Earlier today I wrote about delusional Tea Party extremism on display at last weekend's Values Voter Summit, the nation's largest gathering of conservative activists from the religious right. My initial report barely touched on homophobia, but that wasn't because there was none to be found. To the contrary, it's because the anti-LGBT animus I encountered at VVS deserves a post of its own.
It didn't always take the format I expected, though. Many speakers -- especially elected officials -- downplayed their anti-LGBT views, making only token mention of issues like marriage discrimination. They were much more likely to reach for anti-choice, anti-Islamic, and especially anti-health reform applause lines than they were for those that bashed gays and trans people. But much like the Catholic Church and the Republican Party, it's merely a shift in style, not substance. The ugly underlying bigotry is still there.
But while some speakers soft-pedaled their hate, others like Mike Huckabee, Sandy Rios, Star Parker, and Brian Brown laid it right out on the table.
Sandy Rios, 'Ex-Gay' Proponent & Matthew Shepard 'Truther'
If I could award a gold medal for anti-LGBT bigotry to a 2013 Values Voter Summit speaker, it would have to go to Sandy Rios. If Rios's name looks familiar, it's because she's the Christian conservative radio personality known for making anti-Semitic comments on her talk show, and whose prediction this summer that "thousands of ex-gays" would descend on D.C. for an "ex-gay" press conference failed miserably.
Rios loudly and proudly trumpeted scientifically baseless "ex-gay" propaganda, which claims that homosexuality is a changeable "lifestyle choice." She asked the audience if anyone knew an "ex-gay," but no one raised their hand. Undaunted, Rios continued: "You know what? They are everywhere, and the reason you don't hear about them is because they are maligned and threatened." She claimed that "there are tons of ex-gays with fabulous stories," but the media refuses to tell them.
As if that weren't ugly enough, Rios descended into the gutter of so-called Matthew Shepard "trutherism." She said that thanks to The Book of Matt -- a thoroughly discredited tome by "journalist" Stephen Jimenez -- we now know "that [Shepard's] story was a complete fraud." Rios's remarks came on Friday, October 11, the day before the 15th anniversary of Shepard's death.
Right Wing Watch has the video. Watch:
Before finishing her remarks, Rios offered her thoughts on gay and lesbian romance. "Millions of gay men and lesbians are caught in a powerful web of deceit that is breaking hearts," she said with an air of pity. "Gay men and women love each other -- they love each other -- but... because the love is misplaced, they find themselves in a series of heartbreaking situations." In Sandy Rios's world, all gay people, especially gay men, are two-timing, promiscuous sluts, so there's just a lot more heartbreak to go around.
A Heaping Helping of Homophobia
While Rios's hateful remarks were certainly the most extreme, she was just one of many VVS speakers to eagerly hop aboard the homophobia train. Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint said that "no one in government has the right to redefine" marriage, including Congress, the federal government, or the Supreme Court. Former U.S. Representative Allen West claimed that opposing marriage equality "isn't about hating others, it's about protecting our own values," and bizarrely said that marriage is between a man and a woman because his opposite-sex parents have the same cemetery headstone, so of course same-sex couples can't get married. Because that makes sense, right?
Pundit and columnist Star Parker said that "the left... declared a war on marriage." "Homosexuality is now dividing us and bringing hostility into the public square," Parker warned sternly. "All sexual behavior is adult behavior... so keep it private." The Liberty Council's Mat Staver ranted and raved against the Supreme Court's recent pro-equality decisions, likening the DOMA ruling to the 1857 Dred Scott verdict, which held that African Americans were not full human beings and did not deserve the rights and privileges of citizenship. And Arkansas Governor and former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee tore into California's new law protecting transgender students:
"It is a good thing that that didn't come up when I was in high school, because I'm pretty sure that every boy in my high school would have suddenly felt... that he was just a little more comfortable showering with the girls, no matter how uncomfortable the girls might have been with it."
"Is that not the craziest thing you've ever heard?" he asked the audience. Several shouted "yes!" in reply.
Marriage Discrimination: Not As Popular As It Used to Be?
Perhaps the most revealing segments of the Values Voter Summit, for this LGBT activist and longtime marriage equality proponent, anyway, were those that dealt with marriage discrimination. There were two panels devoted specifically to that issue, and they weren't interesting so much for the anti-equality arguments the panelists presented (there was nothing new there) but for their defensive tone and lukewarm response.
The first panel, called The Future of Marriage, was held on Friday evening and featured NOM president Brian Brown, Heritage Foundation domestic policy studies director Jennifer Marshall, and Heritage fellow and token anti-equality young person Ryan T. Anderson. The panel was the final event of the evening, and in his introductory remarks, FRC staffer and emcee Gil Mertz made a joke that he hoped would entice people to stay. "To make sure you stay for the panel, we've cancelled every channel in your [hotel] rooms except for MSNBC," he told the crowd. When more than one third of them ignored him and left the room anyway, panel moderator Tony Perkins was left to haplessly remark, "Well, I hope you all enjoy MSNBC..."
