To ‘Atone’ for Their Sins: Americans Must Pay Reparations to Homosexuals
Other countries are taking steps to atone for their shameful past treatment of L.G.B.T. people. The United States should too.
The New York Police Department apologized lastweek to the gay community for the 1969 raid of the Stonewall Inn, the fallout of which is widely credited with spurring the contemporary gay rights movement at home and abroad. Timed to coincide with Stonewall’s 50th anniversary, the statement by Commissioner James P. O’Neill said in part: “The actions taken by the N.Y.P.D. were wrong — plain and simple” and “the actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and for that, I apologize.” The apology is the culmination of a decades-old struggle by gay activists for recognition of wrongdoing on the part of the police — one that few activists thought could ever become a reality.
With the surprise apology, the United States has taken its most significant leap yet into “gay reparation,” or policies intended to address the legacy of state-sanctioned repression of homosexuals. Although relatively new to the United States, gay reparation has been debated and legislated around the world for close to two decades and is a logical progression in the maturation of the gay rights movement. Having largely secured rights once thought to be virtually unattainable — especially same-sex marriage — gay activists, especially in Western democracies, are turning their attention to addressing the historical legacies of homosexual repression.
Although there is no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to gay reparation, countries have taken three distinct approaches. The most common is “moral rehabilitation,” which entails a formal apology by the state and the expunging of criminal records of those convicted of a homosexual offense. There’s also financial compensation for loss of income and pensions. Finally, there’s “truth-telling,” or an official report on past wrongs that incorporates steps for reparation. These are not mutually exclusive approaches; in fact, as recent experiences show, they are often pursued simultaneously or sequentially.
One of the first countries to grapple with gay reparation was Spain, which is fitting given the country’s reputation — first won during the Inquisition, an institution infamous for burning “sodomites” at the stake — as one of the most hostile to homosexuality in the Western world. In 2007, as part of the landmark Law of Historical Memory, which recognized the victims of the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, including homosexuals, it became possible for anyone who suffered economic hardship because of their sexual orientation to seek compensation from the state and to petition that their criminal record be expunged. According to El País, approximately 5,000 people were detained and arrested on suspicion of being gay under the Franco regime. Many were sent to mental institutions to undergo “conversion therapy.”
Following in Spain’s footsteps, in 2009, the British government issued an official apologyto Alan Turing, the World War II code breaker, 57 years after he was sentenced to a chemical castration for being gay. (Mr. Turing killed himself two years later.) In his announcement, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, “While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him.” The Turing apology — and his subsequent pardoning in 2013 — were followed a few years later by a national pardon of thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted of crimes under sexual-offense laws. Such laws, which in Britain, as in much of the English-speaking world, have traditionally applied only to men, were used in convicting some 65,000 people.
In 2016, Germany announced it would make financial reparations from a fund of 30 million euros to anyone convicted under Paragraph 175, a provision in the German criminal code that was employed by the Nazi regime to force homosexuals into concentration camps and that remained on the books until 1994. A reported 140,000 people were arrested under Paragraph 175, though only about 5,000 of them were still living in 2016. The government also pledged to expunge the records of some 50,000 people jailed because of their sexual orientation.
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[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Omar G. Encarnacion and originally published at The New York Times. Title changed by P&P.]