Monday, January 21, 2013

Gay Liberation Movement Monument


Is Freedom simple or complicated?
The feeling of being free seems to be simplicity itself. As easy and ordinary as passing time quietly in a park with someone you care for. But reaching that clear and unhindered moment is a complex ordeal.  In reality, there may be nothing uncomplicated about freedom at all. But truths like that are ignored in our sound-bite society.
Sheridan Square Park in NYC is named for General Philip Sheridan. It is also the home of the Gay Liberation Movement Monument.
Some would agree with you if you said Sheridan fought for freedom. In the Civil War he did to the Shenandoah Valley what Sherman did to other Southern states when he marched from Atlanta to the sea. He inflicted relentless destruction, crushing the will of confederate civilians to wage war. He fought for the end of slavery, but was relentless and without mercy when it came to vanquishing his enemy. If you were a Virginian slave – or unionist – he was a liberator. If you were a Virginian secessionist, he was a sadistic invader.
Those freed from Slavery, those fighting to save the Union, might insist he was willing to pay a terrible price for their freedom. The immediate victims of that price, whose farms and homes were destroyed, likely disagree.
He was General Grant’s favorite general, and when Ulysses became president, Sheridan led a genocidal war against Native Americans, he attacked the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche tribes in their winter quarters, taking their supplies and livestock and killing those who resisted, driving the rest back into their reservations. He did the same later to the Sioux, although in 1876 there was a set back when Custer was ambushed. His troops killed not just warriors, but women, children and old men. They also gave them blankets with smallpox, spreading disease among the populations and allowed professional hunters, trespassing on Indian land, to slaughter bison, knowing that the buffalo was a way of life for Native Americans. Sheridan said: "Let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo is exterminated".
Settlers who had been victims of attacks might say Sheridan fought for their freedom. People living in those states – and everyone else in the nation, because all benefitted from agriculture, mining and other industries that followed in those states, enriching our national economy – might also say that because of Sheridan’s merciless warfare, we live in freedom today. Native Americans have a different perspective. Sheridan was one of the strategists  enacting the American Indian holocaust that was Manifest Destiny. Sheridan is their Eichmann.
Sharing space with Sheridan in his namesake park is the monument to Gay Liberation. The stonewall riots began in this neighborhood in 1969. They may not have been the actual first step towards civil rights and equality for homosexuals, but no previous event was as visible or memorable.
Homosexuality was illegal, and homosexuals existed in an underground society that was under constant harassment by police. Consensual sex between adults was treated as a crime, because it was a crime. Laws prohibited sex between members of the same gender. African American Americans and women were successfully protesting for equal rights. Even Native Americans had AIM – the American Indian Movement – that was almost as successful. In spite of a few celebrities, like Tennessee Williams, who had come out before coming out was a term, gays were ostracized, the segment of the population that dared not speak its name. Police raided and harassed the clientele of bars in the west village, where gays were able to enjoy some freedom, however clandestinely. The night Judy Garland died the police decided to raid and the mourners decided enough was enough and what might have on the surface seemed like camp, suddenly turned into a resistance movement and a fight for freedom began.
Many homosexual men and women were active participants in the anti-war, civil war and women’s liberation movements of the era, but always remained in the closet. Many political values and goals were shared, but the organizations behind those movements could be as homophobic as society at large. To come out was to risk not just being ostracized, but legal repercussions in the form of fines and prison. Most of the gay New Yorkers leading the stonewall riots were inspired by other political movements of the era. They had a genuine grief for Judy Garland – she was probably the most outspoken gay rights supporter of her generation of celebrities – and finally stood up to the police harassment, who were cruelly enforcing an unjust law.
Freedom is never simple, is it?
Rights have to be defined, put into law. Laws require regulations to be written, so disputes can be litigated and even that litigation and case law further shapes those rights, and ultimately that freedom.
But the right to love who you want. Desiring who you want to desire? That seems simple. Starts simply most times at least, love does. Starts with a you and an I, what could be more basic? You don’t tell your heart how to feel, it works the other way around.
Freedom requires more than just laws. Rights are enshrined in law, but laws are not enough. Attitudes have to change, which takes time, education and individual experiences.
