Fricke v. Lynch

So, as you may know if you’ve been reading these for a while, I’m a Rhode Islander through-and-through. And I love when I can do an article about local queer history. So that’s why I’m so happy to be sharing this story.

It starts in Cumberland, Rhode Island, in April of 1979. Paul Guillbert, a junior at Cumberland High School had been dating a senior at Brown University, Ed Miskevich. Guillbert sought permission from the principal, Richard Lynch, to bring Miskevich to his prom — Lynch denied the request, citing a concern that the pair might be endangered by the reactions of the other students. Guillbert attempted to move his request up the “chain of command,” but when they learned that Guillbert’s own father did not support him the School Board refused to allow Guillbert a public hearing. I suppose they thought that was the end of the matter.

But the next year, Guillbert’s friend Aaron Fricke — who had recently come out of the closet and begun dating Paul — asked to be allowed to bring his boyfriend to prom. Again, Lynch denied the request — claiming he was concerned that the other students might react violently and that might prove dangerous for Fricke and his “male escort” but also mentioned that approving the request would have an “adverse effect” on the other students, the school, and the town itself. Like Guillbert, Fricke was not satisfied with this response — and so, with the help of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, he went to court.

They were looking to file a preliminary injunction that would allow Fricke and his beau to go to prom together. They appeared in the United States Court for the District of Rhode Island. Judge Raymond J. Pettine presided over the case. The Court ruled that the school was violating Fricke’s freedom of speech — that “even a legitimate interest in school discipline does not outweigh a student’s right to peacefully express his views in an appropriate time, place, and manner.”

The Court also decided that threats of violence against Fricke would create a “heckler’s veto” — further violating his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Citing the 1968 Supreme Court case United States v. O’Brien, Pettine noted that the school had failed to meet the legal requirement to seek the “least restrictive alternative” before reaching its decision.

Going even further, the Court also stated that the school had created a second class of students by creating unequal policies between those who wanted to bring different-sex dates to the prom and those who wants to bring same-sex dates.

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This picture was on a Buzzfeed article about this. I’m assuming that it’s Frickeand Guillbert at prom but technically that wasn’t stated anywhere so don’t hate me if I’m wrong.

Having soundly won the case, Fricke and Guillbert attended the prom together on May 31, 1980. They were driven there by, according to People magazine, a “protective member of the Gay Liberation Task Force.” The media were outside the school in full force, which prompted Fricke to stick out his tongue at them on his way inside. The school — under the Court’s directions — had six security guards, rather than their traditional two, in order to ensure the safety of the two boys. Though they were definitely heckled, this was a very clear victory for queer teens throughout the United States. According to Fricke’s later writings about the event, the “contagious enthusiasm” of the B-52s song “Rock Lobster” helped dissipate the tensions when he and Guillbert hit the dance floor in a scene that sounds like it’s right out of a cheesy 80’s movie. I guess the 80’s really were like that.

Although this landmark case has made this a very clear-cut case for public schools — the issue has persisted. Fortunately for queer students unwilling to take “no” for answer, the legal precedent is pretty undeniable. As a result, more and more public schools allow students to bring same-sex dates to school dances. This case was cited against Murray High School in 2004, forcing them to reverse a decision regarding same-sex students at prom. Fricke v. Lynch was confirmed in 2010 in a law suit against Itawamba Agricultural School in Mississippi.

1555836070.01.lzzzzzzzMeanwhile, Aaron Fricke has gone on to become an accomplished writer and activist. His best known work — an autobiography entitled Reflections of a Rock Lobster — details his experiences leading up to the court case and subsequent dance. This book was adapted into a play by Burgess Clark, which was presented by Boston Children’s Theater in 2012 and 2013 — the first children’s theater production in the US to tackle LGBTQ+ rights issues. Fricke also worked with his father on the book Sudden Strangers: the Story of a Gay Son and his Father.

