Category Archives: Gay Rights

Documenting History

Today is Martin Luther King Day–an appropriate time to think about civil rights and the importance of remembering our history, not just for African-Americans, but for all of us.

It is profoundly depressing to initiate a discussion with undergraduate students and discover that they know very little about American history and government. It’s particularly galling when–as happened again just last week– African-American students look at me blankly when I ask what the 13th Amendment did, and then proceed to demonstrate only the foggiest familiarity with the civil rights movement.

There is a lesson here for the gay community: while the community embraces the sea change in attitudes toward LGBT folks (even in Indiana, Mike Delph and Scott Schneider notwithstanding), that change should not mean losing touch with a rich, albeit difficult, history.

Fortunately, the Indiana Historical Society understands the need to document and safeguard that history. The Society has launched The Indiana LGBT Collecting Initiative, to “collect, preserve and make accessible archival material that documents the rich history, tradition and culture of the gay community in Indiana.”

The first phase of this initiative is an Oral History Project; local photographer Mark Lee has been videotaping interviews with various individuals who have been part of the struggle to achieve equality for LGBT Hoosiers. Those interviews are being transcribed, digitized and made available as part of the collection.

The Historical Society is also looking for all sorts of “archival” materials: books, magazines, letters, photographs–anything that will help document and preserve the history of gay people in Indiana.

If anyone reading this blog post has such items, I encourage you to send them to the Historical Society, 450 W. Ohio Street, 46202, attention Eric Mundell. And tell a friend.

I think it was Santayana who warned that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.

To Continue My Rant…

I know I’m harping on this, but yesterday a commenter suggested that religious liberty should trump other social goods. (Not his phrasing, but the consequence of his demands.)

That isn’t the law, but more importantly, it isn’t good philosophy either.

Back before so many libertarians made common cause with social conservatives on culture-war issues, and others turned a small-government philosophy into an anti-tax, anti-government cult, I identified as libertarian. The libertarian principle is (deceptively) simple: we each have the right to “do our own thing”– to live our lives as we see fit, free of government interference– so long as we do not harm the person or property of a non-consenting other, and so long as we are willing to extend an equal liberty to others. 

The caveats that follow the “so long as” phrase are important. And they have a critical bearing on the so-called “religious liberty” bills like the one I posted about yesterday– measures to “protect” businesspeople who who defend discrimination against LGBT employees or customers by citing their “deeply-held and sincere religious beliefs.”

As I noted yesterday, similar efforts followed the 1964 Civil Rights Act; then it was a “sincere religious belief” that God wanted to keep the races separate. The courts didn’t buy that argument then, and they are unlikely to buy it now.

As I have written previously, there is a reciprocal relationship–a social contract– between government and its citizens. Government collects taxes from all of us, no matter our race, religion or sexual orientation, and uses those tax dollars to provide public services. The services we taxpayers finance provide an essential infrastructure for American commercial activity.

Businesses ship their goods to market over roads we paid for. They are protected by police and fire departments supported by our tax dollars. Public transportation and sidewalks bring workers and customers to their premises. The deal is, businesses get the benefit of the infrastructure supplied by our taxes, and in return, agree not to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion and other markers of group identity.

We can and should argue about the nature and scope of the services government provides, but few people really want to revoke the social contract, dispense with government and return to a Hobbesian state of nature.

Religious liberty is capacious. It allows you to hold any beliefs you want. It allows you to preach those beliefs in the streets, and to refuse to socialize with people of whom you disapprove. It gives you the right to observe the rules of your particular religion in your home and church and social circle without government interference. It gives you a broad right to “do your own religious thing” until you harm someone else, and so long as you respect the right of other people to do their “own thing.” Which “thing” may be different from yours.

Religious liberty doesn’t include the right to disadvantage people who should be entitled to equal treatment, or to use the power of the state to impose some people’s beliefs on everyone else.

Neither the libertarian principle nor the social contract defines “religious liberty” as a right to pick and choose which parts of the social contract you will honor and which ones you will disregard.

 

Mike Delph and “Religious Freedom”

It’s deja vu all over again.

Mike Delph–whose hysterical (in both senses of the word) tweets in the wake of the failure of HR3 left no room for doubt about his feverish homophobia–has introduced a bill to protect “religious” folks from having to recognize the civil rights of LGBT citizens. [Update: Evidently that other "religious warrior," Scott Schneider, authored this particular bill. Given Delph's legislative history, you can understand how I made the mistake...]

(I’m sure Schneider is equally anxious to protect good Christians from being forced to do business with unwed fornicators, bearers of false witness, adulterers and other sinful folks. That bill will undoubtedly be introduced any day now. Not.)