Sheridan’s bloody acts in the Civil War led to enshrinement in law of civil rights for American blacks through constitutional amendments. But Jim Crow nullified those amendments for about another 90 years. Supreme Court decisions, additional amendments to the constitution, national, state and locals and accompanying regulations, were needed to not just over throw Jim Crow but to make those rights a reality in every state, including the Shenandoah Valley. But it wasn’t just the legal reality. Segregation was easy to accept because if the other is not part of your day to day life, they remain other. In this sense, civil rights legislation allowed for personal racism to be overcome. They enabled the possibility for to experience the humanity of the stranger.
There’s  certainly more work to be done, and there will be more work to done in four years when Obama leaves office, but we are at a point now that was unimaginable when I was a kid.  
Gay Liberation began as a local phenomena. Anti Sodomy laws still existed in some states into this century. Attitudes had to change, people risked everything for coming out. AIDS happened.
This statue celebrated its 20th Annivrsary in the summer. In 1992, I had friends and colleagues who were out and some who were not. Gay men and women seemed welcomed, no big deal, some of my best friends are sort of thing. But the idea of gay marriage was still seen as such a radical pipe dream to be ridiculous. It hadn’t happened in Europe even. Ten years earlier (I was still in College), I could count the people I knew who were out on one hand and still be able to hitch hike.  
In 2012, gay marriage is legal in New York, and the populations of two other states voted it into law. I wonder if two decades of commemoration through art by this sculpture had something to do with the process of accepting one step sufficiently so that next step could be taken.
I love freedom. I support freedom unconditionally – I think I do, but if you have a bone worth picking then let’s get a beer and talk about it. My only issue with gay marriage is nomenclature. It is not an argument against, but thoughtful nitpicking. Wife and Husband are gender specific nouns, but they are used more commonly than spouse.  How will gay marriage affect the usage and legal meaning of those terms? Only observation allays this concern, I do not have a stand one way or another on a preferred outcome regarding word choice.
The religious argument against gay marriage is intellectually dishonest. The premise is that somehow the whole of society will suffer because an adult is permitted to have sex with an adult who wants to have sex with them. Their lack of purity hurts us all, the argument essentially goes. The purity argument, which comes from a dubious interpretation of the Book of Deuteronomy is an unsubstantiated premise, and not just because I used the adjective dubious.
Freedom of religion means you can practice yours freely, but to use the religious argument to deny a freedom is sheer hypocrisy, not to mention an attitude of ignorance and ingratitude about a freedom essential to the believer’s quality of life. To put it more plainly, you are not doing unto others. If you are using the same vehicle by which you are free to eliminate the freedom of an other, than you  are abusing the system and in fact, taking away some of your freedom by eliminating the freedom of choice for others. Our constitution allows you to interpret scripture to see homosexuality as a sin, but sin cannot be made illegal just on the basis of your religious belief. Murder and theft, for instance, may be sins, but they are also against property rights – of your self and your possessions – and if they were not illegal, then society would collapse. There is no property equivalent for consensual sex, in spite of what until now were centuries of western societies trying to set up legal prohibitions against sex deemed sinful.
Marriage may be a sacrament, but sacraments by definition are not legal constructs. They can not be bound— or impeded – by the laws of man because they are about recognition – perhaps even an interface – with the invisible or supernatural world, i.e. God. Allowing two people to enter into a social contract and granting them the rights and privileges of that contract is common sense. Let’s accept that the evolution of acceptance has been gradual but if two individuals are not allowed the benefits of that social contract, they are indeed being persecuted.  Gay Marriage allows a freedom that was denied for some individuals; those who oppose it are unable to – and in fact do not – claim, much less prove, that their freedoms are in any way impeded by Gay Marriage. The argument that gay marriage diminishes the institution of marriage is simply hypocritical and is a similar argument supporting anti-sodomy laws, that the whole of society is diminished by the sexual impurity of two consenting adults. In the decades after the 1969 Gay Liberation Movement, society has survived the revocation of anti-sodomy laws. The idea that while society can but the institution of marriage cannot is ridiculous.
