sex marriage? And is it not incumbent upon us to include gay and lesbian histories in our courses, syllabi, and overall department catalogues? Opposition to issues like gay marriage might be based on personal values, faith, and other perspectives. It is not our job to “correct” these positions. But, opposition can also be based on false histories, lack of knowledge, and ahistorical arguments that deny the past. A reconceptualization of our teaching strategies that incorporates gay and lesbian histories into courses as part of the diversity of our nations and communities, rather than as a theme week or small graduate seminar, necessarily promotes understanding and sensitivity to difference in the past, and perhaps the present too.
For the AHA’s response see:
For other responses to the AHA and the Hyatt boycott see:
This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
28 January 2010.