When Lillian Faderman spoke at the City Club of Cleveland this September, she ably distilled her ample Anisfield-Wolf winning history, “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle,” into a half-hour presentation with 20 minutes of questions. Her audience was diverse, and several members expressed awe over a 76-year-old pioneer who came out as a lesbian in 1956.
Among the listeners were 14 young adults enrolled in a seminar on philanthropy in America — all first-year students at Case Western Reserve University.
“Lillian Faderman has long been a hero of mine and her work has informed my own research on early modern women,” said their professor, Barbara Burgess-Van Aken. She called her decision to bring the class “a shamelessly selfish choice which I justified by thinking that I would be giving students exposure to a different sort of nonprofit organization. Little did I realize that Lillian’s topic would spark so much passion among my students.”
Here are snippets of their responses:
One aspect of her talk that I was very interested in was the transition of the movement from being secretive and submissive to being loud and determined. It was very interesting to hear about the secret groups LGBT members would form. Prior to today, I had a vague knowledge of the history of the LGBT movement, but I did not know many of the actual details. It is pretty amazing to see how small acts of bravery here and there soon led to marches and riots.
It was surprising to hear, however, that people can be fired due to their sexual orientation. I most certainly could believe this to be true years ago, but I was not expecting it to still be true. —Claire Nordt
Lillian Faderman’s speech felt more like having a conversation with a person than listening to a scripted talk. —David Kerrigan
One aspect that I enjoyed was that she went through the very early stages of the LGBT revolution. It surprised me that people back in the 1950s would rather be called communist than gay. I know this was during the McCarthy era where it was very, very dangerous to be communist, which made it even more surprising. I like how she did not just tell us this information, but she illustrated it with statistics, evidence, and anecdotes.—Karthik Ravichandran
My visit to the Cleveland City Club and Lillian Faderman’s talk was very enlightening. I actually was hesitant about the course that the talk would take; I didn’t know if it would be a boring speech that would go on a tangent rant, but I was pleasantly surprised that it was a very intellectual and heartfelt speech. —Hemen Aklilu
Ms. Faderman has obviously gone through a lot in her lifetime and it is amazing that she has had the courage and will to do all the work she has to help educate so many people on gay rights. Her presentation was very professional but at the same time very personable.—Kyle Lewis
The City Club of Cleveland hosted an honest and ethical ceremony where the voices of many were summed up by one incredible woman who has done her best to engage, educate, and empower those who listen to her to recognize the hardships that this community has faced and to realize all that there is left to go to truly free these people.—Jacqueline Abraham
Lillian Faderman’s speech was both informative and incredibly interesting. I personally did not know much about the history of gay rights and learned a lot from the experience. It really saddens me that United States history has so much bigotry ingrained in it. We are not really educated about the history of gay rights. In high school, I learned about African Americans’ struggle for equal rights, Native Americans’ plight involving the taking over of their land, and the racism Hispanics face. Never did I learn about the LBGTQ struggle. It is absolutely appalling to me that this demographic received so much hate.—Michael Rowland
Perhaps my favorite question that was asked was about what the proper terms to reference the gay community were. There are so many things out there and it’s hard to know as an outsider what the majority prefers. It can be extremely hard to follow and her response about both gay and LGBT being acceptable was very helpful. It was nice to see her take a light-hearted approach about the acronyms and how many there are to this day. — Anna Goff
I very much enjoyed Lillian Faderman’s idea that the black power movement of the 1960s inspired the gay rights movement to rise up and take action. I had never thought of this connection before, so it was interesting to hear her perspective on it and the influence she believes it has…. In general I was a little disappointed that she didn’t talk about the AIDS epidemic in more detail because personally I feel that it was a large part of the gay rights movement in the twentieth century. To her benefit however, someone did ask a question based on AIDS, which gave her a chance to say how important it was to the struggle for civil rights. —Claire Howard
The most interesting thing at this event was whether or not queer people should be considered a minority group. Some people think that gay people are not minorities because there is only one simple difference that divides them from the rest of this heteronormative society. But wouldn’t that be the case for all minority groups? We are humans with variations in race, nationality, ability, etc. These things are just simple differences like sexuality. People are not in a minority group because they feel like they are oppressed. They are in these groups because they are oppressed. Any minority group, whether it be queer or disabled people, has to try harder in order to succeed in a society that does not acknowledge their human rights. —Mya Cox
I have spoken at a Rotary Club event, and it was much more informal and simple. This event almost seemed like a small-scale TED talk to me. Upon looking at Ms. Faderman, I expected a serious, bland, but informative speech. Instead, Ms. Faderman was light-hearted, charismatic, and very informative in her speech. She started by saying, “I am going to recap my 800+ page book in a 30 minute talk.” Rather than spitting facts or quotes from her novel, she took the listeners on a trip through the history and important events of the LGBT fight.—Rohith Koneru
Faderman also mentioned that a lot of hate came from the religious side of things. Now I cannot deny that a lot of those against the LGBT community have association with religion but I was raised Catholic and believe in that faith. I went through Catholic schooling from preschool all the way through high school and not once was a taught to hate the LGBT community.—Jeremy Hill
One other notable topic I liked was her discussion of the media portrayal of gay men as rapists and lesbians as killers. While those no longer exist in the media today, the stereotypes of gays being pedophiles and the like still exist, and TV shows and movies hardly portray LGBT characters at all, and those that do usually make a huge deal out of them. ..