In 1994 — the same year Fricke received his associate degree from City College of San Francisco — he donated a collection of documents known as the Aaron Fricke Papers which include letters, files, notes, and even drafts of Rock Lobster and Sudden Strangers. I haven’t read these (I don’t think they’re available online, and I have yet to actually go to San Francisco) but I’m particularly interested in an undated file entitled “Gay Terms” and another item entitled “To Sir, Fuck You.”

As for what happened to Paul Guillbert? I know he kept in touch with Fricke at least until 1981 (because there’s letters in the Aaron Fricke Papers) but I haven’t been able to find anything else. I would assume no news is good news, that he’s alive and well and content in the part he played in securing the legal right of LGBTQ+ kids to take whomever they want to prom.

The Publick Universal Friend

Jemima_WilkinsonJemima Wilkinson — also known simply as “the Friend” (short for “the Publick Universal Friend” — was a preacher who declared independence from gender in the same year that America declared independence from Britain, and advocated for equality for all in the early years of the United States’ existence. (And since Jemima is not around to ask what pronouns to use, I’m going to be using “they/them” for the rest of this.)

Jemima Wilkinson was born on November 29, 1758 in Cumberland, Rhode Island. Their parents were Quakers. Their early life appears to have been fairly uneventful until they became ill with a fever in 1776. Although they came close to death, they did recover — and declared that Jemima had died, and they had been reborn as the genderless Publick Universal Friend. The Friend not only did not identify with any gender, but was also quite openly asexual and promoted abstinence.

On October 13, less than a week after recovering from the fever, the Friend gave their first public sermon. Although the Friend’s teachings included a lot of Quaker values like pacificism, abolitionism, et cetera — they were still labeled a heretic by the Quakers. The Friend’s teachings also included sexual abstinence, being friendly to everyone, and gender equality (that’s the heretical part, if you weren’t sure). During the American Revolution, the Friend provided medical attention to soldiers on both sides of the war. Despite preaching about dressing plainly, the Friend’s outfits were a big part of what brought people out to listen to their sermons — the Friend wore the traditional black robes of the clergy, over petticoats, as well as a broad-brimmed black man’s hat and brightly colored women’s scarves.

The Friend preached throughout Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut before heading to Pennsylvania. By this time, there were a number of followers calling themselves “Universal Friends” and in 1783 the Friend organized the Society of the Universal Friends. Although the Friend only claimed to be a vessel for the Holy Spirit, the Universal Friends made claims that they were “the Messiah Reborn” and “Christ in female form”.

These claims — as well as the Friend’s flagrant challenge to the patriarchy — made the Friend a target. They were publicly slandered time and time again, especially in Philadelphia — an area rife with Quakers. In 1788, the Society of Universal Friends pooled their resources and purchased land near the northern end of Keuka Lake in New York. In March of 1790, they actually began journeying to the land they had purchased and on April 13, 1790 they officially declared the settlement of Jerusalem at that location. (Although Jerusalem is still a town, this particular part of it where they settled is now the village of “Penn Yan”. Which stands for “Pennsylvania Yankee”. Apparently.)

In 1800, was taken to court for blasphemy but — in what would be a landmark decision — it was ruled that American courts could not try people for blasphemy due to the separation of church and state. This would go on to influence the laws around the First Amendment as the United States developed.

The trouble with having a community where one of the central tenets is sexual abstinence is that the population tends to dwindle. Because like, you if you can’t have babies, you don’t replace the adults when they kick the bucket. Or, should I say, when they “leave time” — that’s how the Friend’s death was described by the Universal Friends when it happened on July 1, 1819. They were 61 years old — and in those years, they had challenged virtually every institution in this country, at it’s very beginning. I also want to note that, despite not identifying as a woman, the Friend is considered the first American-born woman to begin a religious movement (and is definitely, and more accurately, the first American-born non-binary person to begin a religious movement.)

