Guest Blogger

Gay Rights Threaten Freedom of Belief, Conservative myth 2.0

Filed By Guest Blogger | January 07, 2009 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: bar association, California, fundamentalists, law, marriage, Mormon, Prop. 8, religion, Washington D.C.

Editors' note: Guest blogger Travis Ballie is a queer activist currently attending the most politically active campus in the nation, American University. He is a D.C. resident inspired by the Prop 8 protests and hoping to contribute to the"DC For Marriage" coalition.

Travis Ballie-thumb-200x197.jpgGay rights have for decades been portrayed as a threat to the free expression of "traditional" religious views. More recently, right wing forces have developed more sophisticated reasonings, going so far as adopting narratives that portray conservative-leaning religious minority groups (e.g. Mormons) as victims of "pro-gay bigotry". A recent National Review article embodies this developing right-wing tactic of spinning the tables on how society categorizes "oppressed" & "oppressor" groups in America:

The outbreak of attacks on the Mormon church since the passage of Proposition 8 has been chilling: envelopes full of suspicious white powder were sent to church headquarters in Salt Lake City; protesters showed up en masse to intimidate Mormon small-business owners who supported the measure... The wisdom of hate-crimes legislation aside, there is no doubt that a lot of hate is being directed at Mormons as a group. But why single out Mormons? And why now?

With this misleading introduction, The National Review proceeds to frame the gay rights movement as picking on other minority groups in America which are too weak to defend themselves.

Dozens of church bodies -- including the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Christian bishops of California, and a wide variety of evangelicals -- supported the proposition. It's also worth considering that, while gay-rights advocates cannot discuss same-sex marriage for more than 30 seconds without making faulty analogies to Jim Crow-era anti-miscegenation laws, some 70 percent of blacks voted for Proposition 8. While there have been a few ugly racist statements by gay-rights supporters, such vile sentiment has been restricted. Not so the hatred directed at Mormons, who are convenient targets.

To date, 30 states have voted on initiatives addressing same-sex marriage, and in every state traditional marriage has come out on top. But somehow the fact that Mormons got involved during the latest statewide referendum constitutes a bridge too far? In truth, Mormons are a target of convenience in the opening salvo of what is sure to be a full-scale assault on much of America's religious infrastructure, which gay activists perceive as a barrier to their aspirations. Among religious groups, Mormons are not the biggest obstacle to same-sex marriage -- not by a long shot. But they are an easy target. Anti-Mormon bigotry is unfortunately common, and gay-rights activists are cynically exploiting that fact.

This developing right wing counter-narrative on pro-gay grassroots activities is, in my opinion, one of the most effective strategies employed by the right since Anita Bryant began to frame opposing queer rights as necessary to "save our children". I do not believe this because there is any truth to conservative claims, on the contrary there is no evidence. Criticisms of the Mormon church by the queer rights movement have taken place on a political stage that the Mormon church on their own accord chose to enter. Our nation's political traditions does not allow religious authorities to intervene in the policy-making process with impunity, rather like everyone else they must advocate their policy views and deal with the criticisms from their peers that is a part of the policy making process.

The secret to their success is the same as their previous success employing the "save our children" narrative: The LGBT movement lacks a large enough presence in certain communities. In Anita Bryant's time, queer youth was a community which lacked the presence of a strong voice and representation within the larger youth community and society as a whole. The key is simple to understand. For decades right wing forces devised countless strategies to convince the public that queers were fighting to get into classrooms ands "recruit" children into the homosexual, gender transgressing lifestyle. For a while this worked, however this strategy has suffered from a fate of diminishing returns.

Over the past decade or two, and most certainly in the past 5 years, queer youth organizing and visibility has exploded in unprecedented ways. Thousands of "gay straight alliances" now exists in every state in the nation (and also in the unrepresented areas of D.C. and Puerto Rico). Gay, lesbian, bisexual and (increasingly) transgender children/youth have graced the big screens, newspapers and the television sets (thank you Ugly Betty). Most importantly than any media coverage however is the sheer act of queer youth coming out to those around them and explaining themselves to their peers and family. These individual coming out processes among queer youth have dealt a mortal blow to the right wing mantra of decrying "homosexual recruitment". Millions of queer youth sharing their stories has proved to most of America that these children weren't recruited into anything, they just want to live their lives and control their own bodies and minds. Unfortunately, in faith communities, such a critical mass of activism among equality minded believers has yet to occur, although there has been significant progress.

I have always admired the work of groups such as Soulforce, that do the hard but necessary work organizing equality minded people of faith and practitioners of non-violence.

Another groups that stands out to me is the LGBT-Affirming Mormon group Affirmation, which seeks to reconcile two identities that our media has repeatedly framed as mutually exclusive, namely pro-gay sentiment and Mormon identity.