But more than that, if the institution – for lack of a better term – of marriage depends on the legal definition of the social contract, and as such threatened by gay marriage, then you are abandoning the sacramental notion of marriage. If that institution is the Sacrament, then it cannot be diminished through law because sacraments are beyond – by definition external to – “our” laws. Sacraments and institutions are distinct entities. An institution enshrined by and through, law, that it is a social contract and as such, influenced by legislation and plebiscite, is contrary to a sacramental institution. They are not one and the same, and once they are, the sacramental aspect of marriage dissolves, because Freedom of religion means freedom of belief. Once it is enshrined in law, it is a fact and no longer a belief. The best you can hope for is peaceful coexistence, which is why even when you get married in a house of worship, witnessed by friends, family and a congregation of fellow believers, you also get a marriage license.  The social contract of marriage is not equivalent to the sacramental union, but the religious argument against marriage wants to make it equivalent and that will only diminish the sacramental union, the very basis of the argument. That seems to me to be also the definition of hypocrisy.
The only way the Civil War could have been prevented was if the founding fathers nullified slavery with the constitution. Insufficient numbers of slaveholders were willing to voluntarily give up their slaves. Thus, the war came.
 By 1860, the only resolution left was the Battle Cry of Freedom. The Indian Wars America fought against Native Americans in the Plains States should have been avoided. Our government broke every treaty, and combined genocidal military tactics of direct assaults on civilian populations – the very tactics that won the Civil War and World War II – as well as enacting policies for the extermination of the Buffalo, the basis of a way of life for all the key tribes. Greed and racism motivated the free to make others less free. Co-existence with American Indian Tribes was possible, it had been official policy for decades and was supported by many in the 1870s and 1880s,  but of course that side lost.
Gay rights never came to war fare, although Matthew Shepard and the millions of AIDs victims, particularly those ignored by the government and our overall healthcare system of no-system in the 80s and (early-to-mid) 90s, might not have been able to tell the difference. In a sense, Gay Marriage is similar to Civil Rights legislation, a correction, a focus of law that ensures freedom that may have only been implied in previous amendments to the constitution as well state, local and case law.
Gay Marriage did not seem as obvious in 1992 when this statue was finally erected in Sheridan Square Park, even though by then, all other equal rights for gay men and women had become the norm (at least round these parts). Legislation is an important first step for rights, but it is just the first steps and changing attitudes and perceptions, removing that mental BUT – as in, I have nothing against gays, BUT – requires time, patience, discourse and conversation. A realization that a lot of that BUT is more about you than me. Denying somebody freedom is your problem, not theirs but sadly, you may be the one in power.
I like the eeriness of this statue, the refrigerator white of the sculpture is both other-wordily and natural. In fact ,its nocturnal glow seems preternatural. At night these statues seem incandescent.  George Segal is the sculptor of the Gay Liberation Movement Monument. Two castings were made of the statue, which are brass and painted white, in 1979 but did not reach the intended spot until 1992.
Some gays originally protested the statue, deriding for appearing to depict “cruising couples.” I’m old enough to have seen the Pacino film, to have read John Rechy, and remember hearing those funny bits on Howard Stern about Parkway Rest Stops, so that thought crossed my mind.
Casual sex was – and is – part of gay society – just as it is common in Heterosexual society – but the anonymous environment of a park has long been replaced by the more anonymous and open space of the Internet. People use to hook up in a park, NO WAY! So, times have made that perception obsolete and the sculpture more closely resembles the artist’s original intention, depicting a natural moment between couples in a park, showing them to be as human as anyone else, regardless of sexuality. Context can be everything.
And now, most parks are like Sheridan Square, where couples of any gender can pass time un-harassed. And, if harassed, there are laws to protect them.
The need to be who you are is a universal aspiration. Every human being wants that. Everybody wants that freedom. It is an ideal that represents the best of America; an ideal Sheridan’s Commander-and-Chief rightly said was the last best hope for mankind.
 The freedom to be in a park un-harassed deserves the permanence of public art. We live life by moments, as such freedom seems simple but the facts tell another more complicated story that politics all too often trivializes.
In my Toy Story hallucination, I imagine conversations between the Gay Liberation Movement and General Phillip Sheridan statues. Are they about the simplicity of an ideal or the complexity of reaching it? Who takes what side, and when?

No comments:

Post a Comment