The Corcoran’s new exhibit “6.13.89: The Cancelling of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition” examines the museum’s 1989 decision to cancel an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe in the face of political pressure. It was a searing moment in the culture wars of the Reagan and Bush eras, one that might seem absurd now unless you look at how members of Congress felt free to talk about gay people in their chambers. Here are just a few examples of political discourse that was not out of bounds in the late ’80s—the closest any of these men came to be held to account was when William Dannemeyer, a California Congressman, placed a statement called “What Homosexuals Do” in the Congressional Record.
Dannemeyer’s statement, as the Washington Post described it in August 1989, “gave details about the lovemaking techniques of some homosexuals.” Andrew Jacobs Jr., an Indiana Congressman, objected not to Dannemeyer’s long-time fixation on the mechanics of gay sex but the fact that his words would land in the Congressional Record and kids might see them. Here are some more examples of a period of time, not that long ago, when elected officials could liken gays to animals, scheming recruiters of children, and deviants with few if any consequences.
“These homosexual loudmouths have soaked the American people for every tax dollar they could find to promote the homosexual movement. And I don’t know about the rest of the senators, but I’m sick of that.”
—Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, September 21, 1989.
“I will respect the sensitivities of some of my colleagues concerning the sexual activities of the average male homosexual. Let it suffice to say that a bit of reflection will lead a person to recognize that even the lowliest of animals do not wittingly conduct themselves in such a manner. ”
—William E. Dannemeyer, Republican of California, November 3, 1989.
“This bill, the ADA, would make criminals out of private employers who refused to hire practicing sex deviants, and the sodomy partners of AIDS carriers. In some metropolitan areas more than half of the practicing homosexuals are already infected with AIDS. In some parts of the country, in some major cities, it’s as high as 70 percent. Under the ADA homosexuals per se would be awarded special status because their deviant conduct places them in a class regarded as being disabled.”
—Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, October 2, 1989.
“We’ve been told as another example of the looney left that this is the year the Democrats are going to make the year of the family. And I understand in the New York debate, Governor Dukakis, Senator Gore, and Jesse Jackson all agreed that there was no objection on their part to homosexual couples adopting children. And I think it’s fair to ask in terms of the looney left exactly what kind of family do you have in mind? Exactly what do you think is the traditional American family?”
—Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia, April 25, 1988
“Then what is it that has spread AIDS principally in the United States? The virus itself marching all over? No. Here’s the rough sentence, and I want my colleagues in this house to hear it. This virus has been incubated by sodomy. Incubated by sodomy principally in this country. That’s what has spread it, and as long as anybody, in this chamber or anywhere else, treats this public health issue as a political subject to be lobbied on by certain groups in this country, that it’s going to be politicized, and it’s going to tear us apart. Let’s work together on this with public health as our main focus, giving no special privilege to any group starting with the ridiculous abuse of the English language, taking an ancient adjective, which started 15 years ago as a public relations ploy, for male homosexuals to tell this country that their lifestyle, all the way down to the high schools, they’re telling people, it’s happier, it’s more cheerful, it’s more gay than any other lifestyle. It’s sad right now what’s happening to them, and let’s start by banning that word from this House floor. It is not a gay movement, it’s a sad movement of homosexuals who are being crushed by a health plague…”
—Bob Dornan, Republican of California, November 9, 1987.