On December 17, 1970, Van Lewis made history when he and his younger brother, Ben, were arrested for demonstrating at:
Tallahassee Memorial Hospital
On the 40-year anniversary of their historic protest, Lewis planned to protest again on December 17, 2010 to remind us that human rights begin with respect for genital integrity.
(Also, see here for more information about George Wald).
I was brought [into the Intactivist Movement] involuntarily—like most American babies; [In May of 1943], I was born in Tallahassee. [At the time], most boys in Tallahassee were circumcised—or at least most white boys (probably not nearly as many of the blacks and not as many of the poorest, but most of us were).
I didn't think anything about [circumcision] until probably when I was in college. It never ocurred to me that there was anything wrong with circumcision, because everybody I knew—my father, my two brothers, and everybody else—was circumcised; I didn't see a normal penis until I was in junior high school (phys. ed. class).
When I was 19 [years old]—just after my freshman year in college—I went crazy internally [during] a period of about a week; nobody could tell [by] looking at me that a catastrophe had happened in my inner life. I had no idea what it was. Now, I call [the event]:
Iatrogenic Post-Traumatic Genital-Mutilation Stress Disorder
[This condition is] a particular form of post-traumatic stress disorder [(PTSD)], caused by doctors chopping the ends off of babies' penises.
I had no idea what was happening to me; I tried to find out, [but] nobody seemed to have the information. It was [a] very frightening—terrifying—experience that I went through, and I kind of had to figure it out for myself; I decided that if I had to spend the rest of my life figuring out from where this insanity came, I would do that rather than [retaliate with] something more violent and less productive.
On [the] 17th of December, 1970, I finished painting my signs [with] careful hand-lettering. One side of the sign [I held] said:
The other side of the sign said:
The “WITHIN” [was a reference to the] Tallahassee Memorial Hospital; I was on the public sidewalk outside of the hospital, carrying this sign with my brother, who had a sign [that said on the front]:
and on the back:
This was 8 years after my internal difficulty, after I had begun to figure out what the problem was. That's what drove me out onto the sidewalk: I felt as though I had reached the limit of what I was able to discover just on my own, and that one way of shaking things up for myself internally (and learning more) was to make my stand public. I felt [that because] I was withholding this information from my hometown that maybe I was unconsciously withholding information from myself as well; I thought [that] if I go public, maybe I'll be able to discover things internally that I had not been able to discover, and that's what happened.
We had seen several people—quite a few people—driving by. Some [yelled] encouragement; a man shook his fist out the window yelling:
You tell 'em, sonny!
Others [were] not [supportive]; a woman drove by with two children in the car, and she yelled out:
So, it was an interesting day, even before the police showed up. When they came, things changed. They grabbed our signs, were rough with them, damaged the signs, [and] threw us in the cop car. I had my tape recorder with me, and my brother had a camera, so we were taking audio and still pictures.
In the cop car, I [began interviewing] the policeman with my microphone; he unplugged my microphone. My brother [was] in the backseat taking photographs of everybody—documenting the arrest. When we got our equipment back, my tape recording [had been] erased, and [my brother's] film had been erased, so the police destroyed the evidence of the crime [for which] they [had] arrested us—knowing, I guess, that they were the ones who had committed the crime in this situation, not us.
We got to the city jail. [At that time], I lived in Leon county, so we had city police [and a] county sheriff. The police kept us in the jail for quite a while that afternoon, and I remember saying to my brother in jail that day:
One day, you and I will read competent, scientific neuroanatomy of the male foreskin.
This [was] in 1970, 20-something years before [such] research was finally done. I was of course very grateful when I saw that [J. R. Taylor, A. P. Lockwood, and A. J. Taylor wrote their] articles; they found something much more interesting than I had even imagined, but I [still] knew [at the time that the foreskin is] important.
[The police] tranferred us to the county jail, and I was mystified by that, but I think I understand now why we were transferred: The reason was so that we would never be able to prove which set of law enforcement officers destroyed our property and the evidence of [their] crime; was it done by the city police, or was it done by the Sheriff's deputies?The Sheriff was a redneck named Raymond Hamlin—not the most likely person to be on our side [intellectually]. When our lawyer showed up, a wonderful family friend named Leonard Pepper (a great Civil Rights attorney in Tallahassee), he thought that we were insane—that we had lost our minds—to object to circumcision. [Then Sheriff] Hamlin was told [about our arrest]:
“The Lewis boys [are] in jail.”
