HIV Aids

As Supreme Court Hearing on LGBTQ Rights Approaches, An Activist Looks Back at 1987 SCOTUS Protests


On Oct. 8, just two days after the one-year anniversary of the swearing-in of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, that court will hear three pivotal cases that could strip LGBTQ people of essential rights. And on that day, people living with HIV, LGBTQ people, and those who love us will travel to Washington, D.C. and put their bodies on the line to stand up for LGBTQ rights and lives. Among them will be one man living with HIV who was one of 600 people arrested there at an LGBTQ rights protest in 1987.

Led by Housing Works and supported by a growing list of organizations, the organizers are furious that the court — now packed with conservative appointees — could, in a throwback to horrendous rulings of the last century, determine that LGBTQ Americans — and even those who are just not adherent to a narrow definition of “male” and “female” gender — are not entitled to protections afforded to those who are heterosexual and cisgender.

On that day, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments — in three different cases — that center around one key question: Should LGBTQ people be protected from workplace discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act?

Even though many legal rulings now affirm that the definition of “sex” in Title VII covers both sexual orientation and gender identity, the court could decide that this is not the meaning of the term in Title VII. It would then become legal to discriminate against or fire a person for their sexual orientation or gender identity. In their fact sheet on the cases, Housing Works cautions that a bad ruling could have sweeping consequences that could go even further in the spread of discrimination:

“While the primary targets are LGBTQ people, particularly people who are of trans experience and/or non-binary, a new definition could create a broader legal interpretation of what discrimination is allowed in the workplace, up to and including not presenting as masculine or feminine enough for the tastes of an employer, and open to door to discrimination of this type in other settings including healthcare, education, the military…”

A compelling, if under-recognized, part of the LGBTQ social-justice arc happened at the Supreme Court, led by LGBTQ people fighting for our rights over 30 years ago this month. A week-long mobilization culminated in a massive protest against the Supreme Court, with 600 people arrested in a civil disobedience action.

Tripp Reed, a gay man and long-term survivor of HIV who lives in Washington D.C., engaged in his first purposeful arrest in that 1987 event. Reed will be joining in the civil disobedience on Oct. 8.

October 1987: “It Was Both Exhilarating and Terrifying”

Thirty-two years ago, fresh from a summer in Provincetown, Reed approached the steps of the Supreme Court of the United States. He had graduated from social work school at a Catholic university, he knew that he was gay, he knew that he was likely living with HIV, and he knew he was ready to stand up for justice for his community. Instead, he sat down — purposefully and illegally, as a participant in the first wave of what became multiple waves of civil disobedience that led to around 600 arrests at the Supreme Court.

A year before, the Supreme Court had ruled that the right to privacy did not include gay people. As noted by The New York Times, “The Court held that a Georgia law that forbids all people to engage in oral or anal sex could be used to prosecute such conduct between homosexuals,” even in the privacy of their homes, though it did not say the same law could be enforced against heterosexuals.

“When I was in the first group that ran into the riot police, and they were there with their shields and their head garb and everything, it was both exhilarating and terrifying,” Reed recalled to TheBody.

After the arrest, the presence of volunteer attorneys was reassuring, and he saw that those who gave ID were quickly processed and released. But then he realized not everyone who was arrested was at the same level of jeopardy.

“There were tons of queens — I have ID on me and money, but none of them did. They were using the names Harvey Milk and Oscar Wilde, and a lot of them had HIV and their health was teetering. So, I could have processed out, but I didn’t. I wanted to go make a statement to the judge,” he explained. “They transported me to another location where it seemed a little scarier; there were other people in the jail that were cat calling and hooting and hollering.”

“I wasn’t necessarily scared for myself — I’m pretty streetwise — but it’s intimidating, it’s threatening. A lot of the men were dressed in dresses and there were lots of radical faeries, so they actually may have been trans or gender non-binary.”

Organizers of the Oct. 8 action affirm that the disparities in risk continue today.

“We already live in a world where people who don’t fit societal conventions of gender expression are subject to stigma, discrimination, verbal and physical abuse, and even being killed for who they are,” said Charles King, co-founder and CEO of Housing Works, via press release.

“This is compounded for our transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming brothers, sisters, and siblings. We are mobilizing this action because we are deeply concerned and angered that the gates could be opened to losing rights and protections in the workplace, in education, health care, the military, and beyond.”

In the case of the 1986 Hardwick ruling, it was overturned in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, which affirmed that any privacy afforded to heterosexuals should be so for others as well. Given the current membership of the Supreme Court, advocates fear it could take much longer to see justice in these three cases if Title VII protections are struck down for LGBTQ people.

Reed, who now runs a private psychotherapy practice and is an avid participant in Housing Works’ annual Braking AIDS Ride, remains resolute that outside, confrontational action is necessary. He put it plainly: “The fact that queer people do not have protections in the workplace is just fucking criminal.”

“I have been fired for being gay — both overtly, where the owner of the restaurant met me at the car on a Saturday night with my check, saying, ‘We don’t need your kind around here,’ to working within corporate health care settings where a closeted man would look at me with a combination of desire and disdain and wait for me to make a mistake or a false move — and then it was my head that rolled,” he added.

“We’re not going to get it by playing nice,” Reed continued. “I have worked from the inside to make changes. But I also think that sometimes it is appropriate and called for to break some shit. I have resources, I can get another job. I’m self-employed now. But I do think that I am my brother’s keeper, and I think that now, with trans people, I just think that there have to be protections in place, so where an employer fucks with somebody, there may be some type of negative consequences for them.”

Jaron Benjamin, vice president of Community Mobilization at Housing Works, affirmed the value of direct action that may not be “nice”: “Anyone who thinks that in-person protests and civil disobedience aren’t effective needs to re-examine the arc of American history,” he said. “I’d challenge them to look at the civil rights protests in the U.S. South, to the demonstrations that saved the Affordable Care Act. These protests work, and lawmakers pay attention to how many people show up in person for demonstrations. So it’s important for us to show everyone — including politicians and candidates — that we won’t stand idly by while civil rights are in jeopardy.”

Despite the risks — which, Reed noted, may be much greater for those who are transgender or gender non-conforming — Reed also believes there’s personal growth that can come from taking a stand.

“Having been discriminated against, the idea that you’re not going to take it anymore, there’s something generative about that,” he concluded. “You’re not just kind of curling up into a ball.”

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