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    There Is No Going Back

    By Dr. Marcy Adelman–

    Mary Walsh and Beverly Nance are a lesbian couple in their late 60s and early 70s. They had been together for decades when they decided to marry in 2009. In 2016 they decided to move to the Friendship Village Sunset Hills in Missouri. But the retirement village denied them the right to live there because they are a lesbian couple. The village has a policy that only allows “marriage that is understood in the Bible.” The couple responded by filing a complaint in July 2018 in the 8th District Court. On July 15, 2019, Judge Jean Hamilton ruled against the couple. Sexual orientation is not protected in the 8th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals that covers 5 states: Missouri, Arkansas, North and South Dakota, and Nebraska. 

    Mary and Beverly had the courage to stand up to discrimination. They weren’t successful with their complaint, but history teaches us that even when you don’t succeed, standing up to discrimination and injustice matters—it inspires us and keeps us focused and fighting on what needs to be changed. In these chaotic times, when the Trump administration is undermining the Black Lives Matter movement and attempting to roll back the rights of LGBTQ+ people, especially the rights of transgender people, we can look to our history for both inspiration and wisdom.

    Throughout the decades of the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s, legal and religious persecution was pervasive. Homosexuality was classified as a severe mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Police brutality, harassment, and hate crimes were an everyday occurrence.

    In American cities across the country, there were Blue or Sabbath Laws that were established in the 1600s. These laws mandated attendance at church on Sunday and prohibited and criminalized whatever was thought of at the time to be immoral behavior, such as same sex dancing, sodomy between consenting adults, and public displays of homosexual feelings. These laws were used by police and local officials to harass gay bars and to humiliate and/or arrest queer people.

    In the 1950s there was an effort, known as the Lavender Scare, to remove LGBT people and perceived communists from working in the government. Thousands of LGBT employees were hunted down, outed as queer, and ousted. Once outed they not only lost their job, but they also were disowned by their families and lost custody of their children. LGBT people in the military were dishonorably discharged. Being fired or dishonorably discharged for being queer followed LGBT people wherever they went, severely limiting their opportunities to start over.

    It was not uncommon for LGBT people to be blackmailed, attacked, beaten, or murdered. The attackers were not charged with a hate crime. Instead, the victim was invariably blamed.

    Without any legal protection, LGBT people were unwilling to disclose their sexual orientation to their family, their colleagues, their health care workers, their employer, or to their landlord. LGBT relationships were not honored or recognized. LGBT people did not have the right to marry or to adopt children. If your partner was ill in the hospital or died, you had no right to visit or make decisions for their care or their burial. When your life partner died, you were not entitled to survivor benefits or their pension. 

    Living in the closet, non-disclosing of your sexual orientation, during the pre-civil rights movement decades was the only protection LGBT people had. The resilience of LGBT people was, and is, the ability to create supportive caring communities and to enjoy and celebrate loving, meaningful relationships. These relationships, families of choice, and communities made the closet a safe and nurturing harbor in the middle of time much harder than the one we live in now.    

    Within the religious establishment there was no refuge. LGBT people were demonized as morally deficient and predatory. LGBT people were considered sinners who deserved to be shunned or punished if they did not renounce their sexual orientation. LGBT people of every faith were ostracized and vilified.

    It was a widespread religious belief that LGBT people chose to be queer, or more precisely, chose to be sinners and consequently could be counseled to turn away from and renounce a life of sin and become heterosexual. It is not known how many tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of LGBT people went through anti-gay Christian counseling and emotionally violent conversion therapy in the hopes of being saved.

    Support from the faith community did not surface until the mid-60s and early 70s. GLIDE Church and the Metropolitan Church, both in San Francisco in the 1960s, were the exception in creating welcoming congregations for LGBT people. It was not until the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic that the faith community began to view LGBT people in a more positive light.

    But it was the classification of homosexuality as a severe mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1952 that increased religious and legal persecution and increased anti-queer discrimination to a whole new level. Homosexuality was classified as a sociopathic personality disorder. Countless numbers of men and women were incarcerated and institutionalized. Many more struggled for decades with the stigma of being labeled morally and mentally deficient. The trauma and harm done to LGBT people by faith-based communities and the APA is a very dark and painful chapter of American history.

    The LGBT community responded to this escalation of injustice by organizing. In the 1950s, homophile organizations sprang up in cities across the country. They offered help to people who had been arrested or lost their jobs, supported academic research on homosexuality, and sought non-queer allies to speak in their defense.

    The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), founded in 1955 by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, was one of those organizations. DOB started out as an alternative to the bars. It was a social club where lesbians could come together, support each other, and build community. Over time, DOB became increasingly more focused on civil rights issues and supporting academic research. 

    In 1957, Evelyn Hooker published the first study to empirically test the assumption that homosexuals were mentally ill. Her study found no differences between homosexual and heterosexual participants. A new era in “gay” academic research began. Over time a body of research was published that eventually dismantled the myth of homosexual men and lesbians as mentally ill.

    In the 1960s, the civil rights movement emboldened lesbian and gay advocates to take more direct and aggressive tactics. DOB was one such organization and the Mattachine Society, a gay male organization, was another. The Mattachine Society, under the leadership of Frank Kameny, organized the first gay protest in front of the White House.

    Then, at the end of the decade, in the summer of 1969, a spark was lit. The Stonewall riots of 1969 are considered to be the birth of the modern LGBT rights movement. Police were conducting a typical raid at the Stonewall, a bar in the West Village in New York, when something unexpected happened. Instead of filing out of the bar and into waiting police vans, transgender women of color and LGB patrons rioted. They fought back and refused to be intimidated and harassed.

    In 1973, with the spirit of Stonewall at their backs, almost two decades of academic research that shattered the myth of mental illness and an increasingly aggressive strategy of “out” advocacy, queer organizations, and activists were successful in advocating for the removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder in the DSM. It was replaced with “sexual orientation disturbance for people in conflict with their sexual orientation.” It would take 14 more years for homosexuality to be completely eliminated from the DSM.

    In the darkest, most homophobic decades, when there was no protection and few allies, LGBT people stood up, came out, and put everything on the line to support each other and oppose discrimination and injustice. History and our elders teach us to believe in ourselves and each other, to never give up, and to remember we are defined by how well we live and love, and how we respond to injustices and the challenging moments of our lives.

    Dr. Marcy Adelman, a psychologist and LGBTQ+ longevity advocate and policy adviser, oversees the Aging in Community column. She serves on the California Commission on Aging, the Governor’s Alzheimer’s Prevention and Preparedness Task Force, the Board of the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California, and the San Francisco Dignity Fund Oversight and Advisory Committee. She is the Co-Founder of Openhouse, the only San Francisco nonprofit exclusively focused on the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ older adults.

    Published on September 10, 2020