Tag Archives: GLBT

Georgia On My Mind

Can we talk about Americans’ widespread confusion over religious liberty?

Georgia lawmakers recently approved a bill that says church officials can refuse to perform gay marriages. (Evidently, supporters of the so-called “Pastor Protection Act” do know that religious leaders already have that protection under the First Amendment, but they argue that passage of the measure will “reassure them.”)

The “Pastor Protection Act” was one of at least eight other bills pending in the Georgia legislature sponsored by opponents of same-sex marriages. They included Georgia’s very own RFRA, which is headed for passage over the vocal objections of state business leaders. Georgia’s RFRA already prompted 373k, a Decatur-based telecom startup, to announce it would relocate to Nevada; yesterday, it generated an editorial about state-level RFRAs in the New York Times:

These brazen measures, going beyond the Indiana law, would create blanket protection for discrimination. That these states would consider such legislation is all the more remarkable given the damage Indiana’s image and economy suffered in the national backlash to its law.

One of the most alarming bills comes out of Georgia, where state lawmakers have cobbled together a dangerous piece of legislation that would prohibit the government from punishing anyone or anything — individuals; businesses; and nonprofit groups, including those that receive taxpayer funds — for discrimination, so long as they claim it was based on their religious views of marriage.

 We’ve seen this movie before.

Decades of foot-dragging in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education was nothing short of scandalous; resistance to the 1964 Civil Rights Act continues to this day, and now, in the.wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, states like Georgia, West Virginia and Indiana—among others—are engaging in the same sorts of behaviors that followed those previous extensions of equal rights.

In fact, what we are seeing from “religious” folks today is strikingly similar to “religious” arguments against civil rights protections for African-Americans in 1964. Then, the argument was “my religion teaches that the races are to be kept separate, so requiring my bakery or shoe store to serve black customers would deny me religious freedom.”

So what is the First Amendment right to religious freedom? How extensive is it? What does it protect?

As I tell my students, religious freedom means you have the absolute right to believe anything you want. Jesus, Zeus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or nothing at all—it’s entirely up to you. And your church or synagogue or coven can preach about those beliefs, reject participation in events offensive to those beliefs, and even hire and fire certain employees based upon religious doctrine.

When it comes to acting on the basis of your beliefs, however, the law erects some limits. You can sincerely, deeply believe that you should sacrifice your first-born, or that prayer, not medical intervention, will cure your child’s serious disease, but you are not allowed to act on those beliefs. (You can refuse medical care for yourself, but not for your minor child.) You can believe that your God wants you to rob that bank, or use drugs, or copulate in the middle of the street, but no matter how sincere your belief, government isn’t going to go along.

Except in very rare cases, religious belief does not exempt individuals from what the courts call “laws of general application.”

Here’s the deal: when you open a business, government provides the streets and sidewalks your customers use to access that business. Police and fire departments protect it from harm. When your toilets flush, government sewers remove the excrement.  In many areas, government picks up your trash and provides public transportation for your customers and employees. In return for these and other services, government expects you to do two things: pay your taxes and obey the laws.

Including civil rights laws. Even if you live in Georgia, or Indiana.






Necessary Distinctions

I’ve spent a fair amount of time on this blog criticizing corporate interests–Big Oil, the Kochs, all the mega-corporations evading taxes by any means arguably lawful, and others of that ilk. But a recent story reminded me that markets often exert powerful pressure for good, and not just because competition tends to drive down prices and make goods and services affordable. The vast majority of businesses operate in competitive markets that reward good behavior as well as low prices.

A good example is the fight for equal rights for GLBT citizens. Business has been in the forefront of that fight.

The link in the first paragraph is to an article about Chik-fil-A, which is furiously backpedaling from the anti-gay remarks made last year by its founder and CEO. While it would be nice if that retreat was the result of some sort of moral epiphany, the truth is that it has been forced by the realities of the market. (As one consultant recently wrote,  “There are few more treacherous actions a CEO can take than to make derogatory comments about gay men and lesbians or to be publicly exposed for funding anti-gay causes.”)

Chick-fil-A’s socially conservative agenda, which formerly led the company to donate millions to charitable groups opposed to gay marriage, has been tempered. This, just as the company aims to quickly expand into Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Southern hospitality must give way to urban reality as the 1,800 store chain moves to compete with big city success stories like McDonald’s, Panera Bread and Chipotle.

Homophobia, racism, anti-Semetism and the like are bad for business. That lesson has been learned by hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs, middle-managers and HR folks–and along the way, many of them have become true believers in the value of valuing diversity. Their advocacy, in turn, has moved the entire culture in a more inclusive direction.

For every asshole who is buying politicians and squirreling profits away in the Cayman Islands, there are twenty companies genuinely making America a better place–by treating GLBT people fairly, by becoming more environmentally conscious, by adopting local schools or supporting civic and charitable causes.

We need to rein in the bad actors, but we also need to appreciate the good guys. Even the guys who are only being good because that’s what the market rewards.

