My name is Larry Mooney. For the last 20 years, I have served as a judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals. I am the first openly gay judge in Missouri. I now approach mandatory retirement as a judge as my 70th birthday approaches. First, let me tell my story.
I was raised in the 1950s and 1960s in an Irish Catholic family in University City. As a teenager, I first began to realize I might be different from the other boys. I was very slow to realize I might be a homosexual, but I acknowledged that fear to myself when I was an undergraduate. I talked to no one about this. I thought homosexuals were “fags,” and “child molesters,” for that is what I had vaguely heard. Homosexuals were almost never featured in popular culture. If they were, it was likely to be a lesbian psychopathic murderer, who is sent to the electric chair, or a tragic effeminate homosexual, who commits suicide to nicely conclude the plot. And homosexual individuals were too ashamed and too afraid to openly identify themselves to family and friends and even each other.
Missouri law punished consensual sex between adult persons of the same sex as “sodomy,” with sentences from two years to life in prison. Our exclusion from society enabled acts of violence to be perpetrated against us with impunity. We led lives that were sad and lonely, often believing ourselves to be unique. During the 1970s and 1980s, although professionally successful, I became a lonely man. In a sense, I was fulfilling the destiny society had constructed for the homosexual man — I was becoming a tragic figure, filled with the destructive emotions of shame and self-pity. And, importantly, I was in the closet, which society had assigned to me—quiet and docile and unknown.
In 1983, when I was 33 years old, I had a breakdown. In trying to recover, I realized that I had to learn to accept myself. I very slowly began to think of myself differently. I need no longer be the self-hating homosexual. I could be a gay man. I could become a proud gay man. In time, I could even become a proud openly gay man. I received help — much help — and this journey took many years. In fact, I am still on that journey today.
I came out to my family in 1985. It was not well received, but over the years, their attitudes shifted. Before their deaths, each of my parents let me know that they fully accepted me as a gay man. Also, in 1985, I privately came out to my boss and to some trusted coworkers. My boss was the late Buzz Westfall, then the St. Louis County Prosecutor. He was utterly shocked, but we were also very good friends. Upon reflection, he let me know that my sexual orientation would never cost me my job.
In the mid-1990s, I began pursuing an appointment to the Court of Appeals. The Appellate Judicial Commission nominated me several times, although I did not make one panel because the Commissioners had received anonymous notes that I was a homosexual. In 1998, the Appellate Judicial Commission nevertheless nominated me again, and the late Governor Mel Carnahan, aware that I was gay, appointed me to the Missouri Court of Appeals. When I was sworn in as a judge, Jim Reid, who is now my husband, held the Bible while I took the oath of office. Some people did not care for that, but many did. And, just as importantly, whether they liked it or not, I had completely emerged from the closet. Like it or not, this homosexual was no longer invisible. Like it or not, others had to recognize the existence of an openly gay man. Being gay has made me a better judge. It increased my capacity for empathy with others excluded by the law. And it has let me personally experience the profound effect that law can have on an individual’s life.
My story is my story, but it is hardly unique. Millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons have come out to their families, their friends, and their community. Some have been accepted; some have been rejected. But accepted or not, this powerful witness to our true identities has begun a revolution in thinking. This revolution was not brought about by generals or presidents. Instead, this revolution was brought about by heroic individuals, some amazingly young, risking rejection from those they most trust and value.
At the turn of the 20th century, homosexuality was known as “the love that dare not speak its name.” But at the turn of this century, Pat Buchanan, the strident conservative pundit, called homosexuality “the love that will not shut up.” On this one point, I agree with him. We will not shut up. We will not accept the closet. This is not a phase. We’re here and we’re queer. From the broader society’s failure to respond to the AIDS epidemic, we came to understand the full meaning of the phrase “Silence equals death.” We will not stand silent. We will speak our truth and that truth will set us free. We do not accept others’ judgment of who we are. How far have we come? Very far. What remains to be done? Much. LGBT persons still need full equality under the law. We insist that our identity be respected and acknowledged. We have come far but there are miles to go.
What else have I learned on my journey? Gays are hardly the first or last to have our reality denied by society and its laws. The courts have upheld many forms of extreme exclusion. Slaves, women, and children have all been held to be chattels, or mere property, by our courts. Blacks and women have been denied an equal education. Poor people have been disregarded. People with disabilities have been marginalized. Immigrants have been demonized. The lack of acknowledgement by the law is a powerful form of oppression. And this oppression perpetrates a profoundly dishonest lie. It proclaims that those that have been excluded are not worthy of our respect. Thus, it shames the victims of discrimination and invites further discrimination against them. And, as we have seen all too recently, it enables horrific acts of violence against the shunned.
Why does this happen? People who do not know us fear us. That is at the heart of prejudice. It is prejudice — a prejudgment of who I am — without getting to know me. We know at heart that we are much like everyone else. When possible, we can confront prejudice by allowing ourselves to be known for who we truly are. However, some people will not accept that invitation. If people don’t accept certain groups in their churches, their neighborhoods, their schools, or their workplaces, we have the right and duty to respond. How do we respond to oppression? We can be more than victims. We can be agents of change. We don’t have civil-rights laws because they were politely requested. We have such laws because courageous individuals demanded change, often at great personal risk.
I don’t believe in LGBT rights. I believe in human rights. The rights of LGBT persons are not secure until the human rights of all excluded persons are secure. Our nation’s founders told us our rights did not come from government. Our rights come from God or Nature. The founders largely guaranteed these rights only for wealthy white men, but they also acknowledged that this country could become a “more perfect union.” Each generation has struggled to make America a “more perfect union.” We know that everyone must have a place at the table.
Today is the fifth anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. His death and the controversy that followed showed our community to be scarred by deep and grave divisions. All of us see things only from our own perspective. If we are to unite as a community, we must stand in the other’s shoes and see what he sees. We must be willing to listen to one another. We must confront prejudice in all its forms. As Martin Luther King taught us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere …. We are tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Dr. King also taught us that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I know that truth can displace lies. And love is more powerful than hatred. But I also have seen the re-emergence of dark forces of hatred and bigotry in this land. Let us make common cause in the struggle against these forces. Whatever the cause of our exclusion, we have a right to equal protection of the law. Every one of us must be at the table. And that table must be round — so that all voices are heard.
People that have been excluded have been taught by society to be polite and compliant. Accept your lot in life. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t fight City Hall. If we’re asked to go back in the closet, don’t say no. If we’re told to go to the back of the bus, don’t say no. If we’re told to stay in our place, don’t say no. If we’re told to go back where we came from, don’t say no.
Please remember — we are Americans. America was born in a revolt against injustice. America can be reborn in another campaign for justice. The torch is being passed to a new generation of Americans. Grab that torch and light the way forward for the citizens of a new America.
If we are asked to accept our exclusion, we won’t say no. We’ll say “Hell, no!”
We won’t go back in the closet. We’ll be out in the streets.
We won’t go the back of the bus. We’ll drive the bus.
We won’t stay in our place. We’ll take our place.
We’re not going back to another country. We’re going to remake this country.
We will work together to bend the arc of history towards justice. Will we succeed? Not always. If we fail, we will try again. If we fail again, we will fail better. But we will never give up. We will never go back to the way it was. We may give out, but we won’t give in. There’s much work to do. Let’s get to it.