The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle

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9781494567187: The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle

The fight for gay, lesbian, and trans civil rights-the years of outrageous injustice, the early battles, the heartbreaking defeats, and the victories beyond the dreams of the gay rights pioneers-is the most important civil rights issue of the present day. Based on rigorous research and more than 150 interviews, The Gay Revolution tells this unfinished story not through dry facts but through dramatic accounts of passionate struggles, with all the sweep, depth, and intricacies that only an award-winning activist, scholar, and novelist like Lillian Faderman can evoke. The Gay Revolution begins in the 1950s, when law classified gays and lesbians as criminals, the psychiatric profession saw them as mentally ill, the churches saw them as sinners, and society victimized them with irrational hatred. Against this dark backdrop, a few brave people began to fight back, paving the way for the revolutionary changes of the 1960s and beyond. Faderman discusses the protests in the 1960s, the counter reaction of the 1970s and early eighties, the decimated but united community during the AIDS epidemic, and the current hurdles for the right to marriage equality.

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About the Author:

Lillian Faderman is an internationally known scholar of lesbian history and literature, as well as ethnic history and literature. Among her many honors are six Lambda Literary Awards, two American Library Association Awards, and several lifetime achievement awards for scholarship.

Donna Postel is fascinated by all kinds of stories and loves telling them. From memoir and biography to literary fiction, romance, mystery, and suspense, Donna uses her innate curiosity, talent, and decades of experience on stage and in the recording studio to bring books to life.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Gay Revolution PROLOGUE


On the morning of May 26, 1948, Professor E. K. Johnston was standing at the rostrum in a University of Missouri auditorium. The annual awards ceremony for the School of Journalism was in full swing. Best columnist, best sports writer, best feature writer—each award winner was called up to the stage, where Professor Johnston shook his hand and said kind and appropriate words as he bestowed a trophy of recognition. The professor had been on the University of Missouri faculty since 1924 and was now fifty years old, a man distinguished and comfortable in middle age, dressed formally in a light summer suit, spectacles balanced low on the bridge of his nose.

Professor Johnston had taken a place of honor on that stage because that academic year he’d served as acting dean of the School of Journalism. The elderly permanent dean, Frank Mott, had been on leave, and Professor Johnston was an apt choice as his temporary replacement: E. K. Johnston was a full professor, he was much loved and respected by students and colleagues alike,1 and he had a national reputation as a multiterm president of a professional fraternity for those working in the relatively new discipline of the science of newspaper advertising.2 Indeed, it was assumed by many at the University of Missouri that when the present dean retired, Professor Johnston would be named his permanent successor.

But as Professor Johnston was fulfilling his academic duties by shaking hands and wishing the aspiring young journalists continued success, he knew there was a warrant out for his arrest, issued by the county prosecutor.3 He suspected too that the charge against him was commission of sodomy. But for the moment, he wanted only to get through the awards ceremony—to fulfill his last duty of the academic year to the students in his charge—and he did.

When the ceremony was over, Professor Johnston drove himself downtown, walked into the county prosecutor’s office, and gave himself up. At his arraignment, he pleaded innocent. Thrown into the Boone County jail until he could raise bail, he spent two days behind bars.4

The county prosecutor, Howard Lang, had started the investigation six months earlier. There’d been a robbery, and a man was apprehended and brought in for questioning. It was he, Prosecutor Lang told the newspapers, who talked about a “homosexual ring” there in Columbia, Missouri, that carried on sex orgies. As happened often during police interrogations of homosexuals in the mid-twentieth century, police detectives grilled the robber until he named names. One of the names was Willie Coots, a thirty-nine-year-old gift shop employee. Coots was then brought in and was made to name more names. Each man that Willie Coots named was dragged in for questioning and grilled. A police department secretary took down in shorthand what each arrestee said, and she compiled a list of thirty names.5

Of all the men Coots named, the most interesting to the Columbia police, because of his prominence, was Professor E. K. Johnston. Coots confessed that he and the professor had lived together for ten years as lovers and for the last six years as friends. The police wanted more facts. Had he and Johnston held homosexual parties in their shared apartment? Yes, they had. More names; other homosexuals who’d had illegal congress with Johnston. Yes, he did remember some: just a few days earlier, there was a man named Warren Heathman. Heathman was a thirty-five-year-old World War II veteran who had fought overseas; he’d earned a master’s degree in agriculture from the University of Missouri and was now an instructor for the Veterans Administration’s farm training program.