A final note was that I loved the picture of Frank Kameny shaking hands with President Obama in the Oval Office because in that one picture and that one gesture, the viewer is able to see just how far the gay rights movement has come and the progress that has been made towards true equality.—Tom Schlechter
Everyone–both pro or anti LGBT–could feel the passion and struggle of the community and actually sympathize with them. I do feel like I have learned something new about the community’s struggle and the fracture it encountered on a whole another level. I respected her passion and dedication to something she truly believed in even though it has been a long hard brutal fight until this point.
As a gay male, the whole presentation affected me on an emotional level. Also, I was pleased that she was not dismissive of other cultures and opinions, which a lot of people tend to do, but instead focused more on the story of the LGBT individuals. Generally, people have a tendency to make their group seem better than others, but Faberman was very respectful towards those of other groups. —Karthik Ravichandran
We have to work hard to make sure everyone has equal rights. The fact that people are still being discriminated against is terrible. We need to band together and change this. —Michael Rowland
Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates is very clear on his role: Dig for the truth and get out of the way. “If you are going to be a writer you have to write into the wind. You have to say, ‘I’m prepared to do this and give my all, even if only 20 people read the book.'”
Many thousands have embraced Coates’ Between the World and Me, which caught fire immediately upon its July release and topped the New York Times bestseller list. It is a National Book Award finalist and earned a jacket blurb from Toni Morrison, who crowned Coates the successor to James Baldwin. “I’ve been writing for 20 years—all of this is recent,” he said. “I liked what I was doing before this happened and I’ll like what I’m doing when this goes away.”
Sitting across from City Club of Cleveland CEO Dan Moulthrop, Coates said he works hard not to be distracted. His focus is “to map out and discover” the cumulative narrative of racism: Why have we not grappled with 350 years of government-sanctioned plunder of black communities?
The 40-year-old Baltimore-born writer took inspiration from James Baldwin’s short 1963 book, The Fire Next Time and wanted Between the World and Me to deliver that same punch—inquisitive, lyrical and haunting, all in a quick 150 pages.
His goal with Between the World and Me, he told the audience gathered at Cleveland State University, was not to “speak for all black people” but instead to “speak to something in all Black people.”
When asked what white people could do to eradicate white supremacy, the newly named MacArthur “genius” said that the burden of creating an equal society lies on the shoulders of those who maintain it. “The first step is to not ask black people what to do. You then are throwing it back on me to figure out a problem you caused. If I have my foot on someone’s neck and I say to you, how do I get my foot off your neck, well, you’re doing it.”
One woman asked Coates about his phrasing of race—”people who think they are white,” “people who think they are black.” He answered, “There’s no real consistent notion of race across time and geography,” mentioning Brazil’s racial constructs and the shifting classification of Italian immigrants over time. “Any definition of race always depends upon power.”
A nation that does not stand up for its children doesn’t stand for anything at all.
I don’t know why we don’t do what we know.
We don’t have a money problem. We have a morality problem.
I want black kids and brown kids to see something in their future called college, not prison.
These were no bromides. Edelman bolstered them with withering facts, expressing her four-decade bewilderment that among the 35 richest nations, only Romania has a higher proportion of its children in poverty than the United States. In 2013, 14.7 million American children—more than the population of Ohio—lived in official poverty while 6.5 million children faced the chronic hunger and homelessness of extreme poverty.
