Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a serious problem with gays. And I’m not sure I care.
I recently got into a discussion on Twitter with some Tea Party Millennials who were livid that I tweeted something positive about the legacy of FDR.
The conservative youth argued that Japanese Internment in the 1940s, and Roosevelt’s earlier treatment of gays as assistant secretary of the Navy in 1917, disqualified FDR for liberal icon status:
A number of people also sent me a link to an article detailing Roosevelt’s support for an anti-gay witch hunt in the Navy.
Here’s more from the Daily Beast:
When Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer refused Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request to have the Justice Department begin a searching and rigorous investigation of Newport’s Naval Base and Training Station, the YMCA and its vicinity, Roosevelt was incensed and took matters into his own hands because he already had designs on the office of Vice President.
He also fully understood that a campaign against “immorality” in America was political dynamite, one that could eventually blast him into the White House.
Thus, politically motivated, Roosevelt had no compunctions about ordering a hidden and undercover investigation to uproot the conditions of vice (homosexuality) and depravity (homosexual acts) that existed in Newport.
These secret investigations, its funds and personnel were hidden in a clandestine Navy Department document, “Section A, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy.”
Men attached to and serving on the staff had to perform the following: keep their eyes wide open, “observing all and ears open for all conversation and make himself free with this class of men [homosexuals], being jolly and good natured, being careful to pump these men for information, making them believe that he is what is termed in the Navy as a ‘boy humper,’ making dates with them and so forth.”
It was, in short, entrapment.
Pretty bad. And yet, I still don’t put much stock in FDR’s anti-gay history from 100 years ago, at least in terms of how it colors my overall view of his presidency. Let me explain.
There’s a movement of late, especially on college campuses, to redefine American history, and to deep-six a growing number of American historical figures in light of new (or not so new) evidence that many were pretty darn awful on a variety of civil rights issues. I’ll limit this discussion to LGBT issues, since, as a longtime national gay rights activist, I’m particularly close to those issues.
Most Americans, most citizens of the world, were terrible on gay rights issues in 1917. (And forget about trans issues.) And while such behavior was abominable, and lots of gay people suffered as a result, I have an issue with entirely “disqualifying” the historic achievements of those figures based on their abhorrent actions with regards to gays. Why? Because everyone was bad on our issues back then.
Now, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Were, for example, Roosevelt responsible for a genocide against gays, I’d be more upset with any veneration of him. But he wasn’t. Still, I fought against anti-gay witch hunts in the US military, so why doesn’t this witch-hunt bother me as much?
The answer is “time.”
I’m still thinking this through, but time matters. Being an anti-gay bigot in 1917 is different from being an anti-gay bigot in 2016, 99 years later. And you don’t even have to look back 100 years to find the nuance. Some people criticize Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for not coming around on gay marriage until 2009 and 2013, respectively. I don’t criticize either one.
First, both Hillary and Bernie are both generally great on our issues. When you go through the LGBT checklist of major issues, both candidates support the right things. So I’m not willing to let one particular LGBT issue, from several years ago when gay marriage was still a debatable issue even in the Democratic party, terminally tarnish their otherwise stellar LGBT record. More on that in a moment.
The second reason I shrug when people tell me that Bernie and Hillary were latecomers to embracing marriage equality is because everyone, gay activists included, was late to the SSM party. While it might be hard to understand in 2016, gay marriage was a pipe-dream only a little over a decade ago. Many of us, top activists all, didn’t think it would happen in our lifetime. So we weren’t that interested in criticizing otherwise-super-pro-LGBT politicians for not embracing something that was never going to happen anyway — especially, when embracing it risked an LGBT ally’s political future in a country not yet ready to accept such dramatic change.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. Gay rights became LGBT rights, and LGBT rights went into overdrive. All you need do is look at the incredible progression on trans rights over the past year — heck, over the past 6 months — to appreciate how quickly the dynamic, the ground, shifted on LGBT issues in this country.
It’s easy now to say that of course every politician should have been in favor of same-sex marriage just a few years ago. But history is more complicated than that. Time is a factor. And you can’t fully judge people in the past — even the recent past — by today’s standards, and claim to fully understand them, and their heart, and their legacy. What’s “easy” today was not easy even a few years ago. And while I don’t think politicians should only take the easy way out, purity in politics is a recipe for certain failure.
(It should be noted that the Tea Partyers are coming at this from a different motivation. They’re far-right conservatives and they want, need, to destroy FDR’s legacy in order to destroy, in their minds, the underpinnings of modern liberalism. That’s why they’re more outraged at FDR’s anti-gay politics 100 years ago than they are at their own party’s homophobia, and their own presidential candidate’s fascism, today.)
The other thing going on here, which I noted above, is a recent fad of attempting to destroy someone’s entire life’s work based on one or two sensational, and bad, things from their past.
The argument goes that FDR was a horrific president, disqualified from a modern-day liberal embrace, because he led an anti-gay witch hunt, and interned Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Along the same lines, Bill Clinton’s eight-year presidency was awful for gays because of DADT and DOMA. (In fact, it was a historic presidency for the LGBT community.) Nothing Bill Clinton did for gay or trans people in his eight years in office matters, regardless of whether those pro-LGBT actions cumulatively outweigh DADT and DOMA, because Clinton gave us DADT and DOMA. Those two bad things outweigh all the good things, even if they really don’t.
And finally, Bernie Sanders must be a pervert, and shouldn’t hold public office, because of the weird things he wrote and said about women and children decades ago. And he’s also anti-Latino and likes guns, so that’s two more reasons he’s the worst liberal in the world.
I’m not arguing that we should ignore, or forgive, these historical slights. I am saying that it’s simplistic to disqualify anyone’s life’s work based on one, or even a few, incidents, unless those incidents rise to an extreme and unforgivable level (e.g., genocide). You simply do not “know” someone based on one moment you’ve cherry-picked from their entire life.
What are your thoughts? Feel free to join in, in the comments below. Thanks.