Memorial Day, for ALL
Memorial Day is May 28 this year. And I think, partially because of the much-in-the-news Transgender Ban, thoughts of Memorial Day, kept swirling around in my head.
So finally, I conceded and went off to do some research.
And I learned a lot of things. Some I knew, some I didn’t…such as the Memorial Day holiday dates back to the Civil War. It began as a nearly spontaneous response to the carnage, in which some 620,000 soldiers on both sides died. And thanks to the posthumous work of people such as writer Thomas P. Lowry (The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War) we know, we, LGBT folks are both sadly, and proudly, among that number.
It was, in 1864, when women from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania put flowers on the graves of their dead from the just-fought Battle of Gettysburg. The next year, a group of women decorated the graves of soldiers buried in a Vicksburg, Mississippi, cemetery.
In April 1866, women from Columbus, Mississippi, laid flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers, while in Carbondale, Illinois, 219 Civil War veterans marched through town in memory of the fallen. They marched to Woodlawn Cemetery, where Union hero Major General John A. Logan delivered the principal address. That ceremony gives Carbondale its claim to the first organized, community-wide Memorial Day observance.
And finally, in perhaps an ironic twist of a name, Waterloo, New York began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866. Although many towns claim the title, it is Waterloo which ultimately won congressional recognition as the “birthplace of Memorial Day.”
Then along came World War I and the poem, In Flanders Fields by Canadian John McCrea. This poem inspired Miss Moina Belle Michael of Georgia (and later Columbia University) to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans… and “keep the faith with all who died.”
But the “wearing of the poppy” wasn’t the only movement to grow from WW I. It was also a big turning point in the Gay Rights Movement. Only then it called itself, “Homosexual Emancipation.”
When the war began in Germany, The Scientific Humanitarian Committee (founded by Magnus Hirschfeld) was then the world’s leading homosexual emancipation group. Its membership numbered, give or take, 100 people.
But as the war ended, and soldiers returned home, people who had made tremendous sacrifices in the name of citizenship formed new organizations such as the 100,000-member League of Human Rights, led by Friedrich Radszuweit. He established a network of gay publications, including the first lesbian magazine, Die Freundin. The group insisted that their government had an obligation to them—regardless of what biology might say about their sexuality.
And this is where our modern LGBT movement begins. These veterans left science behind, going directly to a set of demands which characterize gay rights to this day—and quoting the Human Rights League, “that gay people are upstanding citizens and deserve to have their rights respected.”
A year after the war an activist wrote “The state must recognize the full citizenship rights of inverts,” as we were once called. He demanded not just the repeal of the sodomy laws, but the opening of government jobs to known homosexuals!
And this wasn’t happening only in Germany. In 1924, Henry Gerber, a German immigrant (having come to the US in 1913), founded, in Chicago, the Society for Human Rights, the first documented gay rights organization in the United States.
During his US Army service, Gerber was another military veteran inspired by the Scientific Humanitarian Committee’s work. Post-war, he was invigorated to take up the fight back at home. Gerber’s small group published a few issues of its newsletter Friendship and Freedom, the country’s first gay-interest newsletter.
Police raids caused the group to disband in 1925, but 90 years later, in 2015, the U.S. government designated Gerber’s Chicago house a National Historic Landmark. It’s the second such LGBTQ+ Historic Landmark to be designated, the first being the Stonewall Inn on New York’s Christopher Street.
And so it all seems an amazing arc—from the early 1900s to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It’s a story filled with epic heroism and a tale of triumph against the odds, complete with a happy ending.
Because now, along with daily struggles to change hearts and minds, we must urgently fight to protect our Transgendered siblings, remembering the beginning of our modern movement. Those willing to sacrifice in the name of citizenship deserve full equality.
So we say, to so many readers, thank you for your service.
And this Memorial Day, as we gather on the beach, in town, and among our friends, let’s all wear the poppy. And on its stem, tie a ribbon, a rainbow ribbon. And together, we will keep the faith with ALL who died.▼
Stefani Deoul is a television producer and author of the award-winning YA mystery On a LARP. Contact Stefani.