Newport Sex Scandal

As a native of Rhode Island, I do especially like to cover my state’s LGBTQ+ history, even when it isn’t always pleasant. This is an often forgotten piece of LGBTQ+ history: the Newport sex scandal of 1919.

It all began in February, with two patients at the Naval Training Station in Newport: Thomas Brunelle and Ervin Arnold. Brunelle told Arnold of a subculture to which he belonged, which centered on the Army and Navy YMCA and the Newport Art Club in which civilian homosexuals from the area would meet up with Navy personnel. This was a serious lapse in judgment on Brunelle’s part that I sincerely hope we can blame on heavy medication, but frankly I have no idea.

Now, other naval bases had reports of “moral depravity” including cross-dressing, homosexuality, drug use, etc. But there had yet to be any real sincere effort to investigate and stamp out this “depravity” at the source. That’s what Ervin Arnold decided was needed. He began a personal investigation into Brunelle’s claims, and was able to compile evidence of drug-fueled sex parties that included cross-dressing and “effeminate behavior”. He submitted his report to his superiors. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels was incensed, and immediately wrote to the Governor of Rhode Island, R. Livingston Beeckman, and implored him to clean up the city.

Meanwhile, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delanor Roosevelt pushed for the Department of Justice to launch a full-scale investigation into these allegations. The Department of Justice refused but Roosevelt would not take no for an answer. Roosevelt, planning out his route to the White House, believed that waging a war against “immorality” would skyrocket his political career — and since this was just before Prohibition would begin, that wasn’t a bad call. Roosevelt ordered an undercover investigation without DOJ approval. All the details for this secret operation including its funding and personnel were hidden in a document labeled “Section A, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy”.

Ervin Arnold, having been a private detective prior to his naval days, was placed in charge of the operation. He selected operatives based on their good looks, and instructed them to keep their eyes “and ears open for all conversation and make himself free with this class of men, 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.”

In short, Ervin Arnold hired a bunch of good looking sailors to seduce other sailors. And the sailors he hired reported on their activities in great detail and seldom, if ever, mentioned hesitating at all in the sexual acts that their investigation “required” them to partake in. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer protected the operatives from facing any criminal charges for their own sexual conduct by stating that their actions lacked criminal intent. He called this the “feigned accomplice” principle.

The investigation led several Naval officers, including Thomas Brunelle, to desert. Several others were dishonorably discharged. 15 sailors were arrested for criminal acts of sodomy. Each one of these fifteen men was brought before a military tribunal where one of their former sexual partners testified in graphic detail of exactly what sexual acts they partook in. These testimonies led directly to their convictions. Some, such as a man named Frank Dye, were sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison. (Dye received presidential clemency, however, and only served five years and three months of that sentence.)

The trials received national attention — effectively ruining the lives of every single one of the accused, even those who had not been arrested. This attention only piqued more when Reverend Samuel N. Kent — the Episcopalian Navy Chaplain — was tried for “perversion”. Kent’s trial brought the attention of the American public. This turned out not to be a good thing for Roosevelt, as most of the population found the tactics to be abhorrent. When Kent was found not guilty, public opinion turned against the investigation even more.

The judge in Kent’s case did not buy into the “feigned accomplice” principal and insisted that either the operatives had engaged in unlawful conduct willingly, or had been given unlawful orders by their superiors. A group of clergymen from Newport wrote a lengthy and scathing letter to President Woodrow Wilson, which was published in the Providence Journal, condemning the Newport investigation. An investigation into the conduct and oversight of the Newport investigation was launched — over the course of that investigation, Roosevelt resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in order to be a Vice Presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, on the ticket with James M. Cox. They lost — and this ongoing scandal was likely a large part of that.