“What for?” [said the Sheriff.]
“Well, about circumcision; they were arrested over at the hospital. There was a protest or something.”
“Well, are they for it or against it?”
“They're against it”
“Well, that's good! I ain't circumcised, my daddy [and] my grandaddy wasn't circumcised, my boys, none of my grand kids—nobody in my family has ever been circumcised. Them Lewis boys is right!”
So, our [highly educated] lawyer was against us, [but] the [redneck] Sheriff was all for us. That taught me this lesson: You never know who your allies are going to be [when it comes to this issue]; you can't tell—Republican, Democrat, Man, Woman, North, South, Liberal, Conservative—you don't know until you talk.
I think my father probably put some money up for bail or something to get us out of jail. My parents have been [married] since shortly after the Second World War; my mother is still alive, [and] my father died in , and they were important “Integrationists”, [as] they were called in Tallahassee. My father was a banker—president of the oldest bank in Florida at the time; [it was] called the the Lewis State Bank (started by my great great grandfather). So, [I come from] an important family in Tallahassee. [However], my father was sort of a black sheep: [He was] concerned about Human Rights [and] equal protection of the law. He had put not just his time and energy [into those issues], but [he had also put] his family on the line; we got death threats and bomb threats at our home during the [1950s] and early [1960s]. So, [my parents] were people who were concerned about individual rights, and of course this was during the Vietnam War, so protest was a big thing at the time, and my parents were supportive of the movement to end the war.
I remember being at home [later that day] and talking with my father. He didn't know anything about our intentions to go out and protest—[rather], my intentions; my younger brother actually hadn't been part of this plan. I had been making this sign all on my own, but he happened to show up that morning, and he says now that the reason he went with me was that he was afraid I was going to be killed, and he thought that maybe he could save my life by being there with his camera. He wasn't thinking he was going to carry signs or anything like that; he was just going to be the historian, document[ing] the [protest], and [being] there with a camera so that people would maybe be a little more cautious of harming me. Well, I outfitted him with signs and he carried his camera anyway.
[In any case], when I got home and talked with my father, he asked me:
“Well, what's this about? Why in the world are you doing this?”
I don't remember if we talked about it much, but all I really remember him saying [is]:
“Well, you know I've supported you in a lot of ways—in a lot of other things—but I think you're going to have to do this on your own.”
I mean, he did get me out of jail, but he and I never really talked about it again; it was something that we just didn't discuss, and I find that odd.George Wald, my biology teacher from Harvard (who [was] a Nobel Laureate), wrote an essay about [circumcision] after talking with me about it in 1975—a few years after [my] arrest. I think I kind of expected the older people—the Nobel Laureates, the champions of human rights—to [tackle this issue] themselves; I thought—especially after George Wald got interested—that, you know:
Who am I? The Nobel Prize winners are going to take care of this; I don't have to do it.
Well, George was never able to get his essay published, and when he died, I thought:
My God, I never expected him to die! I thought he was going to take care of it!
That's not the way it works; I realized [that] if [this abusive circumcision practice is] going to stop, I [myself have] to stop it. I got a computer, and I discovered the [Intactivist] Movement. Of course, I had to tell the story of Dr. Wald; I was very fortunate to [have been] invited [by Marilyn Milos] to do [so] at the [genital integrity] symposium at Georgetown University in 2002. After I finished telling the group there about Dr. Wald and my experience with him and his essay, I just had this tremendous feeling of relaxation. I said [to myself]:
I've done what I came to this planet to do. I've given people who care about this kind of thing this important information, and everything else in my life is going to be great.
and it has [been great]. I've continued to work with the movement. I do everything I can do to try to protect children from this mistake of 19th Century medicine, and I'm delighted to be part of the movement, to do what I can do, to work with other people—I don't have to go out there by myself anymore with my younger brother; it's a growing movement nationally and internationally—an important movement—and it's all about human rights.
[I] just heard [that] these couple of guys from the [CDC had said]:
Nobody has a right to a foreskin.
Well, what they're saying is:
I have the right to cut your foreskin off whether you want me to or not—and any other body part of yours that I happen to believe has no function.
How crazy is that?