When the state, or society, or the culture commits a wrong against a gay citizen, there are a number of ways that wrong can be corrected—a new law, a court judgment, a social movement, among others. What usually can’t be corrected are the effects of that wrong on the individual gay person. Once a person’s sense of self-worth has been screwed, it’s difficult and may be impossible to get it right again.
Tyler Clementi was the young gay man who was outed by his roommate, Dharun Ravi, who videoed what happened when Clementi was apparently having a man in for sex. Ravi showed the video, and people talked. Clementi found out that people talked. His privacy was violated, his sense of safety in his dorm room destroyed, and his self worth taken from him. He had been outed, and he wasn’t out. Tyler Clementi went to the George Washington Bridge and jumped. This was in September 2010.
Thousands of men after World War II were thrown out of their jobs from various parts of the federal government—the State Department, the whole Defense Department, the Justice Department, and others—and there was no court that would take their complaint. A man expelled from the Armed Forces had discharge papers that said “discharge other than honorable.” It was a judgment that ruined his life. Whole swaths of the American economy were closed to him. It was years before the legal persecution of gay citizens was stopped. For the Defense Department, this happened in December 2010, under Barack Obama. When it finally was overturned, men whose lives had been destroyed were not given aid or assistance or reparations or even “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
In the fifties and sixties, those doing injury to gay men and women changed. In addition to the others, they were the ministers and priests of the churches, they were teachers in schools, and they were the families of gay men. They were the parents of gay men, their mothers and fathers, who wounded them. It used to be the government that waged war on gay men and lesbians. Now the hurt was much more intimate—self-hatred, self-doubt, lack of ambition, fear of almost everything, a sense that a person wasn’t loved. The kind of damage a man’s father can do often just can’t be fixed.
When these things began to change, in the last third of the twentieth century, there were many men and women who had been wounded who were still alive, still wounded, still struggling against the knowledge that they were unloveable. A man 20 years old and thrown out of the Army in 1950 for being gay, is seventy in 2000. A man 35 years old and fired in 1965 from a major corporation for being gay, is still alive in 2000, age seventy, still wounded, still struggling. There are men still alive today who suffered grievously under the administrations going all the way back to Truman or who suffered under abuse of their families. The death of Tyler Clementi indicates that gay men still suffer in our culture from the things our culture throws at them, and nothing can be done about their wounds.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Late in the majority opinion of the court, he wrote about the court case Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), which upheld the right of states to make criminals of gay men and lesbians with infamous sodomy laws.
Justice Kennedy wrote, Although Bowers was eventually repudiated in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), men and women were harmed in the interim, and the substantial effects of these injuries no doubt lingered long after Bowers was overruled. Dignitary wounds cannot always be healed with the stroke of a pen.
Exactly. We can’t forget these men and women in the midst of our celebrations. They deserve our understanding and our support and our recognition that, even while we celebrate and some of us marry, others of us are wounded and are not healed.