Queer Reading: Book makes the case for LGBTQ reparations

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday June 23, 2021
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Omar G. Encarnación. Photo: Courtesy Bard College
Omar G. Encarnación. Photo: Courtesy Bard College

For Omar G. Encarnación, Ph.D., it started with a New York Times op-ed he wrote two years ago, making the case for a "robust embrace of gay reparations in the United States, along the lines of Spain, Britain, and Germany."

Encarnación, a gay man, argued that LGBTQ reparations, whether in the form of an apology, a pardon, or financial restitution, were a moral obligation intended to restore dignity to the victims of anti-gay discrimination and violence. He also tied gay reparations to "the broader struggle by LGBTQ people for full citizenship, understood not only as rights and responsibilities, but also respect, recognition, and the sense of belonging to a national community." Queer citizens in the U.S. would join other marginalized groups from women to African Americans to immigrants, for full acceptance into American society.

The op-ed engendered vigorous discussions, as well as hate mail. Encarnación, a professor of political studies at Bard College in New York, sent the essay to his editor at Oxford University Press and she thought it would make a terrific subject for a book.

"Not only did I want to make a more expansive case for gay reparations, but I was also eager to tackle some of the comparative questions raised by the politics of gay reparations — such as what explained the rise of gay reparations as a new front in the struggle for LGBTQ equality; how gay reparations intersect with other forms of reparations, especially those intended to make amends for the legacy of racial discrimination; and why the United States fell behind other democratic peers in embracing gay reparations," he wrote in an email interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

The focus of his new book, "The Case for Gay Reparations" (Oxford University Press, $24.95), was not what Encarnación, 57, had initially been writing about.

"In June, 2019, while I was in the midst of writing a book about the 'gay rights backlash,' which aims to explain why this backlash, going back to the 1970s, has been more intense in the U.S. than in other liberal democracies, the story broke out that the [New York City Police Department] had issued an apology for the Stonewall raid."

The 1969 riots, of which the 50th anniversary was in 2019, marked the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

"As a student of the international gay rights movement, I knew the broader implications of the apology, which was the onset of 'gay reparations' in the U.S., or the attempt to make amends for a history of systemic anti-gay discrimination and violence," he wrote. "Until that apology, the U.S. had been something of an outlier among Western democracies with significant histories of homosexual repression in not having embraced any kind of reparation toward gay people."

Encarnación discussed how he defines reparations and the most common forms they can take.

"By reparations, I mean policies intended to make amends for a history of systemic anti-gay discrimination and violence," he stated. "It can take a variety of forms, from an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and the promise to do better in the future (Britain is the best example of this); to rehabilitation, which involves expunging prior convictions of a crime stemming from the criminalization of homosexuality (this was done in Spain); to financial compensation for time spent in prison or a mental institution due to the persecution of homosexuality (this was done in Spain, Canada, and Germany); to a monument to honor the memory of the victims of systemic anti-gay discrimination and violence (Germany). Finally, there's truth-telling, or the organization of a truth commission tasked with the responsibility of creating a state-sanctioned history of systemic anti-gay discrimination."

Another example of a way to express reparations was a suggestion by James Driscoll in a July 2019 op-ed article in the Washington Blade entitled, "It's Time for Reparations for LGBT Americans."

"What would those reparations look like?" Driscoll asked. "We do not seek a big financial giveaway. Pride is what our people want, and respect is what they need. Full recognition of the immense contributions and enormous wrongs born by LGBT people in America is in order. As a starter, let's have a museum on the [National] Mall to honor LGBT Americans, no politician has yet ventured to suggest it. ... There is no dearth of great LGBT Americans and achievements to commemorate and celebrate. We are best known for letters and arts that define the spirit and character of a nation. We have given our nation a disproportionate number of its greatest writers, composers and artists including Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg; composers Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Billy Strayhorn; painters John Singer Sargent, Georgia O'Keefe, Thomas Eakins, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring."

When asked why now is the best time to discuss this controversial topic, Encarnación replied, "There's never a bad time to try to right past wrongs; so yes, this moment is as good as any. It is also important to note that there's no universal approach to gay reparations. Every country is within its right to choose the approach that best suits its needs and history.