Heathman could not be found at his home address, so the Columbia police sent out an all-points bulletin for his arrest. He was picked up by state highway patrolmen in Rolla, Missouri, about two hours away, and locked up overnight in Jefferson City’s Cole County Jail. In the morning, patrolmen shackled him and drove him to the jail in Columbia, and he too was grilled. This was serious business, they told him. Perjury is a felony for which he could be incarcerated for five years. Willie Coots had mentioned a big fish: a professor at the university. Did Heathman know E. K. Johnston? When had he last seen him? Where?

Heathman, disoriented and scared, did not take long to answer every question they threw at him. Yes, he and Johnston engaged in homosexual activities. Yes, on an average of every other week. Yes, usually in Johnston’s apartment. Yes, he’d been to homosexual parties not only in that same apartment but also at a cabin near Salem, Missouri. (“Mad parties of a homosexual cabal,” the newspapers would report.6) Just as Willie Coots had done, Heathman signed a statement implicating Johnston as the leader of the “homosexual ring.”

Heathman and Coots both waived their preliminary hearings; they did not want to drag out their ordeal. Because neither one was the supposed kingpin of the “homosexual ring,” their bail was set at $2,500 apiece, $1,000 lower than Johnston’s.7 The professor, however, was not as easily intimidated. He had gone himself to the police station and demanded to know why there was a warrant out for his arrest. When police detectives took him into a room to interrogate him, he knew his rights. He would say nothing to his inquisitors except “I want to talk to my lawyer.” He was permitted to call his attorney, Edwin Orr, who advised him not to sign any statement and not to waive his preliminary hearing.

From the Boone County Jail, he contacted his half brother in Kansas City, and a friend in Sedalia, Missouri, and borrowed money for the $3,500 bond.8 In their coverage of the story, local newspapers were sure to name both Howard Johnston, the brother, and Fred Hildebrandt, the friend, shaming them for having aided and abetted a homosexual.

Family newspapers within a thousand-mile radius of Columbia all seemed to pick up the story, which was covered by the wire services of the Associated Press as well as the United Press International. The local papers embellished their articles with sensational headlines. “Missouri Professor Held for Sodomy: Termed Principal in Homosexual Ring” was the Pottstown (PA) Mercury headline.9 The headline in Arkansas’s Hope Star was simply “Homosexual,” which was shocking enough all by itself in 1948.10

It was not until his temporary release from jail that Johnston learned that he’d been found guilty even before he was tried. “In view of the nature and gravity of the charges that have been made against Professor E. K. Johnston,” the president of the university, Frederick Middlebush, told reporters, “he has been relieved of his duties as a member of the university.”11 Hysteria spread. The superintendent of the State Highway Patrol, Colonel Hugh Waggoner, announced not only to the university’s board of curators but also to the media that Johnston was only the tip of the iceberg.12

The board of curators panicked. Allen McReynolds, its president, immediately called a press conference to promise the public, “The board will take such action as it deems necessary to protect the interests of the university.” McReynolds added defensively that homosexuals were “a public problem, and one that ought to be solved.”13 Missouri’s governor, Phil Donnelly, weighed in, assuring Missourians that he had ordered the president of the board of curators to confer with State Highway Patrol officials about the homosexuals they’d discovered and to make sure such people had no place on the university’s faculty or among the student body.14

On November 17 Johnston stood before Judge W. M. Dinwiddie of the Boone County Circuit Court. Johnston’s lawyer, Edwin Orr, had advised him that the prosecutor held in his hands multiple signed statements. He must throw himself at the mercy of the court. Johnston must have struggled to resign himself to this: How could he relinquish into perpetuity the image of the man he once was? How could he claim as his the character of a criminal? Orr promised that he would call witnesses who would talk about Johnston’s good character and plead for clemency. The witnesses would tell the judge there was no point in sending a man like Johnston to jail. The ex-professor was by now emotionally and physically exhausted. He’d lost his job, his good name, his beloved students, his entire career—even his pension. He was fifty years old. What would he live on for the rest of his life? He had no more fight left in him. And if he did not confess to the world of being guilty of sodomy and then throw himself at Judge Dinwiddie’s mercy, he would be locked in jail for who knew how many years to come.

