Van Lewis is gone, but his crusade endures

Van Lewis Memoriam
Vol. 9
No. 1
Gerald Ensley
Wed, 12/14/2011

The Tallahassee Democrat has published a long story by reporter Gerald Ensley on Van Lewis' activism and life. The article was published on December 14, 2011 to coincide with the 41st anniversary on December 17, 2011 of Van's first protest on behalf of children's right to genital integrity.

I was interviewed for the article, the text of which appears below.  A PDF of the article including a photograph from that 1970 protest is attached to this email. I was deeply honored to be asked by Van's family to deliver a memorial speech in honor of Van at his service in June, incorporating the input of many activists who knew Van and admired his work.

Our best wishes go with everyone in this holiday season and especially with the memory of this great man and phenomenal activist.

Steven Svoboda
Executive Director
Attorneys for the Rights of the Child

Saturday was the 41st anniversary of his first protest. Last year, on the 40th anniversary, he re-enacted the event. But while Van Lewis won’t make this year’s anniversary, it seems a good time to remember his favorite issue: male circumcision.

For four decades, Lewis waged war on the practice of cutting off the foreskin of male children, whether shortly after birth or as part of a pre-adulthood ritual. Lewis staged protests, published papers and harangued city, state and national officials.

He launched his campaign on Dec. 17, 1970, when he and his younger brother, Ben, marched in front of Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare carrying signs and talking to motorists. They were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. This newspaper headlined the protest “Men’s Lib Picketers Arrested.”

Many of us — especially men circumcised as infants who have never given the matter a second thought — never understood Lewis’ passion about circumcision. But golly, you couldn’t deny he had it.

“Van helped start the movement (against male circumcision) with that protest in 1970; he was one of the top figures in the U.S.,” said Steve Svoboda, founder of the California-based Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, an anti-circumcision organization. “He got Florida to discontinue Medicaid (payments for circumcision). Others helped. But it was his personality, his persistence and his refusal to say no, that did that.”

Lewis, the scion of one of Tallahassee’s pioneer families, died in June of pancreatic cancer. Some 500 people packed St. John’s Episcopal Church to say goodbye to Lewis, 68. He was beloved by those who knew him for his intelligence, his charm, his loyalty to friends and his wide-ranging interests.

Son of two of Tallahassee’s most famous white civil rights protesters, he had grown up in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, attended Harvard and worked for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. He ran twice unsuccessfully for the Tallahassee City Commission. He was a seafood merchant and clam farmer, whose passion for the benefits of the Sunray Venus clam nearly rivaled his passion about circumcision.

But his public image was that of an odd duck — because of his fervent opposition against circumcision. Whether speaking at public hearings of the City Commission or protesting the 2000 presidential election at the Capitol, he could turn almost any discussion into a harangue against circumcision. And he did it with a volubility that could be scary.

A week before he died, I spent several hours with Lewis and his wife of 38 years, Mary Balthrop. The already slim Lewis had dropped 40 pounds to his disease and spent most of the visit lying in a hospital bed.

But whenever the topic of circumcision was broached, he sat bolt upright — and argued his points ferociously. The topic was, as he emphasized, “personal to me.”

“It’s a fundamental violation of human rights,” Lewis shouted that day — and then began quoting the Declaration of Independence. “Nobody has the right to chop off your nose because they think you’ll look better.”

Svoboda is a graduate of Harvard law school — where he was in the same 1991 class with President Barack Obama, “who I knew pretty well back then.” A patent attorney in Berkeley, he and his organization seek to raise awareness in the legal community and public about “the harm caused by genital cutting.”

Svoboda said circumcision became popular in the U.S. in the 1800s when it was considered to “stop every disease under the sun.” But he argues the evidence shows circumcision affects a man’s sexuality and takes away the immunological protections of the foreskin. Most of all, he seconds Lewis’ point, saying circumcising a boy is a violation of human rights.

“It takes away a boy’s right to decide what to do with his body before he reaches adulthood,” Svoboda said. “It’s an elective procedure by parents, and that’s where the violation of human rights occurs.”

Circumcision opponents fight an uphill battle to end the practice. They are accused of being anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim, because circumcision is a practice of both religions. They encounter apathy because most see circumcision as “something that’s already happened and you can’t do anything about,” Svoboda said. A petition to put an anti-circumcision measure on last year’s California ballot was deemed illegal before it went on the ballot — which “I’m not sure is legal,” Svoboda said. “Usually you vote on a petition then decide if it’s legal.”

Svoboda notes some countries (Sweden and South Africa) have passed laws against circumcision. He said male circumcision is often caught up in the debates over female circumcision, also called female genital mutilation, which is practiced in many African countries though banned in the U.S.

“One (male circumcision) seems natural to us and the other (female circumcision) doesn’t,” Svoboda said. “But I don’t think it’s natural. We don’t have female murder and male murder. We just have murder.”

Svoboda gave the eulogy at Lewis’ funeral. He had known Lewis since 2001, when they met at the annual Genital Integrity Awareness Week in Washington D.C. Svoboda allowed Lewis could be “dif- ficult to work with.”

“Van was not one of those guys you could say, ‘I agree with 99 percent of what you say, but not this 1 percent,’ and have him say ‘Yes, that’s OK.’ He was going to focus on that 1 percent (and keep arguing),” Svoboda said. “There aren’t too many people in the movement who didn’t sometimes feel frustrated and say, ‘Come on, Van, we’re all in this together.’ ”

But Svoboda said that didn’t diminish people’s affections for Lewis.

“(Lewis’ contentiousness) wasn’t one of those things you had to put up with to get to the good parts: His personality was Van; it’s what enabled him to do so much,” Svoboda said. “He was a true individual.”

Indeed, he was one of the indelible characters of Tallahassee — no matter how you felt about his favorite topic.