It was a fascinating barometer of the crowd's enthusiasm for the issue as compared to other issues like Obamacare and abortion.
Echoing the "we're being persecuted" trope that was a common theme at this year's conference, Marshall whined that people are losing the "freedom" to oppose same-sex marriage. Anderson -- an unmarried young man who somehow qualifies as an "expert" on the marriage issue -- curiously claimed that "the left" uses the phrase "marriage equality" in order to avoid answering the question of what marriage is. (That makes sense, right?) He also asserted that "there's no such thing as parenting; there's mothering and there's fathering" and warned that allowing same-sex couples the freedom to marry would result in threesomes, or "thruples," as he called them, petitioning for marriage rights as well.
Yeah, it was that kind of night. Looking and sounding as sweaty and grumpy as ever, Brown cast his quest to preserve marriage discrimination in stark terms. "Anyone who has paid attention to this fight over the last few years realizes that this is not a live-and-let-live debate," he said.
He called marriage equality "an attempt to deconstruct the very nature of reality, the very nature of what it means to be a human being," and lamented that he wasn't getting as many invitations to appear on cable news these days because "our ideas, our beliefs, our knowledge of the truth about marriage is not welcome in the public square." Brown's victim complex is astounding -- this man is losing the debate on marriage and he knows it. He even had to ask the audience for applause at one point.
Then the panelists desperately tried to claim that the marriage fight was still winnable for their side. Anderson, whose generation supports equal marriage by landslide margins, actually suggested that the Republican Party could attract new voters by doubling down on its opposition to it. I hadn't seen that much denial since Karl Rove on election night.
The next day, I attended a breakout session called "Responding to the Tough Questions on Marriage, Religious Liberty, and More," where Marshall moderated and Anderson spoke. Anderson tried very hard to link marriage equality with abortion, and he urged attendees to resist same-sex marriage no matter what the Supreme Court decided in June or how it may rule in the future:
"Just as the pro-life movement never accepted Roe v. Wade as the truth of what the Constitution says about life, the marriage [discrimination] movement should never accept the DOMA decision as the constitutional truth about marriage... We have to do everything in our power to let the Court know they won't get away with that."
Anderson again whipped out the ol' slippery slope, warning once more that allowing same-sex marriage would lead to "thruple" marriages and (borrowing a word from Dan Savage) "monogamish" marriages. In an allusion to the widely-discredited Regnerus study, he falsely alleged that "the best research continually shows that marriage between a man and a woman produces the best outcomes for children;" the point was hammered home in a pamphlet distributed to attendees that cited Regnerus's "study" directly. And he authoritatively claimed that lesbian relationships tend to be the shortest-lived of all relationship types -- straight or gay -- ignoring evidence that suggests that kids with lesbian parents actually do better than their peers.
Anderson's anti-equality arguments received some pushback from the audience during the Q&A portion of the session. For example, a man from Lebanon, New Jersey said that he had been through a marriage and a divorce, and the experience led him to realize that the definition of marriage is really a legal partnership contract. "The ideas I've heard yesterday and today seem to be applying legal mandates to faith-driven ideas... and it sounds like a slippery slope to a theocracy," he said. Another questioner agreed with Anderson's discriminatory definition of marriage, but was critical of the anti-equality movement's methods. "We're losing a lot of the love approach," she said.
NOM's Enthusiasm Gap
Nothing told me more about the declining popularity of the anti-marriage equality movement that the experience I had immediately before the "tough questions" panel. It was Saturday afternoon, Glenn Beck had just finished his keynote address (read more about that here), and I decided to take a detour through the exhibit hall to see what kinds of snake oil the various right-wing groups were selling. The Values Voter Summit was winding down, and some of the vendors had begun to pack up their tables. The organization that was the most completely packed up and ready to leave happened to be the one I was most interested in scoping out: the National Organization for Marriage.
Undaunted, I approached the table and greeted a female staffer, one of three standing around next to the plastic tubs of materials they'd put away and were preparing to haul back to the parking lot. I asked her if she had any literature to share and she obliged, opening up the tubs and fishing out a few pamphlets, a bumper sticker, and a DVD for me. As she did so she apologized, confessing, "We've kinda been just sitting here by ourselves for hours and hours, so we decided to call it a day."
I smiled, thanked her for the information, and turned to leave. As I walked away from NOM's booth, I heard her say to her co-workers, "Wouldn't you know it, we barely have anyone stop by all day, and just when we're packed up someone comes along!"
The speakers and attendees at this year's Values Voter Summit made it abundantly clear that homophobic and transphobic bigotry aren't going away in the religious right anytime soon. But if the loneliest booth at the nation's largest gathering of social conservatives is that of the National Organization for Marriage, I'd say things are moving in a positive direction.