October is the Gayest Month

October 11th is Coming Out Day; October is also the month chosen for IUPUI’s Harvey Milk Dinner–an event sponsored by the university’s GLBT faculty and staff to bring “friends and family” together, to remember where the struggle for gay rights has been, and to remind us all that the fat lady hasn’t sung and the fight isn’t over. This was the fourth year of the event;  I’ve been honored to emcee last two. This year, 275 people attended, including a significant percentage of the campus administration, from the Chancellor on down.

As I looked over the crowd, I couldn’t help wondering what Harvey Milk would think if he were still alive to see what he and a few other brave pioneers had wrought.

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person elected to public office in California (and probably, in the U.S.). Born in New York in 1930, Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972, a time when there was a significant migration of gay men to the city’s Castro District. Once there, he became politically active.

Milk ran losing campaigns for political office three times before being elected. But he was by all accounts charismatic, and he ran what have been called “highly theatrical” campaigns. He finally won a seat as a city supervisor (what most places call city councilors) in 1977.  He had served barely 11 months in office when he and Mayor George Moscone were murdered by Dan White.

Eleven months is a pretty short career.  But Milk had started something and that something has snowballed. Since his death, relatives have established a foundation in his name, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Post Office has just announced the issuance of a Harvey Milk postage stamp.

Why did Milk have such an impact? Why did a brief 11-month stint in a relatively low-level office leave such a legacy?

I can only speculate, but I think most Americans—at least, those not deeply invested in hate and homophobia—respond to obvious injustice when they can’t avoid confronting it. What Harvey Milk did—and what every single gay person who has had the courage to come out has done—is insist on visibility.

I first recognized the importance of visibility several years ago, when I was the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU.  We wanted to give one of our annual awards to the West Lafayette City Council for adding sexual orientation to their Human Rights Ordinance’s list of protected categories. (They were the first in the state to do so.) Since awards from the ACLU can be a mixed blessing to elected officials, I called the clerk to see whether the councilors would accept the honor. She turned out to be a chatty soul, and confided that when the amendment was first offered, she thought it was silly. No one was discriminating against gay people—at least, not that she was aware.

Then there were public hearings on the proposed amendment, and the church buses rolled. People came out of the woodwork to oppose the measure, and their behavior was anything but Christian. She was appalled. As she said, “I’d had no idea! Those people showed me how wrong I  had been and how important the amendment really was.”

When you become visible,  it is no longer possible for the “good people” to ignore bigotry and injustice.

October is the month GLBT folks and those of us who count ourselves as allies remember that lesson.

The Personal and the Political

There has been a flurry of publicity in the wake of Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s announcement that he has changed his position on same-sex marriage. Portman had been a reliable vote for pro-discrimination measures—he’d supported DOMA and voted for a Constitutional amendment to declare marriage a union between one man and one woman, among other things. Now, he is the only Republican Senator to support marriage equality. So what changed his mind?

His son came out.

Critics immediately pounced. The criticisms focused on the fact that Portman was perfectly willing to demonize and disenfranchise people he didn’t know—that it was only when disparate legal status hit closer to home that he was willing to re-examine his previous positions.  Some speculated that he had never really been a “culture warrior”—he had never led the charge against GLBT folks, only voted the party line—but that he’d been willing to parrot the homophobes in his party (and not so incidentally pander to the GOP base) until the policies hit close to home.

Others in the gay community were more willing to welcome Portman to the side of the good guys, essentially arguing “better late than never.” If it took a personal connection to the issue to usher Portman out of the dark side, so be it. At least he made the move. And he clearly loves and accepts his son. (A reporter asked Rick Santorum how he would react in a similar situation, and the answer was far less affirming.)

My own reaction is that Portman’s intellectual honesty is irrelevant. If there is anything that this most recent conversion proves, it is the wisdom of the tactic of coming out—the broad and lasting political impact of thousands of acts of personal courage over a period of many years.

I remember the time when most gay people were firmly in the closet—when a chance encounter with one of my sons’ high school teachers when my husband and I met friends at a local gay bar clearly terrified him. Had I mentioned the encounter, he could have lost his job. In that world, a bigot like Jesse Helms could credibly claim that he’d never met a gay person. In the popular imagination of the time, gay men wore feather boas and danced in gay bars. Gays and lesbians were exotic “others,” and easy to demonize.

Coming Out as a deliberate political tactic changed that forever.

Younger gay people may still dread coming out to their friends and families, but the environment they face is dramatically more accepting than it was ten or twenty years ago. For that, they owe an earlier generation a great debt of gratitude. A generation ago, coming out took tremendous courage. You could lose your job, your friends, your family. The thousands who took that risk, however, put a face on what had previously been faceless. Suddenly, gays weren’t some deviant and foreign species—they were your doctor, your nephew, your Aunt Gladys and her “roommate” of 30+ years. They were people you knew and loved.

They were Ellen DeGeneris and Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow.

In the early days of the Women’s Movement, a favorite saying was “The personal is the political.” Each of us has the power to change social norms—one person at a time, confronting injustice, makes a difference. The enormous cultural shift that has occurred as a result of thousands of GLBT folks coming out is proof that the slogan is true.

At the end of the day, do we really care whether Rob Portman casts a vote for equality because he has weighed the equities of the situation and recognized that it is the just and moral thing to do, or because he loves his son?


I don’t think so.