T.J. Tallie’s post on this blog last week does an excellent job describing the problems with historical appropriation – especially of the ongoing struggles for African-American civil rights in the United States. He rightly points out that the phrase “Gay Jim Crow” implies an equivalence between America’s long and cruel history of systematic racial discrimination and an Arizona ‘religious freedom’ bill that was under consideration. SB1062, since vetoed, was along with similar bills in other states widely reported using the phrase “Gay Jim Crow.” In fact, one of the few media outlets to explicitly reject the “Gay Jim Crow” equivalence was the conservative National Review, which disputed the equivalence in a opinion supporting the Arizona law.
This week, Notches contributor Adam Shapiro posted a detailed article investigating Arizona’s controversial attempted ‘religious freedom’ bill, SB1062 (the bill has since been vetoed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer). The article did great work in critically engaging the paradoxical potential for the bill to allow legal discrimination of queer people under the guise of religious protection. As a queer African-American, I am appalled both by the potential for enabled discrimination under bills like Arizona’s SB1062 and those proposed in other states. However, I take significant issue with Shapiro (and a plethora of other writers) using the term ‘Gay Jim Crow’. While the term has rhetorical potential to help people relate to discredited governmental discrimination, its use invests in false equivalence by appropriating continued struggles of people of color in the United States.
James Baldwin (1924 – 87) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. (Photo by Allan Warren)
Several US states, most notably Arizona have considered legislation to ensure the “religious freedom” of individuals and businesses who wish to exclude customers on the basis of their sexual orientation. These bills don’t really signal a new change in the cultural or legal understanding of sexuality and sexual orientation in the United States. Rather, they represent an adaptation of legal strategies to enable the continuation of old understandings as they become politically marginalized. What’s new is the attempt to legally redefine ‘religious freedom’ as a broader means to refuse to act in ways otherwise required by state or by society and to extend the rights entailed by religious freedom to other entities besides privately religious persons and explicitly religious organizations (like churches.) In recent years, similar ideas of religious freedom have been used to defend employers who refuse to provide health insurance that includes access to contraception or abortion, to defend teachers and publicly funded charter schools that object to teaching evolution or sex education, to defend pharmacists that refuse to stock drugs or fill prescriptions for contraception. Even though the most immediate implications of the Arizona bill (if it is signed into law) would be to enable sexual orientation-based discrimination on religious grounds, the bill might also provide greater legal cover to advocates of religious freedom applications in these other instances (most of which also concern the regulation of sexuality in some way.)
Are Arizona and other states using ‘religious freedom’ to create the ‘Gay Jim Crow’?
On 11th November, 2013, the Indian Supreme Court upheld section 377 of the Indian Penal code, which declares “carnal intercourse against the order of nature against any man, woman or animal” to be a crime. The ruling came as a shock to LGBT rights activists. In 2009, following a ruling by the Delhi High Court that homosexual acts between two consenting adults in private was not illegal, it looked like the path to decriminalization across the country was set. Yet with pressure from a vocal religious right comprising all denominations, the Supreme Court overruled the High Court and announced its refusal to review the verdict, effectively re-criminalizing homosexuality.
In 2009, I addressed the LGBT Trades Union Congress (TUC) about the Millthorpe Project, a sound archive of the lifestories of LGBT trade unionists. Thirty years previously, it would have been inconceivable for the TUC to host an annual event about issues facing LGBT people at work.
‘What About the Gay Workers?’, a booklet published by CHE in the early 1980s
I recall a publication entitled, ‘What About The Gay Workers?’, which was produced by the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) in 1981. CHE was not the only organisation to be engaging with the question of being gay – or openly gay – in the workplace but it was the only one to conduct a national survey of all sixty-three unions affiliated to the TUC.There were an increasing number of critiques of trade unionism from people, including contributors to the Gay Left and Red Rag journals, who recognised the importance of organisations to defend working people but argued that unions had become a movement which primarily reflected the concerns of married male breadwinners. Homosexual people were marginalised by such a heterosexist hegemonic approach. That was not the language of CHE but their survey of trade unions revealed a great deal about the values that underpinned much trade union practice.
The 1969 Stonewall riots are commonly considered the beginning of the US gay liberation movement. After the riots, activists began more actively to organize themselves professionally by efficiently gathering funds and officially registering their associations. Because this US example has become an international icon for the LGBT rights movement, activists in other parts of the world have since taken inspiration from Stonewallhistory. One prominent example from Poland is the Stonewall Fund established by Lambda Warszawa on the 40th anniversary of the riots.
Did operation ‘Hyacinth’ initiate the Polish Stonewall? Article published in a government weekly W służbie narodu in 1986 (Source: Newsweek Polska.)
James Adair [from 'Day of Big Issues at Assembly', Glasgow Herald, May 27 1958, p. 7]
A curious, or perhaps irksome, aspect of ‘British’ approaches to the history of sexuality is that they tend to neglect the variation of experience within the United Kingdom. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve read, or watched, or marked, pieces offering a summary of developments for non- heterosexual Brits over the past century, which often contain statements like this: ‘Gay men in Britain had to wait until 1967 before their sexual lives were legal’. This is true for some gay and bisexual men living in England and Wales but not for those living in Scotland, or Northern Ireland. Being an academic based in Scotland means that a share of my research relates to the Scottish dimension, and what many forget, or are ignorant of, is that Scotland has its own independent legal system, education system and religious institutions. I’ve heard Scottish work described as ‘local’ or ‘regional’, which ignores important aspects of Scotland’s cultural and political history, and its relations to the somewhat Anglocentric historiography of sexuality in the UK .