Faygele, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and Harvard’s Secret Court: Great Articles About Gay Rights

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
June 29 2013 7:30 AM

The Time Harvard Expelled Its Gay Students

The Longform guide to great articles about gay rights.

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A gay pride parade in Santiago, Chile.

Photo by Claudio Santana/AFP/Getty Images

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

Hiding in Uniform
Jane Gross • New York Times • April 1990

On being gay in the military, three years before “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

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“A vast majority of those interviewed had been interrogated at least once, and what they described was nearly the same. They said those under suspicion of homosexuality suffer bright lights in their eyes and sometimes handcuffs on their wrists, warnings that their parents will be informed or their hometown newspapers called, threats that their stripes will be torn off and they will pushed through the gates of the base before a jeering crowd.

“Further, those who have been interrogated said, they were told that someone else had already identified them and so they might as well talk. They said they were promised an easier time if they would also supply investigators with information about others—first names, maybe, or a tip about a certain ship with a large gay contingent. Several people who had children said they had been threatened with loss of custody. A few reported verbal and physical abuse.”

Gay Marriage’s Jewish Pioneer
Eli Sanders • Tablet • June 2012

Meet Faygele ben Miriam (formerly John Singer), the radical activist “beyond the leading edge” of the same-sex marriage fight.

“But by that time Singer was on to his next fight, and a new name, Faygele ben Miriam, which he took to simultaneously tweak homophobes (‘Faygele’ is Yiddish for ‘little bird’ or ‘faggot’) and honor his mother, Miriam Singer. This uniquely insistent man, who died 12 years ago this week, was in his time a huge force in Washington state’s gay politics, and at the leading edge—really, beyond the leading edge—of what would eventually become the national push to achieve same-sex marriage rights. ‘He matters because he was part of that first wave of couples challenging the unjust and unfair denial of the freedom to marry,’ said Evan Wolfson, founder of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry and author of Why Marriage Matters. ‘And he spoke for millions, at a time when, in some respects, gay people were just beginning to speak for full inclusion and the right to be let in, not just left alone.’

Here Comes the Groom
Andrew Sullivan • New Republic • August 1989

A conservative case for gay marriage.

“There's a less elaborate argument for gay marriage: it's good for gays. It provides role models for young gay people who, after the exhilaration of coming out, can easily lapse into short-term relationships and insecurity with no tangible goal in sight. My own guess is that most gays would embrace such a goal with as much (if not more) commitment as straights. Even in our society as it is, many lesbian relationships are virtual textbook cases of monogamous commitment. Legal gay marriage could also help bridge the gulf often found between gays and their parents. It could bring the essence of gay life--a gay couple--into the heart of the traditional straight family in a way the family can most understand and the gay offspring can most easily acknowledge. It could do as much to heal the gay-straight rift as any amount of gay rights legislation.”

The Secret Court
Benoit Denizet-Lewis • The Good Men Project • June 2010

In 1920, Harvard University officials suspected that some students were gay. So they kicked them all out.

“For more than eighty years, this remarkable story, recounted in some five-hundred pages of typed and barely legible handwritten letters and school documents, sat untouched in a locked filing cabinet at University Hall. Then Amit Paley, a Harvard student and an editor of the student-run Harvard Crimson, came upon a strange reference to Court documents while working on another assignment. Paley was eventually granted access to the files and wrote of their existence in the Crimson. (Though Harvard blocked out the names of the students involved, Paley was able to identify them after six months of research).

“A further examination of the five-hundred pages of files, which now reside in the Harvard Archives, along with old yearbooks, freshman-student reports, and 25th- and 50th- anniversary class reports, tell a fascinating, tragic story about gay life at Harvard in 1920 and the administration’s ferocious response to the discovery of homosexual ‘degenerates’ on its campus.”

The activists, politicians, and social trends that led to 2012’s gay marriage victories.

“That marriage should be a central fight of the gay-rights movement was sometimes a tough sell. Other battles, particularly at the height of the AIDS crisis, seemed more vital; many activists questioned whether gays should even want to participate in the ultimate heteronormative social institution. And in a society where sodomy laws would not be struck down by the Supreme Court until 2003, marriage seemed impossibly far-fetched. Wolfson saw it partly from a legalistic point of view -- without the ability to get married, gays were denied many legal protections afforded to other Americans. He was adamant that civil unions, which offer some of the rights of marriage under a distinct legal category, represented an unacceptable ‘separate but equal’ status. (‘I had a long argument over civil unions with Evan in 2004,’ a former Log Cabin Republicans board member told me ruefully. ‘He won.’)”

Gay Politics Goes Mainstream
Jeffrey Schmalz • New York Times • October 1992

As tens of thousands come out of the closet, gay political activism heats up.

“For years, homosexuals have, for the most part, been politically apathetic. Rarely did a candidate stir their enthusiasm; when homosexuals did vote, many of the more affluent ones tended to go Republican. But now the gay and lesbian community appears to be united for the first time in a Presidential race behind a single candidate -- Bill Clinton. And the money is pouring into the Clinton campaign—$2 million so far from identifiably gay sources, according to Democratic Party estimates. ‘The gay community is the new Jewish community,’ says Rahm Emanuel, the Clinton campaign's national finance director. ‘It's highly politicized, with fundamental health and civil rights concerns. And it contributes money. All that makes for a potent political force, indeed.’”

The Making of Gay Marriage’s Top Foe
Mark Oppenheimer • Salon • February 2012

A profile of Maggie Gallagher, founder of National Organization for Marriage.

“Counterfactual history is a dangerous business, but it seems fair to say that Gallagher’s was the non-marriage that changed the world. If that sophomore cad had married Gallagher, she might never have become a writer. ‘I don’t know what I would have done,’ she tells me. ‘I became a writer because I had a baby and had to make money.’ And what she writes about is same-sex marriage: why it’s bad for children, bad for America, simply bad. In her books and newspaper columns, and above all in her fundraising and political organizing, Gallagher has done more than any American to stop same-sex marriage. The organization she founded in 2007, the National Organization for Marriage, helped organize the successful effort in 2008 to pass Proposition 8 in California, overturning that state’s same-sex-marriage statute. (A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that it violated the Constitution, setting up a likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.) In 2009, her organization contributed over 60 percent of the entire budget of Stand for Marriage Maine, the primary organization behind Proposition 1, the referendum that overturned Maine’s same-sex marriage law. In 2010, National Organization for Marriage money helped determine the election that ousted three Iowa Supreme Court justices who had upheld same-sex marriage.”

The Wedding
Katherine Goldstein • Slate • July 2012

Erwynn Umali, Will Behrens, and the first gay wedding on a military base.

“Legally, Will and Erwynn’s ceremony at McGuire-Dix will have to be a civil union, since New Jersey doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage. But to them, it’s a wedding, and they plan to get legally married in New York after the ceremony. When I met them in December, they pled ignorance about how to plan a reception. Each of them had been married, but like many other grooms, they had relinquished the planning to their brides. (Will says his only job back then was to pick up his suit before the ceremony.) Neither of them has attended a same-sex wedding before. But by April, both men were on a first-name basis with the saleswomen at the crafts store where they purchased supplies for their homemade centerpieces. By Friday, June 22, their house has become wedding command central. Their kids, who hadn’t seen one another for a year, are in the basement playing games and singing and dancing to pop songs. Will is captain of the checklists, keeping track of everything and bagging stuff up to take over to the base.”

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Elon Green is a contributor to Longform.org.