Johnston pleaded guilty and did not open his mouth again for the rest of the trial. The principal witness for the defense was Dr. Edward Gildea, head of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in Saint Louis. Asked whether E. K. Johnston would be a menace to society if he were placed on probation, the psychiatrist said no, “though in my judgment he is a homosexual.” He was followed by a long line of character witnesses. Each confirmed that Johnston had been widely respected and liked; that a penitentiary sentence would not help him nor serve society; that he could be turned free without detriment to society.15

The pleas for clemency were not without effect. Judge Dinwiddie wouldn’t send the defendant to jail, he announced. He’d put him on probation for four years. Johnston must have felt a surge of relief, even joy. But the judge was not through. Johnston was required to post a $2,000 bond. It was his obligation to pay all court costs. Judge Dinwiddie ordered him to report regularly to Wayne Ballard, the state probation officer. Finally, Judge Dinwiddie concluded, “Your order of probation includes your cessation of all homosexual practices.”16

·  ·  ·

There’s a Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. It was erected in 1997 to honor the two million women who have served in the American military, past and present. It sits on the grand four-acre ceremonial entrance; and its elegant structure, with its lofty classical design and its arced ceiling made of glass tablets, is worthy of the solemn site. There’s also an auditorium at the Women’s Memorial, where ceremonies are held to recognize the outstanding achievements of female military personnel. In that auditorium, army colonel Tammy Smith was pinned with two stars: one on each epaulet, making official her promotion to brigadier general. A ceremony that celebrates a woman’s rise to the rank of general is certainly rare, though not unheard of: there’d already been about fifty women generals or admirals serving in the US military. But the auditorium of the Women’s Memorial had never yet seen quite such a ceremony as the one that took place on August 10, 2012.17

At four o’clock, as a soloist sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” Smith, a short, slight, bespectacled woman who’d once been a senior parachutist and an airplane jump master, marched onto the stage together with her commanding officer, Major General Jack Stultz. Media cameras rolled and clicked. In General Stultz’s ceremonial remarks he talked about why Smith had been promoted to her elevated position: she’d racked up a fruit salad of medals in her distinguished twenty-six years of service in the army, which included a stint in Afghanistan as chief of army reserve affairs. General Stultz praised “the values she epitomized” and her ability as a leader. She is, he said, “a quiet professional who just knows how to come in and take over.”

Then the general introduced the guests of honor: first Smith’s elderly father and then her spouse and her in-laws. Traditionally, the stars on a new general’s epaulets are pinned by the two individuals most meaningful to that person. Smith stood at attention while her father pinned on one side and her spouse pinned on the other. Her in-laws too had an official role in the ceremony: they were chosen to remove the colonel’s shoulder boards from Smith’s uniform and replace them with a general’s shoulder boards. Next, father and spouse unfurled a flag—red with a white star—which is to be flown wherever Smith will be stationed to announce that a general is present.

There was little about this traditional ceremony that was unique—except that the spouse, Tracey Hepner, was a woman. It was a brave act, not because Smith might be in danger of discharge or losing her new rank, but because never before in the entire history of the US military had it been done.

Smith had told General Stultz well in advance that she wanted her wife to be part of the pinning ceremony. “He didn’t blink an eye,” she recalled; nor did the Department of Defense. “This is your story. It’s a good story. Don’t be afraid to tell it,” DOD officials said in encouraging her to respond to media requests for interviews about the inclusion of her wife in her promotion ceremony. “Tell them why it’s important to have Tracey pin your star. Tell them what it means to you.”18

What it meant, General Smith told the media, was that finally, with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” she was able to feel “full, authentic, and complete” by no longer having to keep secret who she was. She had no desire to grandstand—to make political “coming-out” declarations. Her wife’s prominent role in the ceremony was Smith’s clear and simple statement that “this is my family.” Since Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been overturned, sexual orientation is considered a private matter by the Department of Defense. It’s a private matter for General Smith as well—but, she said, participating with family in traditional ceremonies, such as the pinning ceremony, is both common and expected of a leader. By including her wife, she was doing no more and no less than what military leaders have always done at such ceremonies.

·  ·  ·

What long-fought battles, tragic losses, and hard-won triumphs have brought us as a country from the days when a much-loved and gifted professor could be disgraced, thrown in jail, and hounded out of his profession as soon as his private life was revealed, to the days when a military officer could marry the woman she loves in broad daylight and be promoted, in a very public ceremony, to the rank of general with her wife by her side? How does the amazing evolution in image and status of gays and lesbians, as well as bisexual and transgender people, affect all Americans? And what remains to be done before they will truly be first-class American citizens? These are the stories The Gay Revolution will tell.

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