These groups seek to raise the visibility of LGBT people and their allies within faith communities. Having a healthy LGBT presence in faith circles is important to the queer rights movement and queer people (even athiest/agnostic queers) because is takes away from the latest right wing mantra, which seeks to frame equality for LGBT people and religious liberties as mutually exclusive. Nothing could be further from the truth. We've heard these same arguments before when right wing religious forces once argued that ending slavery, segregation, contraception bans etc. would silence religious voices. History has shown the fallacy of their arguments, as it promises to show in the future.

What I find disturbing is how, while LGBT groups still squabble over who "blew it" on prop 8, the right wing is stepping up use of their new tactic. In Arizona a fight has arisen over a pro-equality statement proposed to be entered into a Bar Association Oath:

A conservative legal group is calling on lawyers to oppose a proposed revision to the Arizona Bar Association oath of office that pledges equal representation to LGBT clients.

In a letter to bar association president Edward Novak, the ADF [Alliance Defense Fund] and other conservative lawyers said that "the proposed provision is unnecessary, exceedingly ambiguous, and unconstitutional."

"We are concerned most particularly that the proposed provision's vagueness violates due-process and free-speech guarantees and that its application infringes First Amendment rights by compelling conduct and expression in conflict with an attorney's philosophical or religious beliefs as well as his other professional responsibilities."

The letter, signed by more than 30 conservative attorneys in the state, said that lawyers who refuse to take the oath or violate it could have their licenses revoked.

Indeed, this language has become increasingly effective across the board with right wing causes. The "infringement of religious liberties" card has also reared its head with the recent controversial decision by the Bush Administration to allow doctors to refuse to give women abortions or even prescribe contraception. At first glance, this argument seems valid. After all, someone shouldn't be forced to do something against their beliefs.

At closer look however, no one is being forced to do anything. Forcing someone to violate their beliefs would be like forcing a Hindu to eat a steak or a Muslim to eat pork. Last time I checked however, people who enter into a job of public service have, once they willingly decide to enter that field, must uphold their responsibility to the public. A fireman can't refuse to stop a fire at an abortion clinic because it goes against his religious values. A Muslim public school teacher cannot refuse to teach a class of Jewish students because they feel it may violate their religious beliefs. There is a line between religion and our secular government that the right wing is trying to blur here. By crying violation of religious freedom, they mask a strategy of imposing ONE religious ideology on a nation of varying ideologies and beliefs.

The National Review article ends with a disturbing finisher:

[Commenting on legal challenges by pro-gay organizations and individuals to Prop 8] There's a real possibility the will of the people will be spurned a second time, democracy be damned. They've already burned the Book of Mormon. The First Amendment is next.

The Queer Rights movement cannot let this narrative to stand unchallenged. We need a greater push for funding for groups like Soulforce and Affirmations. We need to have a cascade of coming out processes within faith communities that we saw in the past few years among youth. I fear the right may be evolving into a more sophisticated, significantly less overtly anti-queer lobby, while continuing to be just as anti-equality minded behind the scenes. We have to rise to this new, much more challenging, reality. We cannot lose before the next stage of our fight has even begun.


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You're absolutely right on the need to counter religious claims of "oppression." The sad truth is that this country gives far too much deference to religious privilege. In other words, pairing bigotry with "It's against my religion" automatically gives you a free pass. And gays haven't yet figured out how to counteract that. Hell, during Prop 8 we didn't even try.

As for the anti-Mormon bias, that's a bit more complex. The church pretty much did everything by the book. It asked its members to donate their time and money; it didn't give to Prop 8 directly from the church treasury. It's just that churches -- especially hierarchical churches like the LDS -- have a built-in advantage of being able to get millions of members to obey unquestioningly.

I think a lot of the animus toward the Mormons stemmed from the fact that we were winning before they stepped up their involvement. They weren't the only church behind Prop 8, but they put it over the top. Still, the many acts of petty vandalism and intimidation were wrong, and are a black mark on the LGBT community, even though nobody can prove who did what. The poor judgment of a few really played into the right's hands, and we're going to be paying for it for a while.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | January 9, 2009 9:12 PM

You're wrong in your claim that the LDS did everything by the book in Prop. 8 and that they didn't directly donate. At least some of their direct from church coffers donations are a matter of public record and it's becoming increasingly clear that they violated election funding reporting law in California by not fully reporting their in-kind donations. Further, their pulpit, letter, and website exhortations, when added to that, constituted significant lobbying expenditures which, although almost impossible to yank their chain about, also constitutes a possible federal tax law violation. The church's hands in this are anything but clean.

"I fear the right may be evolving into a more sophisticated, significantly less overtly anti-queer lobby, while continuing to be just as anti-equality minded behind the scenes."

You're absolutely right, and I've thought this for a long time. I don't think the modern religious right groups are any less venomous in their hatred of gays than Anita Bryant was in the 70s or even than the Westboro Baptist Church is today. The only difference is their choice of words.

