Bigotry From Cradle to Grave

On November 8, 2005, voters in Texas, where I live, and in 10 additional states passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, joining 11 other states that had done the same a year before. The results of all these referenda, hardly unexpected even if disappointing, were thanks in large measure to the efforts of an array of religious leaders and organizations and their allies who use fear and ignorance to mobilize followers.

These ballot initiatives were only the latest tactic in a 30-year movement to deny civil rights to gay people. Since the burgeoning of societal tolerance in the 1970s of gays, lesbians and the transgendered, the U.S. cultural landscape has seen a corresponding intensification of focus on homosexuality by the (mainly Protestant) fundamentalists we have come to know as the Religious Right.

In some ways, it all seems to have started with Anita Bryant, an earnest and wholesome-seeming singer who had been best known for being a runner-up in the Miss America beauty pageant and for extolling Florida orange juice in sunny TV commercials. In 1977, after hearing in a revival sermon of the ostensible homosexual menace, Bryant led the fight to repeal a Miami ordinance that protected gay people from discrimination. Success in Florida led Bryant to establish Save Our Children, a national organization that took to the road to overturn anti-discrimination laws across the country.

I remember laughing with my lesbian friends at Bryant and her sanctimonious crusade (especially when gay bars across the country refused to serve Florida orange juice), but the ballot initiatives her efforts spawned became, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "the single most important organizing for the fundamentalist right, transforming thousands of previously apolitical churchgoers into grassroots activists."

Jerry Falwell surely took note of Bryant's crusade and the organizing potential of gay issues. Once a preacher who eschewed the political realm as an unfitting pursuit for religious institutions, in 1979 Falwell founded the Moral Majority to mobilize evangelicals and recruit and train people to run for political office. The agenda was to "vigorously oppose abortion, the proposed equal rights amendment, civil rights for homosexuals, and all who advocate these things." The Moral Majority and other fundamentalists were widely credited with helping to elect Ronald Reagan to a two-term presidency by registering and mobilizing hundreds of thousands of new voters, often as part of Sunday services in church or in grassroots rallies for God and country.

In an early fundraising appeal letter, Falwell declared war on homosexuality. Later he exhorted, "Someone must not be afraid to say, 'moral perversion is wrong.' If we do not act now, homosexuals will 'own' America!...If you and I do not speak up now, this homosexual steamroller will literally crush all decent men, women, and children who get in its way...and our nation will pay a terrible price!"

And Falwell was hardly alone. Other televangelists like James Robison and Pat Robertson expounded on the evils of homosexuality over the airwaves. Other fundamentalists took a more direct approach to affecting public policy on sexual issues. The Rev. Lou Sheldon founded the Traditional Values Coalition in 1980, a lobbying organization with a determined focus on crushing the "gay agenda."

By then, Don Wildmon's American Family Association was in its third year, with a mission to "motivate and equip citizens to change the culture to reflect Biblical truth." Focus on the Family was founded in 1977 by James Dobson "to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible, and, specifically, to accomplish that objective by helping to preserve traditional values and the institution of the family."

Dobson also was instrumental in launching the Family Research Council (FRC) in the early 1980s. FRC "champions marriage and family as the foundation of civilization, the seedbed of virtue, and the wellspring of society. FRC shapes public debate and formulates public policy that values human life and upholds the institutions of marriage and the family. Believing that God is the author of life, liberty, and the family, FRC promotes the Judeo-Christian worldview as the basis for a just, free, and stable society."

Upholding the patriarchal family structure--with the husband at its head, wife as his subordinate and children as their possessions--has been paramount to the Religious Right. Gay people have no place in this world vision, and the fundamentalists portray us as ungodly, diseased and degenerate. Moreover, they have asserted, gays are bent on destroying religion and even civilization.

"Militant homosexuality is fundamentally opposed to religion, family, and anything that presupposes a natural moral order, a transcendent God, or something else higher than ourselves," wrote Steven A. Schwalm for the FRC. "The activist homosexual agenda and worldview are fundamentally incompatible with Christianity or any form of true religion, because homosexuality is ultimately narcissism."

