Tag Archives: LGBT rights

Lavender Graduation

Last night, I was honored to give the brief keynote at IUPUI’s “Lavender” Graduation–a celebration of LGBT students who have earned diplomas and advanced degrees, and are graduating this May. This is what I told them.


Graduations are wonderful times—I know that each of you is breathing a sigh of relief that you finally got through it all. You are savoring the thought of no more papers, no more juggling classes with work and family, no more putting up with picky professors…So I do want to encourage you to enjoy this moment. Have a drink—or three. Congratulate yourselves. You deserve it.

Then tomorrow, I expect you all to get up and begin a different “assignment”—one that will probably last for the rest of your life. Starting tomorrow, I want each and every one of you to be an activist for social justice.

Before you roll your eyes, let me describe what I mean by social justice, and what being an “activist” requires. I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t mean taking up arms in a revolution, or taking to the streets in protest—although you might end up doing those things, they certainly aren’t required by my definition.

So—first things first. Why should you care about some expansive concept called “social justice”? Why not limit your activism—assuming you bother to engage in it at all—to those causes that focus upon advancing rights for LGBT folks—to the causes that will benefit you most directly?

I’ll tell you why.

We live in a society with a lot of other people, many of whom have political opinions, backgrounds, holy books, and perspectives that differ significantly from our own. The only way such a society can work–the only “social contract” that allows diverse Americans to coexist in reasonable harmony–is within a legal system and culture that respect those differences to the greatest extent possible. That means laws that require treating everyone equally within the public/civic sphere, while respecting the right of individuals to embrace different values and pursue different ends in their private lives.

I know it’s hard for the Micah Clarks and Ted Cruz’s of this world to understand, but when the government refuses to make everyone live by their particular interpretation of their particular holy book, that’s not an attack on them. It’s not a War on Christianity. It is recognition that we live in a diverse society where other people have as extensive a right to respect and moral autonomy as the right they claim for themselves.

Ironically, a legal system that refuses to take sides in America’s ongoing religious wars is the only system that can really safeguard anyone’s religious liberty. Genuine equality is only possible in a “live and let live” system—in an open and tolerant society.

It is recognition of that fact that has brought many different kinds of Americans into many different civil rights battles: I’m Jewish and a woman, but in my own lifetime, I haven’t limited my participation to efforts to combat sexism and anti-Semitism. I’ve worked for racial justice, for LGBT rights, against efforts to marginalize immigrants—not because I’m some sort of noble person, but because I’m not. I’m actually very selfish, and I understand that my own rights absolutely depend upon equal rights for other people.

If everyone doesn’t have rights, they aren’t rights—they’re privileges that government can bestow or withdraw. In such a society, no one’s rights are safe.

So that’s the WHY. What about the HOW?

I said you don’t have to take to the streets to be an activist. What do you have to do? Let me just share a few examples of effective activism:

I wrote a regular column for the Indiana Word for some 25 years. In one of those columns, written just 16 years ago, I shared the story of a wedding attended by my youngest son. It was a lovely affair—formal, at an expensive Chicago hotel, conducted with meticulous attention to detail. The program book included a message from the bride and groom, reciting how enthusiastic they were to enter into wedded life, how sure they were that matrimony was the right choice for them. In fact, they said, there was only one hesitation, one fact that gave rise to a certain reluctance to marry: the fact that others were legally prevented from doing likewise. It seemed unfair that legal marriage was available to them, a man and a woman, and not available to others merely because they were of the same gender. The message concluded with a request that those present, who had shared the happy day with this particular couple, work toward a time “when everyone can enter into the institution of marriage and have their union recognized by society and the state.”

In that column, I speculated about what would happen to the pervasive bigotry against gays and lesbians if hundreds, then thousands, of heterosexuals added similar paragraphs to their wedding programs. I said it might change the world.

As we now know, actions like those and many others did “change the world.” Probably the most significant activism—the most consequential–was the courage of thousands of LGBT people who refused to live dishonestly and who “came out”–often with the support of their families and allies, but sometimes in the face of enormous hostility. Coming out was activism, and it was enormously effective.

Last year, marriage equality became the law of the land, and survey research tells us that solid majorities of Americans now endorse same-sex marriage and support the extension of full civil rights protections to the gay community.

Of course, we live in Indiana, where gays do not yet have civil rights protections. This state has a long way to go before LGBT folks achieve full civic equality . So look around, and you’ll see plenty of examples of social activism and plenty of opportunities to get involved.