It's worth noting that in the Lawrence v. Texas case, something like 15 religious right organizations filed amicus briefs in support of sodomy laws, including Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council.

There's also the case of Steve Kern, husband of Oklahoma state lawmaker Sally Kern, who was caught saying that gays should be forced into "education programs ... There's no reason our courts can't do that with homos."

This is what makes the religious right so dangerous. It puts on this nice-looking face and adopts rhetoric legerdemain like "love the sinner, hate the sin," but I don't think it's an adventure in hyperbole to say that they would stick us all in camps if they had the power. I've long regarded the religious right as a proto-fascist or crypto-fascist political movement that could be capable of all kinds of horrors if it ever achieved significant enough power at the national level.

Meanwhile, the pro gay church in SF, Most Holy Redeemer, is vandalized. It's wonderful pr and a great way to build alliances with liberal christianity, which might come in handy since fundamentlism has made us a major priority. There's no way to tell who did it, of course. But the masses of gay religious haters spitting venom on the net are evidence that it was one of us. Smooth move.
When will the movement stop shooting itself in the foot? After 30 years, I've given up waiting.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | January 9, 2009 9:19 PM

If they really are friends instead of the just the diversionary friendlier face of the largest, best funded hate group in America, then they'll understand and not hold against the broader us the actions of either a highly provoked superminority who don't perceive they have enough power in the game to be able to have a fair chance at winning so they lash out at the closest representative of their tormenters or someone on the other side playing a dirty double agent trick.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | January 9, 2009 9:22 PM

That the trolls are all over this adds fuel to the latter suspicion, by the way. Wilberforce, indeed!

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | January 8, 2009 12:18 AM

Very good post, Travis!

The LGBT movement has essentially been playing catch-up with the Religious Right since the 1980's--if not before--by letting them define the terms of the debate. I wish we could figure out effective strategies to put them on the defensive in the same way that they've created "Family Values," "Protect our Children," "Defend Marriage," and "Pro-Life." I could go on, but I'll just depress myself.

We always find ourselves in the position of trying to convince people why we're NOT anti-family, out to recruit kids, destroy marriage and kill babies. Why is it that we cannot seem to put THEM--the selfish, lying, religiously hypocritical, hateful, often homosexual, and frequently adulterous Religious Right--in the defensive?!

Which is exactly what (I think) you're saying.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | January 9, 2009 9:31 PM

Largely, we have and simply have the problem that we're lacking their lockstep, highly disciplined leadership with sheeple flocks organizational structure and likely will not have because we're not as peopled with the sort of needs-authority-to-feel-comfy-like-a-cockroach-needs-spaces-so-tight-they-can-be-felt-at-all-times-on-at-least-two-sides-of-its-crunchy-exoskeleton and, instead, have the strengths and challenges that come with diversity and independent thinking.

In short, it's not that they have the messages and we don't, it's that they're programmed to stay on message and we're not.

For instance, how many times have you seen on this very blog their term "gay marriage" or the euphemism for it they let stand because they know it is at least as subliminally damaging to us, "same-sex marriage", instead of "civil marriage equality" or one of its companions?

Their advantage is in that they are able to play to a builtin fear and prejudice, where we have to work against a socially accepted paradigm.

Everyone, deep down in their reptile brains, are afraid of things that are different or unusual. In tribal times, stranger was usually also the term for enemy. Tradition dictated everything from birth to death. Anything which changed or went against tradition was viewed with fear.

We have centuries of social programing that we are fighting against. The queer movement is but one of the many changes that modern life is forcing on our society, and there are large segments of society which will resist such changes, or at best seek to minimize the changes and how they may effect them. The reactionaries usually have the advantage when it comes to social upheaval.

For most people, they can not resist technologically induced changes to society, so they resist those which they can. Humanistic social changes, the "soft" side of progress, is something that they are able to resist. We are the weak and vulnerable point of progress that serves to represent "change" that these people do not want, or can not accept.

Rome killed a lot of christians before Constatine came along, and it was only by imperial fiat that christianity finally "won" that cultural war. This time around, it's the christians in the place of the romans.

The right doesn't know how to do anything but pretend to be a victim. And they're going to keep on doing it... well, probably forever.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | January 9, 2009 9:41 PM

Using their game against them, calling them "whiners" and people who want more than their fair share, people who -- like in the Boy Scout battle -- want to have their cake and eat it, too, etc., does work. But it's hard for nice people to do that as much as it takes for that to be successful. And, clearly, we're nicer than they are.

Because of that, our weapons of choice have always been the humor of camp and our ability to deflate the ridiculous.

But even that pales in power before having the courage to be vulnerable, to open up and show the world the beauty and strength of our community and our love for one another. That is genuine and Velveteen Rabbit real in a way that communicates straight to the gut and is, in the long run, irrefutable.