"The broader point is to acknowledge the injustices of the past in the hopes that they will not be repeated in the future," he added. "Beyond that, reparations, of any kind, are always a work in progress; it need not be limited to 'gays' as in homosexual males; in Spain, for instance, gay reparations have been extended to anyone who has been harmed because of the state's repression based on sexual orientation and gender identity."

Encarnación sees LGBTQ reparations as a moral obligation to address America's shameful history of systemic anti-gay discrimination. Any reparations couldn't erase this history, but they could have positive benefits.

"First, it would restore dignity to its many victims," he stated. "Understood, not only as respect but the notion that 'all human beings are imbued with value and worth,' dignity is part and parcel of the struggle for full citizenship. Dignity rests at the core of the meaning of human rights as defined by the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"Secondly, gay reparations are necessary in order to put an unambiguous end to America's long history of anti-gay animus and simultaneously usher in a new era of gay acceptance," he continued. "Regrettably, the advent of gay rights has not meant the end of hostilities toward the LGBT community, including anti-gay violence.

"Third, gay reparations are needed to familiarize the American public with, and sensitize them to, historical gay injustices — and, more broadly, to inform them about the history of the gay community — in the hopes these injustices are not repeated. Gay reparations hold the promise of enabling American society to close painful chapters of homosexual repression and violence while deepening the notion of American citizenship and reminding future generations of the sacrifices of the past," he wrote.

When his op-ed was published in 2019, Encarnación received many critiques, which he distilled into five distinct arguments against LGBTQ reparations.

"The first one is that it is wrong for gay rights activists to apply today's values to acts of discrimination against the gay community that took place a long time ago," he wrote. "Aside from reflecting the values of the period, these acts of anti-gay discrimination also happen to have been legal at the time. Second, gay reparations are little more than an exercise in virtue signaling (the conspicuous expression of moral rectitude), with the risk of becoming a slippery slope that could open the floodgates to reparations for just about anyone who has faced hardship or discrimination in life.

"Third, gay reparations are divisive and likely to generate a new class of American victims, taking identity politics and 'victimhood' to a new level," he continued. "Fourth, gay reparations lack justification because, unlike the case of racial discrimination, there is no intergenerational damage linked to anti-gay discrimination. Fifth, gay reparations are redundant because of the economic success of the gay community."

In his book, Encarnación answers each of these criticisms, but he stated that all these arguments rely on stereotypes and old tropes about LGBTQ people; flawed comparisons between queer people and other groups victimized by repression, especially African Americans; and a lack of empathy toward the LGBTQ community.

In particular he noted, "the argument about the lack of 'intergenerational suffering' within the LGBTQ community ignores the fact that there are many direct victims of anti-gay discrimination still alive in the United States, such as the thousands of gays and lesbians dismissed from the military under ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'], as it is the individuals themselves who suffered the consequences of anti-gay discrimination, not their relatives or descendants."

Encarnación also pointed to studies such as the 2013 report by the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ think tank at UCLA School of Law, which found that LGBTQ Americans are poorer than the population at large, with 35% of LGBTQ Americans having incomes of less than $24,000 versus 24% for the general population. He also writes that while it is fair to argue that it may be wrong to apply today's moral values to the past, much anti-gay discrimination remained in place in the U.S. well after it was known that this type of discrimination was wrong and that it was "inflicting extraordinary pain and harm on the gay community."

Encarnación observed that no LGBTQ rights activist has ever argued that the struggle for gay civil rights is the same as the struggle for civil rights by African Americans.

"Rather, the argument is that the denial of Constitutionally-guaranteed rights is an experience shared by gay people and African Americans," he wrote. "The civil rights movement really pioneered the concept of minority rights and made it easier for gays to begin to depict themselves as a minority who deserved the same civil rights that other Americans and other minorities did. Addressing slavery and the injustices committed against the gay community need not be mutually exclusive. They can be part of the same struggle.

"In the book I endorse an acknowledgment and an apology for the gay community; both have already been extended to the African American community, the Japanese American community (for the World War II internment camps); so gay people would not be getting anything that has not already been given to other repressed minorities," he wrote in the interview. "Beyond that, many countries, like Canada, have undertaken reparations for Native Americans and gay Canadians simultaneously."

Encarnación also documents that LGBTQ reparations have received criticism from some quarters of the queer community, especially because they cannot make up for the harm of the original offense or make it go away.