Then Edelman brought the numbers closer to home: In 2013 in Cleveland, 54 percent of its children are poor and one in four is extremely poor. Some 4,000 students this academic year in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District were homeless or doubled-up in temporary housing, said Thomas Ott, director of assignments for the district’s news bureau.
“Let’s pray and vote and stand up and fight for those children who have never been carried,” Edelman said, echoing the Baptist tradition in which she grew up.
Wearing owlish glasses, a colorful green and yellow jacket and a no-nonsense air, the children’s crusader injected humor into her preaching, reaching for principles she said were derived from Noah’s Ark: “Remember the arc was built by amateurs and the Titanic was built by experts.”
To illustrate her message, Edelman described a young Clevelander she met last month in Columbus. Born addicted to drugs, Brittany defied a grim prognosis and grew into a student who loved and excelled in school, despite an absent father, a cocaine-addled mother and her own lupus. For ten years Brittany’s grandmother provided a loving home for Brittany, her older sister and brother until their mother became sober and regained custody. This spring, Brittany is graduating from John Hay High School of Science and Medicine determined to become a doctor.
“I believe so strongly we don’t have the right to give up on any child,” Edelman said, as some listeners wiped away tears.
Edelman acknowledged her long-time friends, Dolly and Steven A. Minter, for whom her City Club lecture was endowed. Their daughter Robyn Minter Smyers, partner-in-charge of the Cleveland office of Thompson Hine, introduced Edelman, calling her “a role model and a profound source of inspiration.” Minter Smyers interned for Edelman in Washington, D.C. a quarter century ago. A bit earlier, in 1970, another former Children Defense Fund intern began making her mark: Hillary Rodham.
Here are the remaining lessons Edelman derives from Noah’s Ark:
Don’t miss the boat. (The U.S. military now disqualifies 75 percent of applicants for illiteracy and prior imprisonment.)
We are all in the same boat.
Plan ahead. (“It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”)
Stop being timid.
For safety, travel in pairs, or better yet, in community.
In a popular U.S. high school history textbook, The Americans, there is only one sentence—in passive voice—on housing discrimination among more than 1200 pages of text: “African-Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods.”
So noted researcher Richard Rothstein, who cited this fact as an exemplar of American “collective amnesia” when it comes to how we discuss segregation. Such disingenuousness, he told the City Club of Cleveland, keeps our nation from righting past wrongs.
With minimal use of his notes, Rothstein drew a precise and powerful link between the current achievement gap among the races and our country’s legacy of inequality. “We do not have de facto segregation in this country,” he maintained, to murmurs of agreement in the audience. “We have explicit racial apartheid and we have forgotten the history of how this came about.”
Rothstein devoted the bulk of his City Club presentation to revisiting this history, beginning with the public policies in the 1940s that restricted black families to crowded public housing units and prevented black veterans from taking full advantage of the housing benefits in the G.I. Bill after World War II. Those national policy decisions stripped black families of the opportunity to generate the generational wealth enjoyed by whites.
Levittown, a Long Island, N.Y. suburb that boomed in the 1940s, makes a poignant example. Rothstein estimates that white homeowners who purchased their residences in the 1950s saw a 200% increase in equity in the following decades, which often sent children to college or enhanced businesses.
Simply outlawing discrimination doesn’t remedy years of injury, Rothstein argued, particularly as the effect of housing inequity still plagues American schools today: “We have a constitutional obligation to undo this history. It was not an accident. It was created under public policy. We have an obligation to reverse it.”
Rothstein also recommends reforms in the labor market, including the end of unpredictable scheduling for many low-wage occupations, overwhelmingly held by parents of color. Fifty percent of all black hourly workers receive their weekly schedules less than one week in advance, he noted, making it difficult to find consistent childcare or set mealtimes. “Giving parents stable work lives would do more to close the achievement gap than any education reform we can talk about.”
Questions from the audience were measured, including two from local high school students. Anthony Price from Shaw High School asked if Rothstein had suggestions for young people in eradicating inequality, in light of a recent City Club forum that placed youth at the center of the conversation, which he moderated. Rothstein circled back to his textbook example. “Educate yourselves about this history and insist that it become part of the curriculum,” he said to applause.
Will Congress or the Supreme Court address modern segregation? Rothstein insisted on the long view: “It’s going to take a long process of reeducating the American public. The Supreme Court is not going to go where we fear to go.”
