The Pink Bermuda Triangle

Two steps forward, one step back. That's the sluggish path that gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans continue to face in their ongoing battle against institutional bigotry-which is as pervasive as ever, according to a new report released by People For the American Way (PFAW) a national non-profit organization dedicated to defending civil rights. And, in most of the cases depicted in the report, the facts surrounding those continuous "steps back" makes you wonder if you haven't been time-warped to an earlier century.Hostile Climate, PFAW's 110-page book released last week, chronicles anti-gay activity reported in 1996 and unveils a frightening increase in the number of incidents in which gay Americans are targets of discrimination at work, church and in the hallowed halls of government. The book documents anti-gay activity reported last year in 45 states and the District of Columbia, and shows a substantial rise in the number of such incidents.According to the book, 1996 saw 228 documented incidents involving institutionalized prejudice or discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals. This is a jump from the 180 reported cases in 1995. These acts of bigotry range anywhere from legislative battles over same-sex marriage, to lesbians being physically thrown out of churches, to school principals ignoring the plight of their gay students who had been beaten to a bloody pulp on school grounds.The book also offers chilling insight into just how powerful the Religious Right's presence in the political process has become. PFAW representatives cite a majority of these cases as the result of planned activities by right-wing extremists, who claim to act in the name of religion. And the book reports that these anti-gay religious groups have school administrators, senators, members of Congress, and judges at their whim to help foster their campaign of hate and intolerance. Case in point: a judge in Tallahassee, Florida awarded custody of an 11-year-old girl to her father, a convicted murderer, rather than grant custody to the child's mother, a lesbian. The father's attorney stated, "the child would be better off living in a more traditional type home ... I guess it's about getting back to traditional values." Traditional values? The girl's father pled guilty to the 1974 murder of his first wife. The girl's mother divorced him in 1992, and when she appealed the original custody ruling, the appeals court upheld the decision based on the "conduct the child has been exposed to" and its "effect upon the child." Translation: Lesbians a pose far greater threat to a child's values than convicted murderers.And have a look at the institutional discrimination that's taken place right here in "The Heart of it All":* At the request of church officials in Medina, Ohio, police officers physically "escorted" a woman to her car, after blocking her entrance to Medina Church of the Brethren for Sunday worship services. Church officials reasoned that since the woman was a lesbian, she "remains unrepentant and seeks to mock God," and subsequently banned her from the church grounds. The woman had attended the church for about four years, but was not a formal member.* At Ohio State University, a student-initiated proposal to extend student health coverage to students' domestic partners failed for the third time to be considered by the board of trustees. Although the updated plan would have cost students just 50 cents per quarter, and the insurance company that underwrites OSU's health insurance agreed to the plan, one trustee commented, "I just don't think it is something the university should do ... I can tell you right now I am against it." * A Christian church here in Columbus bought buildings where space had been rented to a gay-owned gift store, coffeehouse and tattoo parlor, and then evicted the renters. Local merchants said church supporters spit on their windows, blocked their doors, left Bible tracts on their store shelves, and accosted their customers.In a statement by PFAW President Carole Shields, she said Hostile Climate found a pattern of bigotry fostered directly by national conservative groups. "On a daily basis, Religious Right leaders go on television and radio and hammer gay men and lesbians," Shields said. "They accuse them of 'recruiting' children to homosexuality in the public schools, and they charge them with trying to undermine the American family. And they say these outrageous things in the name of God Almighty. It's offensive to my own Baptist upbringing, and offensive to millions of other Americans who think it's wrong to use faith as a tool to divide our society." The book also found that "a vast majority of employers have no policy against anti-gay harassment," and it remains legal in 39 states (including Ohio) for an employer to fire or otherwise punish employees based on their sexual orientation. In addition to workplace harassment, the book analyzed legal battles over same-sex-marriage and discrimination in the health care industry, in the arts and media, and in public schools.Phil Martin, executive director of Stonewall Columbus, said having a book like Hostile Climate out there is vital in order to combat anti-gay activity that is fueled by ignorance. "Most people are just uneducated on lesbian and gay issues," Martin said. "Most people don't realize that here in Ohio we can legally be fired from our job solely based on sexual orientation. Things most people take for granted, we don't get." Martin added, however, that as deplorable as the activity depicted in Hostile Climate is, hope still persists. "Though it may not seem like it, overall things are getting better," he explained. "Ten years ago, we didn't have the visibility we have today. So things are better, and I have great hope for the future. But because things are better, those who are so appalled at gay and lesbian people being treated as ... well, humans, they have to do anything they can to counter it."


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