"Part of the problem is that homophobia is not only embedded or manifested in state laws, institutions, and practices but also deeply entrenched in society," he wrote. Others commented that accepting a pardon for homosexual offenses could imply an acknowledgment of guilt or wrongdoing.

One example of LGBTQ rejection of reparations is by Jonathan Alexander in a July 2019 essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, entitled, "The Problem of the Reparative in the Shadow of Stonewall," in which he writes, "How would we ever figure out who has suffered most from homophobia or transphobia and how they would be compensated for that suffering? What could be provided in order to make good on these struggles, especially given that reparations are largely imagined as monetary and material? Indeed, the argument for reparations has been about systematic disenfranchisement in material concerns: housing, access to employment, access to credit, and so forth.

"Our history is uneven in its documentation of such experiences for queer people; we have suffered, but not always in ways that are parallel to the systematic treatment of Black folk in the shadow of slavery, so specific material reparations would be difficult to imagine on a large scale," Alexander continued. "And when we consider how homophobic legacies are enmeshed with pervasive cultural sexism, the abuse of children, and reproductive rights — the difficulties for imagining a comprehensive and satisfactory approach to reparations becomes more complicated still. My imagination fails in trying to grapple with how a culture might make amends to those identities, citizens, and fellow human beings it has harmed in the past. The problem is too big, its everydayness making it hard to assess in any systemic way or redress in any equitable manner."

Author sees broad support
Despite such criticism, Encarnación believes most LGBTQ rights activists support the idea of reparations, "especially an apology from the government and compensation for those whose livelihoods were upended by anti-gay discrimination, such as having been fired from a government job," he wrote. "That said, some have questioned whether the effort that is being put on gay reparations could be better spent fighting discrimination at the present moment, especially violence against transgender people, or promoting the decriminalization of homosexuality in many parts of the developing world.

"Still, it behooves gay reparation activists to build a movement that is as concerned with historical injustices as it is with contemporary injustices, and that it is inclusive with respect to the narratives of anti-gay repression that it chooses to highlight, especially with regards to a lengthy history of LGBT communities of color being treated as peripheral by the gay rights movement, what has been labeled as 'secondary marginalization,' as the contemporary gay rights movement has faced allegation of discrimination against anyone who is not white, male, and upper-middle class," he added.

Finally, Encarnación believes that the rise of the LGBTQ reparations movement in the West can only boost the global struggle for gay rights "by putting the West in a better position from which to confront rising homophobia across the non-Western world, as by acknowledging its own mistreatment of gay people and making amends for that mistreatment will give the West a stronger moral footing from to demand better treatment for gay people in every corner of the world."

Encarnación, having studied gay reparations in other countries, has concluded that a hybrid model would work best for the U.S. This would include an official acknowledgment and apology from the Congress, inspired by the pardon issued by the British Parliament in 2016 for those convicted of "gross indecency." He also feels an apology should be supplemented by the establishment of a truth commission "tasked with chronicling the systemic discrimination and violence that the gay community has endured over the course of American history, as was done in Brazil and Canada."

Encarnación affirmed that the biggest obstacle from realizing these goals "is the absence of a human rights tradition in this country. Our social movements have yet to embrace human rights language and strategies, and primarily because human rights do not have much resonance in American culture."

Still, Encarnación remains optimistic about the future of LGBTQ reparations in the U.S. because apologies to the queer community are becoming commonplace, such as in August 2019 when San Francisco Police Chief William Scott expressed regrets for any harm his department had caused gay people.

Also, many private associations, such as Exodus International and the American Psychoanalytic Association, which played a role in either creating or abetting the repression of gay people, have apologized. In February 2020 Governor Gavin Newsom granted a posthumous pardon to civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, after his 1953 arrest in California on a charge of "lewd vagrancy." In 2013, then-President Barack Obama posthumously honored Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Encarnación applauded the LGBTQ rights advances of recent years, especially the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage and the extension in 2020 of protections against anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, saying they are events the American queer community should celebrate and for society as a whole to take pride in.

"But these advances cannot remove the stain that the history of anti-gay discrimination, repression, and violence has left on American democracy," he wrote. "Only a formal reckoning with the past can remove this stain and usher in a new era of respect for human rights."

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