Remember, in the wake of the passage of RFRA, the allies who started an organization and sold those now ubiquitous stickers that say “This business serves everyone”? What a great message. Putting that sticker on the door of your establishment –or encouraging a friend or neighbor to do so—is activism.

And what about the “Pence must go” signs you see everywhere? (I have one in my front yard—and so do three of my neighbors.) That doesn’t take much effort, but it’s activism that communicates to passersby that “here’s an Indiana citizen who doesn’t endorse bigotry.”

Speaking of time, the women involved in Periods for Pence are taking time to call the Governor’s office to remind him that he lacks the moral and constitutional authority to make women’s reproductive choices for them.

The bottom line is that activism can be expressed in many different ways. As we gather here, there are LGBT Republicans working to change the GOP state platform; there are lobbyists for Indiana Equality and Freedom Indiana and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce urging lawmakers to add four words and a comma to the state civil rights law, there are opinionated professors like me writing snarky blogs and columns…

Here’s the “take away.” A better world is a world where different people with different beliefs, living different kinds of lives, can co-exist without privileging some at the expense of others. That world won’t appear by accident. We all have to do our part to bring it into existence. We all have to be activists.

So celebrate tonight, and tomorrow, take your credentials and your accomplishments out into the world and use them to make that world a kinder, gentler, just-er place.

We old folks will be watching! And I personally will be cheering you on!


Religious Chutzpah

I am officially over the self-identified “Christians” whose definition of “liberty” is freedom to pick on and marginalize anyone their crabbed version of God disapproves of. (And yes, I ended that sentence with a preposition. So sue me.)

America is deep, deep into indignant, knee-jerk reactions to a legal and social attitude change that these holier-than-thou hypocrites consider heretical: the proposition that other peoples’ life choices and beliefs–or lack thereof– are entitled to equal respect under the law.

So Tennessee makes (a Christian version of) the “holy bible” its state book. North Carolina and Mississippi enshrine ugly anti-LGBTQ bigotry in state law. In Maine, a ballot initiative proposes to strip gay rights out of the state’s Human Rights Act. And don’t get me started on Indiana, where–in addition to keeping gays second-class citizens and women barefoot and pregnant– a state trooper named Brian Hamilton remained in the employ of the Indiana State Police until yesterday.

Hamilton was sued previously for using traffic stops–traffic stops!–as an opportunity to preach about Jesus and “being saved.” Despite losing that suit, he is being sued yet again for the same behavior.

The lawsuit alleges Trooper Brian Hamilton of the ISP Pendleton post pulled the woman over for speeding and gave her a warning. He then asked her what church she went to and if she was saved. Documents said Hamilton invited Pyle to his church and even gave directions.

A Google search will provide you with literally hundreds of additional examples of what I can only call religious chutzpah–the incredibly arrogant and ahistorical belief held by far too many people in and out of government that their beliefs are entitled to primacy, that this is their country, and the rest of us are here on sufferance, and that any law or court ruling that suggests otherwise is unAmerican and illegitimate.

When historians point to evidence of the Founders’ very purposeful separation of Church and State, the David Bartons and Ted Cruz’s of chutzpah world rewrite history.

When Courts apply longstanding First and Fourteenth Amendment precedents, the American Taliban attacks the judges: in states that elect jurists, they elect crackpots like Roy Moore; when the federal courts are the offenders, Senate theocrats stamp their feet and refuse to fill judicial vacancies.

When some poor shopkeeper has the temerity to wish them “happy holidays,” they scream that there is a “war on Christmas.”

When their efforts to retain privileged status are unsuccessful–when they aren’t able to disadvantage gay people or Muslims or atheists or Christians who disagree with them– they can can be counted on to whine about being victims.

Religious believers–all religious believers, whatever their faith– are entitled to equality before the law. No less, and no more.

No matter how convinced these odious folks may be of the superiority of their particular theologies, they are not entitled to dominance. They are definitely not entitled to use the power of the state to  disadvantage people whose beliefs differ.

Unfortunately, they are legally within their rights to annoy the hell out of the rest of us.


Political Gamesmanship from Indiana’s Governor?

As regular readers know, I posted a critical review of Governor Pence’s “State of the State” address. I certainly wasn’t alone–editorial writers and columnists around the state panned the presentation.

Critics focused particularly on the Governor’s unwillingness to endorse civil rights protections for LGBT Hoosiers, and his declaration that he “would not sign” a bill he considered insufficiently protective of religious liberty.  Like most critics of that pronouncement, I assumed that the lack of specifics–the Governor certainly didn’t say what provisions he would or would not accept–was tantamount to a veto threat.