Shakyra Diaz, policy manager for the ACLU of Ohio, asked everyone in a crowded meeting hall who knew someone with a criminal conviction to raise a hand. Almost every person – mostly youth – lifted an arm overhead.
This was a respectable crowd – a City Club of Cleveland forum – and the arms aloft were eloquent. “The land of the free cannot be the land of the lock down,” Diaz said, and a junior at Gilmour Academy jotted the sentence in pencil on her program.
The note-taking at “A Conversation on Race” at the City Club youth forum was no accident. The urgency of police killings in Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland had drawn a crowd. Panelist and poet Basheer Jones challenged the hundreds of high school and college students assembled: “There is more we can do. Come prepared to write things down. You won’t remember everything said today. Teachers, have their students bring their weaponry. An African proverb says: ‘Do not build your shield on the battlefield.’”
Diaz and Jones were joined at the front of the room by Jonathan Gordon, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, and Andres Gonzalez, police chief of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.
“Cops, we don’t always get it right,” said Gonzalez, the first Hispanic chief of police in the Northeast Ohio County. “That’s true….A police department is only as strong as the community allows it to be. When the community loses faith in the department that is almost the beginning of the end.”
Diaz zeroed in on system inequity: Cleveland is the fifth most segregated city in the United States; Ohio is sixth in its incarceration rate; fourth for incarcerating women. “This country is number one in the world for incarcerating adults and children,” she said.
Gordon brought forward Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book, “The New Jim Crow,” which examines a system that has now put more African Americans behind bars than there were slaves in 1850 before the Civil War. Jones stressed that the students in Collinwood and Glenville High Schools struggle in dilapidated buildings while the new juvenile detention center gleams like a “Taj Mahal.”
Metal detectors in schools condition students for prison, Diaz said, and schools that lack soap and toilet paper telegraph a lack of worth. All this connects, she said, to the Black Lives Matter movement.
When one student asked how to respond to those who claim they don’t see color, Diaz replied curtly: “That’s a lie. If you can see, you see color. What we shouldn’t do and cannot do is deny human dignity.” Echoing Ta’Nehisi Coates, who spoke at the City Club in August, Jones said, “The worst part about racism is that it creates self-hatred; some look in the mirror and don’t like what they see.”
Jones challenged the students to make sure their younger brothers knew more about the ABCs than Waka Flocka lyrics, more math than Usher. He stressed the importance of allies, noting that among the 30 Clevelanders he organized to go to Ferguson were Jews and Hispanics while “there are people in your community who look just like you who are working toward the destruction of it.”
Gordon underscored the importance of action, starting with the reformation of the Cleveland police department. He pointed to the good work of Facing History and Ourselves and the students at Shaker Heights High School who have battled racism. AutumnLily Faithwalker of Laurel School said she wished the panel, while strong, had focused more acutely on what exactly could be done.
Little is more urgent, Jones said. “If not addressed, these issues we are dealing with right now will be the downfall of our country.”
The biggest laugh during Ari Shavit’s serious, passionate talk about the Middle East came at the end, when a questioner at the City Club of Cleveland asked the Israeli journalist about the Kurds.
“Look,” Shavit said. “There are no good guys. There are no Canadians in the Middle East. So you have two options: You opt out and say, ‘I’m a purist; I don’t touch it; it’s all contaminated.’ Or you say, ‘It’s a rough world out there, and promoting the lesser evil is doing the right thing.’”
In “the world’s most unstable region,” Shavit insisted that the United States must stay in the game: “I think the distinction should be not between moderates and extremists but stabilizers and de-stabilizers. America should lead an alliance of stabilizers. . .Jordan is better than Syria. And the Kurds are very, very promising.”
Shavit, 57, a columnist for Haaretz, a major dailynewspaper in Tel Aviv, made his first trip to Cleveland in September to receive the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in nonfiction for his first book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. The book, five years in the making, received enormous critical attention for being frankly critical of the displacement of Arabs from their land in 1948 while still insisting on the morality of Zionism.
Speaking slowly, Shavit began his remarks as a gracious guest, praising the decency of the American Midwest and placing the City Club — the longest running free speech forum in the United States — in the line of civic institutions that the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated as essential to the American experiment. Shavit reiterated his respect for the United States, and stressed the continuity between “your great democracy” and Israel’s “frontier democracy.”
