Angels in America is more relevant than ever: minorities are never safe | Chris Parkes

History shows that in times of political and economic stress, seemingly secure rights come under attack. And now is one of those times

It is no surprise that Angels in America’s London revival has struck a chord. Set during the depths of the Aids epidemic, Tony Kushner’s play recalls a darker time for LGBT people – gay men in particular – that reminds us of the progress we’ve made since the 1980s while remonstrating with us for feeling any complacency about the status of LGBT rights in the west today. Contrary to popular belief, the history of public attitudes toward LGBT people is not a heartwarming tale of progress.

Time and again, public toleration of sexual and gender nonconformity has rapidly curdled into reactionary bigotry and violence. History is neither cyclical nor predetermined but there are detectable patterns in the way societies treat marginalised citizens. During times of economic and political stress, boundaries of permissible behaviour for women and sexual minorities are suddenly curtailed, seemingly in defiance of conventional wisdom and preceding periods of expanding tolerance.

Angels in America depicts one such shift. After two decades of determined activism and growing acceptance, gay people in the United States faced twin onslaughts during the late 1970s and 1980s, as the rise of the religious right and the arrival of the Aids epidemic all but erased the political rights and social normalisation that had been gained.

But earlier examples of the same pattern provide more useful, and more ominous, lessons. The story of Sumner Welles offers a particularly instructive case study. All but forgotten today, Welles was America’s premier diplomat before and during the second world war. He was the chief architect of America’s postwar plans prior to 1943, protected and promoted by the patronage of his close friend President Franklin D Roosevelt. However, Welles’s career was cut short when his political enemies conspired to spread accounts that he had solicited sex from other men.

Up to that point, gay men in the US, especially those who were wealthy or well connected like Welles, inhabited a narrow but stable niche of toleration. Gay men were permitted to rise in social status so long as their sexuality was kept secret. But by the mid-1940s attitudes toward sexual nonconformity had sharpened. The combined tumult of the Great Depression and the existential threat of the second world war induced Americans to place a premium on tradition and stability.

The consequences for those who did not conform were severe. What had once been tolerable deviations from the norm became grounds for suspicion; previously welcomed and celebrated figures such as Welles were calumniated as “security risks”, no longer tolerable in positions of power. Within only a few years, this reactionary homophobia metastasised into a massive programme to eliminate gay men and lesbians from government service. Dubbed the “Lavender Scare” by historians, this purge ruined the lives of thousands of innocent, loyal American citizens and began a regime of institutionalised discrimination against gay people that lasted for decades.

Eras that champion tradition and political conformity are dangerous times for those who are different. State-sponsored suppression of vulnerable communities never happens in isolation. When it cracks down on one “enemy of the people” everyone else becomes a target too. After a generation of seeing their rights expand, many LGBT people today do not realise just how different they are in the eyes of the world around them. They are still a distinct minority, and with the ever-increasing power of the state to collect and observe personal data, an easily targeted one.

As the US launched its crackdown on Muslims entering the country in February, gay men crossing the border from Canada found US customs agents demanding access to Scruff, a dating app, with one man refused entry because of it.

The solaces of public acceptance and legal entitlements have lulled us into a false sense of security, confident in our state’s beneficent protection. But as American Muslims, EU citizens in the UK and gay men in the 1940s learned, that protection can vanish virtually overnight. The next backlash could be right around the corner and we might never see it coming.


Chris Parkes

The GuardianTramp

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