My friend Bill Groth, a highly respected lawyer who frequently litigates constitutional issues, reminded me via a Facebook post that we’ve seen this movie before. In Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc. the Court wrote:

” The free exercise of one’s beliefs…is subject to regulation when religious acts require accommodation to society. Undoubtedly Bessinger has a constitutional right to espouse the religious beliefs of his own choosing, however, he does not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens. This court refuses to lend credence or support to his position that he has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of the Negro race in his business establishments upon the ground that to do so would violate his sacred religious beliefs.” 

Newman was decided in 1968.

The identity of the people who we are being asked to classify as second-class citizens may have changed, but the desire to justify bigotry in the name of religion sure hasn’t.

Fortunately, on this issue, that pesky Constitution this proposal ignores hasn’t changed either.

 

Watch Out for the Backlash

When people talk about “backlash,” they are generally referring to a reaction to something–an effort to undo or reverse a previous change.

Backlash is thus the proper term to apply to the movement that began in the mid-1960s, in reaction to social disruption caused by anti-war activism, feminism and the civil rights movement. Middle-class whites, especially but not exclusively in the South, resented the erosion of their social dominance and banded together to fight what they saw as the increasing secularization and liberalism of American society.

Paranoid fringe groups like the John Birch Society and similar “patriot” and  “Christian” groups gradually took over the national GOP. Political scientists tell us that Reagan’s election in 1980 solidified right-wing conservative efforts to transform the political landscape of America. Since 1980, the GOP has become less and less genuinely conservative—and more and more radically reactionary.

African-Americans understand the implications of this takeover (much more on that in tomorrow’s blog). I’m not so sure that LGBT folks do.

After all, although the racism at the heart of the backlash has become impossible to ignore,the  LGBT community is celebrating years of increasing acceptance. Same-sex marriages are widely if not universally recognized, and a majority of Americans support them. Popular culture is inclusive and affirming. Civil rights are being extended, albeit slowly.

As a recent post from The Daily Beast noted, “Today, unlike ever before, most Americans have openly gay friends, colleagues, and family members, and most approve of same-sex relationships. Young people are overwhelmingly gay-friendly, leaving little doubt which way the trends are going.”

So, as Alfred E. Neumann (Google it) used to say, “What—Me Worry?”

As the Daily Beast and other sources have reported, however, this rosy picture has plenty of thorns:

  • The Texas Republican Party has officially endorsed so-called “reparative therapy,” a quack regimen that reputable psychiatry roundly condemns. (How considerate! The Texas GOP wants to ensure the availability of “therapy and treatment for those patients seeking healing and wholeness from their homosexual lifestyle.”)
  • In Oklahoma, a conservative candidate for the state House of Representatives, has quoted Biblical passages that (he says) prescribe the death penalty for homosexuals. On a Facebook post, he wrote “I think we would be totally in the right to do it.”
  • Mississippi just passed a measure being considered in several other states that would “protect religious liberty” by allowing people to act on their “sincere religious convictions” by refusing to do business with gay clients or customers.

More disturbing, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently broke what had been a string of pro-equality federal appellate rulings and upheld state bans on same-sex marriage, giving hope to those who want to roll back the clock on LGBT rights.

As I look out at our increasingly contentious, toxic political environment, I see a distressing number of frightened, old, furious, deeply threatened white heterosexual males. On my good days, I interpret their hysterical reaction to social change—their racism, their homophobia, their sexism—as the “last throes” of the old order of things. A backlash with unfortunate but ultimately temporary effects.

On my bad days, I worry that the vast amounts of money they are spending, the religious “authority” they are wielding/perverting, and their fanatic persistence will carry the day.

Progress is not a given.

 

I Haven’t a Clue

During a discussion with a friend the other day, he asked me a question I couldn’t answer.  Why, he wondered, did so many other Western democratic countries accept same-sex marriage before the United States? We still have states fighting tooth and nail against the tide of recognition, while in other parts of the modern world, the fight has been over for more than a decade.

I actually asked myself the same question back in 2005, when Spain recognized same-sex marriages. How did it happen that the country best known for the  Inquisition recognized same-sex marriage before we did?

The Netherlands was first, recognizing same-sex unions in 2001. In addition to Spain, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal and Sweden have all followed suit. Last year, Britain joined the growing list.

It isn’t just Europe, either–last year, New Zealand became the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to legalize gay marriage.  South Africa did so back in 2006.

We Americans pride ourselves on our devotion to individual liberty and human rights, but we haven’t exactly been pioneers on this issue. (Or, come to think of it, on other issues involving acceptance–let alone celebration–of diversity.) Of course, there’s that durable Puritan heritage that continues to fight–often successfully– with the Enlightenment roots of our governing philosophy.

The U.S. is an outlier among western democratic societies when it comes to religion. (Ironically, given Puritans’ constant efforts to pass laws privileging religion, sociologists tell us it is our lack of a state-endorsed religion–our Enlightenment freedom to choose–that is largely responsible for Americans’ persistent religiosity). Since most opposition to same-sex marriage is based on religious doctrine, that’s my best guess at an answer.

Any other theories about why we lag the rest of the west?