He underscored this parallel: “This summer was traumatic for both democracies…We had rockets and tunnels and you had beheadings. Who would have thought of it just a year or two ago that we would once again see this Medieval evil.”
Shavit identified two hazards depleting Western influence in the Middle East: “the fatigue of two wars and an economic crisis that took the oxygen out of the room,” and what he described as an “intellectual weakness” among Western elites, chastened by this history of imperialism, in confronting “Third World evil.” Shavit spent much of his half hour elucidating the perils of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. “Nothing is more evil than ISIS but other are more dangerous,” he warned.
The former paratrooper and philosophy major insisted that he is still an optimist, a believer in the vibrancy of his people and his hosts. “We have an amazing Israeli society,” Shavit said, pausing, as if weighing the messiness of democracy. “But we have horrific politics—worse than yours.”
Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, walked to the lectern at the City Club of Cleveland and managed to distill two years of work on “The Case for Reparations” into an eight-word thesis: “What you have taken should be given back.” It’s time, he argues, for America’s moral reckoning with the legacy of slavery.
For Coates, 38, the spotlight has never been brighter. His 15,000-word article in The Atlantic, buttressed by original research, an extensive bibliography and film clips, broke the record for single-day traffic on the magazine’s website when it was published May 21.
Coates took comic Stephen Colbert’s jabs on “The Colbert Report.” At MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry invited Coates onto her eponymous show, while Bill Moyers provided an argument-expounding forum on PBS. But Coates, who brought to the City Club both father, William Paul Coates, and an iPad full of notes, was humble. He defined patriotism as “love of country” and pointed out that—just as his father loves him and his wife loves him—love rarely involves telling him what he wants to hear. Mature love, mature patriotism, means facing the things that do not credit the beloved.
Asked by an audience member what reparations would look like, Coates suggested that they could resemble the reparations the U.S. government provided the Japanese-Americans wrongly interned during World War II and the financial compensation made to Jews by the German nation after the same war. He stressed that housing and educational policies of discrimination and racism harm African-Americans to this day and that the same policies undergird white supremacy.
The Baltimore native arrived at the Atlantic in 2008 after stints at Time magazine and the Village Voice. Coates’ regular column at The Atlantic has become a hub of intellectual discourse on the web, where he has held court on everything from the NFL banning the N-word to President Obama’s reproach of young black men in a commencement speech at Morehouse College. Asked about the state of investigative journalism, Coates stressed that his magazine editors put substantial resources into richly documenting “The Case for Reparations” and creating a full multimedia narrative as well.
Coates insists on history. “You have to imagine a society where owning people is not just legal but our greatest intellectuals are arguing that it’s morally correct,” Coates told a silent crowd. “We have to learn to consider enslavement, in that time, as legit an institution as home-ownership is, in this time.” He called out Natchez, Miss., not New York City, as home to the largest concentration of multimillionaires in 1860’s America. This is because it was the major hub for slave trading.
One of Coates’ admirable traits is his quick acknowledgment of his limitations. He told the audience that he had dropped out of college; he demurred from answering a question that he didn’t feel well-read enough to take on. He said that in June he started a seven-week French immersion class at Vermont’s Middleburg College. “I just wanted to go someplace where I was the dumbest person there. I was just bumbling around; I was making mistakes. Because it’s good to be reminded that it’s not about you.”
The best thing to come out of writing the reparations article was that “now I know,” Coates said. “And I can’t be lied to.”
Briefly, he mentioned protests in Ferguson, Missouri, aching to use historical context to uncover an accurate picture. He asked what police—who have used toxic language and intimidating displays of force on protesters and journalists—might have done before the eyes of the nation were upon them. He suggested that those in the audience with white bodies need not worry about a day when they would be shot dead in the afternoon and left in the street for four hours, as happened August 9 when Ferguson Policeman Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. “All I want to see is some history of the housing there. We can begin with Mike Brown laying on the ground and folks rioting. But there’s just a whole host of questions behind that. How did his family get to live there? What are the conditions like? What’s going on there?”
Twice during his talk, Coates spoke of the mental and spiritual strain that accompanies being black in America, and his wonder at the continuing optimism of African Americans. He prescribed international travel. “Because this thing will consume you,” he said. “It will eat you. It will eat your soul. It will make you forget you’re a human being with particular likes and dislikes and things that make you different…You are more than a problem that needs to be fixed. It’s important, for our own mental health, to get out every once in a while.”