At the Village Vanguard, Lenny Bruce would look long and hard at his integrated audience. “Any kikes here tonight?” he’d ask. “Any niggers? Any spics? Any fags?”
The audience would freeze. What’s gotten into Lenny? Has a dybbuk taken possession of him? Or is this the real Lenny we never knew?
As the muttering mounted, Lenny would put up his hand. “Why do those words disturb you so much?” he’d say. “Why don’t you start searching beneath those words so they won’t have such wounding, such paralyzing power over you? Who says those words and why? And should that language be suppressed or brought out into the open so that we can know where it comes from?”
Lenny always wanted to take the covers off, especially the taboos of language.
Lenny got busted for taking the covers off so often that he became a scholar of First Amendment law. I’d go to see him at the Marlton Hotel on 8th Street, and all over the floor and chairs were transcripts of his trials and books on the law.
I thought of Lenny when a police chaplain, the Reverend William G. Kalaidjian, was forced to retire (that is, fired) after 42 years on the job. His record all those years consisted of being available at any hour for officers who needed help. And there is no evidence that he ever asked about their color or sexual preference before he went out to them.
In fact, his only known offense was saying the word “fag.” On April 30, Kalaidjian was presenting an award to Sergeant Thomas Kennedy at a banquet in the Bronx. Kennedy had been acquitted of beating a handcuffed car-theft suspect and then slamming him face down on the sidewalk, breaking his teeth. Prosecuting Kennedy had been Assistant D.A. Thomas Hickey.
Presenting the award to Sergeant Kennedy, Kalaidjian called Hickey ”a bum prosecutor” and a “fag.” It may well be that since Kennedy was acquitted of brutalizing a man in handcuffs, Hickey was indeed, in that case, “a bum prosecutor.” Calling him a “fag,” however, was both irrelevant and plainly bigoted. But is there justice in firing Kalaidjian after 42 years of service?
The reaction of the city’s distinguished leaders was sadly predictable. Neither the mayor nor Howard Safir, the hollow police commissioner, would admit that the chaplain had been forced to retire. They implied that he had voluntarily resigned.
Safir said: “I have a problem with anybody who uses any racial, ethnic, or sexual-preference derogatory comments.” If only he also had a problem with persistent, vicious police brutality in the city.
And the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, intoned, “It is reprehensible that anyone, especially a chaplain, would make comments of that nature.”
Why “especially a chaplain”? It’s much more harmful when a cop calls you a fag or a nigger while he’s banging you over the head with a police radio. You can’t answer the cop because then he might do a Louima on you.
I was somewhat surprised that there wasn’t a word on behalf of the chaplain’s keeping his job from noted free-speech paladins in New York. Not a word from law professors or columnists, except Steve Dunleavy of the Post, who has not been known previously as a fan of justices William Brennan and Louis Brandeis.
Why the silence? Did the usual champions of free speech think that a chaplain is less deserving of free speech, however offensive, than Leonard Jeffries? Were they afraid of being called homophobes if they came forth and defended Kalaidjian’s right to say “fag” while they disassociated themselves from the word?
After all, I have defended Professor Jeffries’s right to make his anti-Semitic speeches although I find them disgusting. Interestingly, I did a long radio interview with Jeffries two years ago in which he detailed his fight to hold the chair of his department at City University while doing extended battle in the courts.
A lot of people wanted to silence Jeffries. At the end of the interview, I asked him what he’d learned from his efforts to speak in the face of unremitting opposition.
“I have learned,” he told me, “a great appreciation for the First Amendment.”
And at the start of his speech at the Million Man March, Louis Farrakhan said that many people did not want him to speak there or anywhere, but thanks to the First Amendment, they couldn’t stop him.
A sidebar on the abandonment of chaplain Kalaidjian’s right to speak: On May 6, The New York Times ran a long article on the antigay slur that erased 42 years of Kalaidjian’s work–and his job. Nowhere in that article was the fateful slur actually identified as “fag.” The Times‘s readers can only stand so much reality.
The defenestration of Kalaidjian has been a victory for Sergeant Edward Rodriguez, president of the Gay Officers Action League. He drove the campaign to remove the chaplain. Lenny Bruce was lucky Rodriguez wasn’t the power in Lenny’s times.
So will this lesson to Kalaidjian deter future bigots? If they’re in the public eye, it probably will. But it won’t change their resentment and ignorance, because nothing has been done to change them. Instead of calling for Kalaidjian’s head, Sergeant Rodriguez could have asked that he be ordered to spend a week or more with members of the Gay Officers Action League so that real faces could displace his stereotypes.
When this story broke, Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was out of town, and the NYCLU and the ACLU remained silent. Siegel says if he’d been here, he would have recommended that the chaplain be disciplined–but not fired–if he’d used the slur at an official function. If it was not an official function, Siegel would have argued that Kalaidjian could say whatever he wanted, without punishment, just like Leonard Jeffries.
Louis Brandeis used to say that speech should not be suppressed unless the actual harm it may cause is so imminent that there is no “opportunity for full discussion” of the offensive speech. But if “there be time to expose through discussion the falsehoods and avert the evil [of the speech] by education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” (Emphasis added.)
If only Howard Safir could rise above his mediocrity to comprehend Justice Brandeis’s command of the First Amendment.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 2, 1998