Tim DeChristopher said, in his sentencing statement, “Since [the] bedrock acts of civil disobedience by our founding fathers, the rule of law in this country has continued to grow closer to our shared higher moral code through the civil disobedience that drew attention to legalized injustice.” The “higher moral code” is not the same thing as “the rule of law,” and the distance between the two is made clear by the men and women who are willing to commit acts of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience has had a long and honored tradition in this country—the Massachusetts residents who held the original tea party in December 16, 1773, those who disobeyed the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, and, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, burning draft cards during the anti-war movement. Men and women went into the street and did what society had made illegal. They broke the law purposefully to call attention to intolerable conditions. They demanded attention be paid and then refused to get out of the street.
Gay liberation began on the West Coast, in San Francisco and Los Angeles, when the Committee for Homosexual Freedom brought actions against States Steamship Lines for firing Gale Whittington for being gay (April 9, 1959) and against Tower Records for firing Frank Dennaro for being gay (June 5, 1969). The Stonewall Riots were themselves the most powerful acts of civil disobedience in our history. And then AIDS introduced the nation to AIDS activism. In Boston that took the form of ACT UP pouring 55 gallon drums of blood-like fluid on the steps of the Harvard Medical School until the Dean of the School felt forced to say, “I am not a bigot,” to general derision. The ACT UP actions were so successful that the way clinical trials were organized were changed, apparently permanently. The very action that started ACT UP, stopping traffic on Wall Street, resulted in the FDA opening up the approval process for new anti-AIDS drugs.
Lt Daniel Choi, who was thrown out of the Army after he came out, chained himself to the White House fence three times since Barrack Obama became president, in March 2010, April 2010, and May 2010, demanding repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Lt Choi went to Times Square to inform the recruiting office there that he intended to rejoin the Army. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell finally passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama December 22, 2010. Lt Choi, who was a graduate of West Point and who had come out on Rachel Maddow’s show, was a master at embarrassing the Pentagon. He kept chaining himself to the White House fence, even when it was clear from the record that the White House just wished he would go away. They didn’t want to convict him of anything. The last time, it took the government two years to complete the trial of Lt Choi, and in the end he was found guilty and fined $100. No jail time. The earlier charges were dismissed. Apparently, the Army felt, Jesus, is this over! Is this man never going away?
Tim DeChristopher’s civil disobedience is admirable and effective, but it is not unique. All the way through the history of gay liberation—on both coasts, since the fifties—there have been men and women committing civil disobedience and capturing the imagination of the people and causing change, bringing the enacted law into line with the higher moral code to which they are committed.
Gay men and women have known better than most that there is a disjunction between ourselves—our felt reality—and the way we are experienced by our culture, by politicians, by the churches, by the legal system, the “helping” professions, and by the conventional wisdom of our culture. We have always been disobedient. And while some might think that the GLBTQ community has reached a “tipping” point, where no more progress is necessary or even possible, that will be true only when it is as easy to be gay as it is to be straight. That time is not yet. Meet me on the picket line, guys.
Donn Teal, The Gay Militants. New York: Stein and Day, 1971. Information on the early gay movement on the West Coast was drawn from Teal’s book.