On July 21, 1921, the US Senate Committee on Naval Affairs renounced the tactics employed by Roosevelt and Daniels, calling the entire affair “reprehensible”. It was not, of course, because they were concerned about the homosexual men who’s lives had been ruined. The Committee further stated that using enlisted servicemen as they had “violated the code of the American citizen and ignored the rights of every American boy who enlisted in the navy to fight for his country.” It was not, however, a pure condemnation of all that had happened. The Committee stated that “immoral conditions” of Newport were “a menace to both the health and the morale of the men in the naval training station.”

Roosevelt, for his part, felt as though he was the victim of a mud-slinging campaign. He lamented that the Navy should not be used as a football in the game of politics, and even wrote to Josephus Daniels saying: “what is the use of fooling any longer with a bunch who have made up their minds that they do not care for the truth and are willing to say anything which they think will help them politically.” Ironic considering he was literally doing all of this to end up in the White House. Any long-lasting effect this might have had on his political career were negated when he contracted a paralytic illness in August of 1921. (Which may or may not have been polio, depending on who you ask.)

Although the public has by-and-large forgotten about this incident, it’s effects have been far-reaching. After all, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — as oppressive as that policy was — was largely an effort to protect us from another one of these types of situations. (I just simplified our country’s military history with homosexuality a *lot*. But, even then, you couldn’t just let gay people be in the military. Sodomy was still against Federal law until 2003.) This was certainly one early and very recognizable case of the United States government formally treating gay men as second class citizens with less rights — even enlisted gay men.

I’ve also read that this was the first nationally recognized gay sex scandal — which may or may not be true. I certainly haven’t found any older ones but I’m also not a real historian, I just play one on the Internet.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

1st Rhode Island Pride

As I’ve mentioned before, being from Rhode Island the local LGBTQ+ history here is something I’m particularly passionate about. It’s amazing to see firsthand where this journey’s taken us and get to be a part of where this journey is going at the same time. Of all the Prides that I’ve gone to, Rhode Island Pride is my clear favorite, bar none. Maybe I’m biased because it’s my home and it’s my fabulously queer chosen family celebrating. But to be fair, we’ve been called one of the best Prides in the world too. (That was a shameless plug and I’m not even sorry about it.)

These days, Rhode Island is pretty supportive of its LGBTQ+ community — Providence City Hall proudly announces the start of Pride season for the state of Rhode Island, and political leaders like Mayor Jorge Elorza speak at the event each year. But to get to the point (and the history), we have had to come a long way since our first Pride in 1976.

Nowhere in the country was particularly welcoming to LGBTQ+ people by 1976, and Rhode Island was not an exception. Sodomy was still against the law Federally and in the state — let alone any other rights that we’ve fought for since. And yet, the LGBTQ+ community of the state of Rhode Island wanted to march to recognize their contributions to the state in the previous 200 years. Other communities, like the Portuguese community, had arranged parades for the bicentennial. Reverend Joe Gilbert of the Metropolitan Community Church saw no reason the LGBT community could not also participate in these celebrations.

However, Mayor Buddy Cianci (also the Public Safety Commissioner at the time) and police chief Col. Walter McQueeney opposed the idea of the parade. (McQueeney, for his part, later explained that it was just because it would have been a parade promoting an illegal behavior.) And so, the Rhode Island ACLU went to Federal court — and Judge Raymond J. Pettine hastily ruled in favor of granting the parade permit. Subsequently, roughly 70 (or 75, I’ve heard it both ways) marchers (including Belle A Pellegrino who is still a vibrant part of our community and part of the Imperial Court of Rhode Island) wearing bright clothing and wielding kazoos held their parade from Kennedy Plaza on June 26, 1976. The parade, named “Toward a Gayer Bicentennial” was described in the Providence Journal in an article entitled “City tolerates first homosexual parade”. 

Walter McQueeney, despite his opposition to the march, worked to control the crowd who came out to see and threaten the marchers. He told reporters “This is the first time they marched and I hope it’s the last.” It wouldn’t be the last. 2018 will mark our 42nd year of marching, and celebrating.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)