We may be wrong—but not for reasons that are particularly comforting to those on either side of this debate.

Over the past two days, in separate conversations, people with broad political experience observing Indiana government have parsed the Governor’s language and arrived at a different conclusion. They point out that what Pence said was “I will not sign a bill…” He did not say “I will veto a bill.” Under Indiana law, the two are not the same thing.

In Indiana, when the state legislature passes a bill and sends it to the Governor,  there are three actions that Governor can take: 1)he can sign the bill, after which it becomes law; 2) he can veto the bill and send it back to lawmakers, who can then sustain or override the veto;  or 3) he can allow the bill to become law without his signature.

Politically, as everyone has pointed out, Pence is between a rock and hard place. His reelection prospects are utterly dependent upon the loyalty of his base of “Christian Soldiers.” He cannot afford to lose them, and they will leave at the slightest sign that Pence is softening his stance against equal rights for LGBT Hoosiers (and that would include any statement suggesting that he might allow an expansion of civil rights to become law).

Unfortunately for Pence, the number of these religious warriors is steadily declining, so he also needs significant support from the business wing of the Republican Party— and the business community is virtually unanimous in its support for civil rights expansion.

As the Democrats have pointed out (almost daily), Pence spent some 175 days avoiding taking a position—desperately trying to placate those on either side of the issue.

As one of the lawyers I talked with observed, the “non-position” communicated to the legislature in Pence’s State of the State address had two possible interpretations: 1) please don’t send me anything that will force me to decide what to do; or 2) if you send me a bill, I won’t sign it–but I won’t veto it, either. It will become law without my explicit endorsement.

The carefully noncommittal framing of the Governor’s statement in the State of the State was even more cowardly than it appeared in the moment, because it allows people on both sides to believe that he shares their concerns–that he is “with them.”

Disingenuous as it may have been, however, it gives some small measure of hope to those of us who want to see genuine civil rights protections for LGBT Hoosiers enacted in Indiana.

And the Hospitality Continues…

In the wake of Governor Pence’s announcement that he didn’t want any of those shifty Syrians relocating here in Indiana, a friend sent me this article about former Governor Mitch Daniels talking fondly about his Syrian heritage…Worth a read.

Of course, it isn’t just Syrian refugees who aren’t getting a “welcome” sign from our unctuous Governor.

Yesterday was Organization Day at the Indiana Statehouse, and both proponents and opponents of adding LGBT Hoosiers  to the list of those protected under the state’s civil rights law showed up to make their voices heard.

There are a couple of things we can be sure of. 1) It will be a contentious session. And 2) Mike Pence will continue to oppose legal equality while insisting that he doesn’t condone discrimination, that he’s not anti-gay, he’s just all about religious liberty.

In anticipation of the Governor’s protestations, the Indiana Democratic Party has compiled and distributed this history of his efforts to marginalize the gay community just since  2000.

2000: During his congressional campaign, Mike Pence said, “Congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage.”

2000: Pence also supported the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only if federal dollars were excluded from organizations who “celebrate” and “encourage” behavior that facilitates spreading of the HIV virus. Further, Pence supported this reauthorization only if “those institutions provided assistance to those looking to change their sexual behavior”, an off-the-cuff endorsement for ex-gay conversion therapy.

2004: Mike Pence co-sponsored a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would define marriage as solely between one man and one woman.

2007: Pence voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

2010: Mike Pence voted against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal which allowed LGBT Americans to openly serve their country in military service.

2012: Pence refused to say on the record if he supported a same-sex couple raising a child together.

2014: Gov. Pence supported HJR-3, a bill to add an amendment banning same-sex marriage to Indiana’s Constitution.

2015: Governor Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in a closed-door ceremony.

2015: Governor Pence said on ABC’s “This Week” that it was “absolutely not” a mistake to sign RFRA, throwing Indiana into a $250 million economic panic and putting Indiana’s “Hoosier Hospitality” reputation in jeopardy.

2015: Even after his approval rating plummets from RFRA, Mike Pence on July 22 told the media he is “studying” the issue of LGBT rights and whether or not he’d support across the board protections for the LGBT community.

Gee, if that’s the way Pence acts when he doesn’t support legalized bias, what measures would the Governor support if he did support discrimination? Exile? Chemical castration?

It promises to be a very interesting session…