One of the curious things about the Religious Right's anti-gay movement has been its intense concentration on sex and gay people's sexual behavior. The following is from a 2004 Washington Post story about Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition and his daughter, Andrea Lafferty, who also works for TVC:

The traditional values crusade as a family business makes for an unusual life. The reality of it is, Lafferty spends a lot of time looking with her dad at pictures of semi-naked men. Sheldon never misses an issue of the Washington Blade, the area's weekly gay newspaper. ("Was that in last week's issue or this week's?" he asks, looking for a particular ad for a group that "meets frequently to socialize," with "refreshments, music and videos." "You know what that means," he says. "Group sex. Just sex, sex, sex.") At one point they quibble over the proper slang terms for various sexual acts (both options are unprintable in this newspaper). Lafferty says she is unfazed by such conversations. "It's like growing up in a medical family," she says.

When describing gays, fundamentalists often conjure a bizarre fiction. A series of pamphlets distributed in fundamentalist churches from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, based on bogus research by failed psychologist Paul Cameron, continue to inform the arguments of some. The Texas Observer, a liberal newspaper, conducted interviews with several fundamentalists as part of an effort to understand the support in the state for the recent anti-gay marriage ban.

Mary Ann Markarian of Sugar Land, who described herself as an ordained minister for M.A.P. Ministries, Inc., explained that she would encourage people to vote for the constitutional amendment. "But not," she said, "because I dislike homosexuals. I know a lot of homosexual people who are wonderful people, who are very kind and gracious, who are my friends. "But sin is sin. We're not animals," Markarian said. "The proof is in the pudding."

Here comes Cameron: "Ninety-two percent of all gay males engage in rimming, the process of licking the rim of the anus and ingesting various amounts of fecal matter. Forty-seven percent of all males engage in fisting, the act of placing their fist in their partner's rectum for sexual pleasure." Markarian went on in the interview about other practices, and then turned to mortality rates, which again clearly mimic Cameron's discredited research. "The median age of a homosexual dying with AIDS is 39 years old; that's wrong, not natural. The median age of all other homosexual men dying from other causes is forty-two," she said. "The median age of death for lesbians is 45 years old--of lesbians.... Think about it and then tell me that God doesn't have some problem with this whole thing."

All of this nonsense, of course, is purportedly about protecting the family. And all of the organizations and leaders mentioned heretofore also resist reproductive freedom; opposition to legal and accessible abortion formed the core of much of their organizing, fundraising and lobbying throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Just as progressives understand the critical links between the pro-choice and the gay civil rights movements, these fundamentalist groups insist that elected officials on their side support the whole package as they see it: "Being pro-life means more than casting a good vote now and then on an abortion-related bill," wrote AFA's Robert Knight. "It also means supporting God's institution of marriage and fighting the homosexual agenda at every level, whether it is in the schools, the workplace or in the hallways of government."

After all, Knight wrote, "For years the two radical social movements have worked hand in hand to destroy the primacy of marriage and family and the Judeo-Christian sexual ethic."

In recent years, the fundamentalists have had the issue of gay marriage to garner support--in dollars and in footsoldiers--for their broader cultural and political agenda. With the 2003 US Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which nullified the prohibition of homosexual sodomy in Texas, and the 2004 Massachusetts state Supreme Court striking down a ban on gay marriage in that state, the Religious Right had new fuel for the homophobic fire and abundant opportunity to advocate for the patriarchal family model. "God has always said 'One man, one woman, one lifetime,'" Falwell told Larry King on CNN.

Gay marriage is now the front line in the culture war. And to James Dobson of Focus on the Family, "Gay marriage is a looming catastrophe of epic proportions," wrote Michael Crowley in a Slate magazine piece that dubbed Dobson the new "kingmaker" of Republican politics. Perhaps more important to Dobson than political power, however, is the cultural juggernaut he has built with his organization, which Harry Knox of the Human Rights Campaign calls "potentially the most dangerous" of all the Religious Right groups today. Focus on the Family builds anti-gay, pro-patriarchal family messages into high-production value programming, including video games, DVDs and other polished materials that appeal to all ages from cradle to grave.

While equal rights for gay people continue to gain public support with each passing year, Focus on the Family and the assemblage of other fundamentalist groups form an impressive barrier to continued progress. Maybe not in Massachusetts, maybe not in Vermont. But certainly down here in Texas. And, unfortunately, in lots of other places too.

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