Hostile Climate: California's Anti-Gay Activity

In an annual report that confirms what many activists already suspected, People for the American Way (PFAW) contends that hatred for lesbians and gay men is growing and has become institutionalized at the highest levels of American society.The PFAW report, "Hostile Climate 1995," documents 180 incidents of anti-gay activity at local, state and national levels. PFAW is a nonpartisan organization that fights the political agenda of the Religious Right, and its report includes only actions that have broad policy implications or set significant standards (as opposed to individual incidents of attack or discrimination).It conducted its research from telephone interviews and secondary source materials, and found that 1995 produced the highest number of incidents in the three-year history of the report's publication. The results depict a cultural climate that is increasingly hostile toward gays and lesbians."It surprises me the level that people feel comfortable making anti-gay remarks in hearings," says Laurie McBride, executive director of the Sacramento-based LIFE AIDS Lobby. "That's grown in the past five years, and every year has gotten worse."LIFE is the primary legislative advocacy group for statewide gay civil rights and health care issues, and in addition to the increase in inflammatory statements, McBride says she's also seen the introduction of more specifically anti-gay legislation. Most recently, Assemblyman Pete Knight, R-Palmdale, has proposed AB 1982, a bill that would outlaw same-sex marriages in California in an effort to preempt the consequences of the likely legalization of such marriages in Hawaii later this year. "Hostile Climate" reported that California led the other 42 states included in the report with a total of 10 anti-gay incidents, half relating to Assembly bills or government officials. The report cited one of LIFE's biggest losses: the final defeat of AB 2810, a bill that would have allowed domestic partners to register with the secretary of state and to receive some benefits previously reserved for married couples. "Climate" also mentioned AB 1001, which was recently defeated; it would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in California's public schools, colleges and universities."I hear the most incredibly outright lies and distortions coming from the far right," says McBride. "They get people all stirred up and they play to their worst instincts and fears."The PFAW report asserts that national Religious Right political organizations such as the Christian Coalition and the Traditional Values Coalition have spurred much of the anti-gay sentiment. It maintains that these groups have provided support and technical assistance to local organizers and have put significant resources into electoral campaigns and legislative battles.Longtime Sacramento activists Marghe Covino and Jerry Sloan know all about tracking the Religious Right. Together,they founded Project Tocsin, which examines the influence conservative organizations have on the California electoral process. "Something that everybody overlooks are the Christian radio stations that 24 hours a day are blaring forth the anti-gay homophobic rhetoric," says Sloan. "If they were doing this 100 years ago and talking about slavery, we'd say that they were bigots and our society doesn't tolerate such speech."Sloan and Covino assert that in recent years at least 25 Republican members of the Assembly have been elected with the help of the Allied Business PAC, a group they say has a radical right agenda. But they also note that it is local committees that provide training ground for many Religious Right activists."They're using school boards and playground committees," says Covino hotly. "That's where these folks are cutting their eye-teeth on how to work on a board, how to be political... this is their elementary school, and as we let them do it, we're teaching them the inner workings of government.""Hostile Climate" also identifies public schools as a major battlefield for anti-gay activity. The report claims that educational conflicts increased last year as anti-gay groups sought to ban books with any homosexual content, oppose counseling and support programs for gay youth, and fight efforts to provide anti-harassment protection for students. Locally, Rocklin's school board generated controversy when it ignored the recommendations of their Family Life/HIV/AIDS Committee. Parents protested the decision and successfully organized to reverse it after a review committee found dozens of inaccuracies and misinformation in the text."There are lots of educators out there who are very supportive," comments Peter Lavagnino, Youth Programs Coordinator for the Lambda Community Center. Lavagnino says that groups can generally go into Sacramento's public school system to discuss HIV and AIDS, but that it is more difficult if speakers are coming from the gay/lesbian center."They're wary of what's going on and don't want to step over the line by having some teen asking questions about gay/lesbian lifestyles and starting a conversation and having someone misinterpret it," he says. Last year, Lavagnino approached one teachers' organization offering the services of his peer speakers, but in the seven months he's been at Lambda, no one has invited their speakers to come into the schools. Nevertheless, he feels that less gay-identified groups are providing AIDS education.Finally, the PFAW report points out that right-wing groups have increased their defamation of gay men and lesbians. These groups commonly make false accusations at individuals and misrepresent the gay community as a whole. One of last year's most heated local controversies concerned a half-page ad run in the Sacramento Bee. Sponsored by Concerned Women for America, the ad attacked the National Education Association's recommendations for the support of a Lesbian and Gay History Month, at one point referring to gays as child molesters. "What we would like to do [with the Bee] is just have dialogue," says Steve Schwichow, executive director of the Lambda Community Center. Schwichow is convinced the paper would not have run the ad if the same language had been used to describe Jews or Hispanics, and is dissatisfied with the apology the Bee later printed.Meanwhile, he and his allies all agree with the PFAW report's conclusion: Vigilance must continue if there is ever to be an end to the hostility toward America's gays and lesbians."If you look at our society in general," says Schwichow, "there's a mean-spiritedness in the air; it's about anybody who doesn't fit the mold of the Religious Right."

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