Metro Weekly

Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word: Apologizing to the LGBT Community

Apologizing for discriminating against LGBT people is something few governments are willing to do

Pope Francis - Photo: Long Thiên

Pope Francis – Photo: Long Thiên

Forgiveness is not the easiest thing to grant, hence the truism, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” If that’s the case, the LGBT community will have to exercise both patience and benevolence when it comes to the countless slights and injuries it has received throughout history.

Appropriately, religious groups are leading the way when it comes to seeking repentance for harming LGBT people, exemplifying the Bible’s teachings about turning the other cheek. Last weekend, Pope Francis declared that the Catholic Church should ask for forgiveness from gay people and others it has wronged over the years.

“We Christians have to apologize for so many things, not just for this,” the Pope said. “But we must ask for forgiveness, not just apologize! Forgiveness! Lord, it is a word we forget so often!”

Francis isn’t alone in acknowledging his church’s wrongdoings against the LGBT community — in 2007, Bishop Desmond Tutu, a social justice advocate and retired Anglican bishop, apologized for the Anglican Church’s persecution of gays. “For me that is quite un-Christlike and, for that reason, it is unacceptable,” Tutu said. “I’m sorry for the hurt, for the rejection, for the anguish that we have caused to such as yourselves.”

It was a sentiment echoed in January by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who apologized for the Anglican Church’s marginalization and rejection of LGBT people over the years. However, while a majority of the Church of England’s congregants support same-sex marriage, the church itself does not. Old habits die hard.

Religion isn’t the only institution complicit in LGBT people’s suffering. Religious doctrine may have helped to spread anti-LGBT sentiment, but governments and rulers enshrined it in law. Political figures have been all too willing to target a historically disenfranchised community, one with very little power or influence. Whether motivated by religious beliefs, animus towards a “lifestyle” they don’t understand, an “ick” factor over the thought of gay sex, or the oft-cited “security risk” posed by living openly, the political class has used the LGBT community as its whipping post for generations.

Unfortunately, even as laws have become more LGBT-friendly, most governments have been unwilling to admit to the nature and scope of their discrimination. There have been small concessions along the way, but most have either dealt with specific events or certain LGBT individuals. The community at large has mostly been ignored.

The most obvious example of a government-issued apology is Alan Turing, the British scientist who helped crack the Nazi’s Enigma Code during World War II. In 2009, former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for the forced chemical castration of Turing after it was revealed he was homosexual. Turing committed suicide at 41. In 2013, almost 60 years after his death, he received a royal pardon from Queen Elizabeth II. That same year, in the United States, John Berry, former director of the Office of Personnel Management, issued a formal written apology to LGBT rights activist Frank Kameny, who was fired from the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 because of his homosexuality. But neither the British nor U.S. governments have apologized to the much greater number of people also persecuted or mistreated because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and who lack the fame of a Turing or a Kameny.

Sometimes, what appears to be an apology (or at least an admission of guilt) is an attempted justification for targeting LGBT people. In 2010, Fidel Castro, former President of Cuba, told the Mexican newspaper La Jornada that he took responsibility for the discrimination or mistreatment of members of the LGBT community. During the ’60s and ’70s, many LGBT people were fired, imprisoned or sent to “reeducation camps.” But even as he admitted ignoring the plight of LGBT people on the island nation, Castro tried to reason with his government’s actions.

“At the time we were being sabotaged systematically, there were armed attacks against us, we had too many problems,” Castro said. “Keeping one step ahead of the CIA, which was paying so many traitors, was not easy.”

So much for taking responsibility.

Given the history of “apologies” offered to the LGBT community, many of them half-hearted or mealy-mouthed, it came as a surprise last month when the government of Victoria, in Australia, issued a formal apology for laws that criminalized homosexuality, often resulting in jail sentences of up to 15 years.

“I can’t possibly explain why we made these laws and clung to them and fought for them,” said Victorian Premier David Andrews. “It is the first responsibility of a government to keep people safe. But the Government didn’t keep LGBTI people safe. The Government invalidated their humanity and cast them into a nightmare.”

With Victoria opening the door, LGBT activists have seized upon an opportunity to obtain apologies from governments that once persecuted them. Germany has promised to overturn the convictions of men who had been sentenced under a now-defunct law. Although it began under the Nazi regime, the law was used to prosecute people well into the 1960s, and remained on the books until 1994. In Canada, LGBT activists have issued two separate reports, one of which calls for an apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government and restitution for those prosecuted under anti-LGBT laws. The second calls for an apology to former public servants or military members who were dismissed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

As for the U.S. government, hoping for a formal apology any time soon would be futile. So far, neither Congress nor the White House has even raised the possibility of apologizing for the persecution and mistreatment of LGBT people by the U.S government.

The most egregious action taken against the LGBT community occurred during the “Lavender Scare,” a period when the United States was enthralled by McCarthyism and red-baiting. During that period, gays and lesbians were fired because they were thought to be easy targets for blackmail and infiltration by Communists, and therefore security risks. The Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., a local LGBT group, is currently suing the Department of Justice to turn over papers, memoranda, and correspondence related to President Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450, which banned homosexuals and “sexual perverts” from working for the federal government. That order was subsequently enforced by the Civil Service Commission, now the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

“We tried to get a meeting with OPM this year, and they wouldn’t see us,” says Charles Francis, president of the Mattachine Society. “We met with them last year, and they saw our presentation. We discovered the files in the National Archives of the Office of the General Counsel of the Civil Service Commission and the Office of Personnel Management. We found the papers…. It was sickening. They fought gay equality every step of the way for 40 years.

“And so we said, ‘We don’t want an apology. An apology is for individuals. You apologized to Frank Kameny.’ How do you apologize to tens of thousands? And not just the people that were fired, but their families and their children that are alive today? I don’t think you can. To those tens of thousands, we want a ‘truth and reconciliation’ approach. We want a statement of recognition of what happened. And then OPM got hacked in 2015. Then they had a change in leadership, and then they wouldn’t discuss it with us again.

“I want a statement of recognition from OPM that their lawyers, government attorneys, who worked diligently to continue the firing and the investigating, to keep us out, until it finally ended with Clinton, in his executive order,” he continues. “It should be: ‘We recognize that tens of thousands of LGBT Americans were investigated and many fired through five presidencies.’ Really stepping up and admitting what happened.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com