Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What's the Matter with Florida?!

To borrow from the title of Thomas Frank’s outstanding 2005 book about the tendency of heartland voters to vote against their own economic interest in voting neo-conservative: what’s the matter with Florida?

As I’ve noted before on this blog, Steve and I own a house in Florida that we’d druther not have bought, and which we bought by being foolish enough to respond to empty promises about tolerance and inclusion on the part of someone who is, sadly, unable to tolerate and include openly gay people in her life.

What happened to us when we believed those empty promises and went to Florida to assist a “friend” who turned out not to be a friend, and now the added fact of owning a house in Florida—this gives us an interest in what is happening in a community in whose history and future we are now implicated despite our own wishes.

Consequently, I follow Florida news—especially news about the fate of LGBT people in a state I found to be aggressively homophobic, though I also know many wonderful folks there—with avid interest. I’m interested today in reports that are everywhere on blog sites, about a St. Petersburg Democratic legislator, Darryl Rouson, who states, “I think that lesbianism and homosexuality is morally wrong and the law's supposed to discriminate sometimes” (;jsessionid=923673E8FBB802245E9AA344D5881F0F?diaryId=6404;;

Rep. Rouson made that astonishing statement in a 2006 television interview in which he addressed the issue of gay adoption. In the interview, Rouson proposes that children raised in households headed by same-sex parents suffer psychological damage.

As the blogsites referenced above indicate, Rep. Rouson is now trying to back off his inflammatory statements, perhaps because he is in a tight race for his seat. His opponent, also a Democrat, Charles McKenzie, is a Baptist minister who happens to be for gay equality and opposed to attempts to forbid adoption rights to gay couples.

Both men are also, as it happens, African American—a fact that makes Rep. Rouson’s statement that “the law's supposed to discriminate sometimes” particularly odious. When people who experience discrimination turn around and discriminate against other marginalized groups—when people who oppose discrimination advocate it for others who are denied rights—those discriminatory people totally undermine their own claims to justice.

I haven’t seen anyone reporting on this, but it seems to me that Rep. Rouson’s claims that children raised by same-sex parents suffer psychological damage makes his own track record as a parent fair game for those who find his claim about same-sex parenting to be bigoted balderdash. I find on the website of Bob Andelman a 2003 assessment of Rouson as a lawyer (a very positive assessment) that has disturbing information about his own parental role modeling and commitment to family values.

Rouson has been married three times. His second wife died tragically of breast cancer. The first marriage ended in divorce due to Rouson’s drug habits—and led to a long-standing estrangement between him and his daughters of that marriage. To his credit, Rouson has gone through rehab for his drug habits, which reappeared as his second wife died. He is now married for the third time.

My point in bringing up this biographical information is quite simply as follows: when someone claims that children are automatically psychologically damaged by living in a household headed by same-sex parents, but when that same someone has had a failed marriage due to drug abuse, and when that failure has resulted in estrangement from his own children, it would seem fitting for that someone to look at the possibility that heterosexual marriages can inflict psychological damage, before attacking the marriages of same-sex couples.

Rouson is not the only high-profile Florida political leader to weigh in on gay rights issues as the state faces a vote to add a ban to gay marriage to its constitution. Recently, Governor Charlie Crist stated that he supports the proposed amendment banning gay marriage (

Yes, Charlie Crist. Yes, that Charlie Crist. Yes, the “longtime bachelor” who announced his engagement (the spouse-to-be is Carole Rome) on 4 July, as rumors abounded that he was being vetted by John McCain for the vice-presidential slot.

As I’ve said before on this blog, what an opportunity the churches in Florida have today to teach basic civic virtues such as tolerance, inclusion, respect for everybody and in particular for the marginalized, open conversation about civic matters in which everyone has a place at the table). What an educational opportunity the churches have in a state in which homophobia continues to trouble Florida communities, and even manifests itself in ugly incidents of violence.

And with that opportunity, what a marvelous model Florida churches have in the town-hall meetings developed by the prophetic African-American leader and founder of a Methodist college, Mary McLeod Bethune. In this period following a United Methodist General Conference in which the United Methodist Church challenges its member churches and the institutions they sponsor, what could be more appropriate than for the Methodist bishop of Florida, Timothy Whitaker, and the president of the university Dr. Bethune founded, Trudie Kibbe Reed, to re-institute Dr. Bethune’s town-hall meetings—with a particular focus on the issue of educating about and including gay, lesbian, and transgendered citizens of the state in civic life?

Churches place great (and understandable) emphasis on reaching the culture in a transformative way. This is a hallmark of Methodism in particular. When social need is great, and when models to meet that need are embedded in institutions sponsored by a particular church, it seems unthinkable that the church would not consider adapting those models to meet contemporary social needs, doesn't it? Particularly so, when churches wish to be taken seriously as they talk about their mission and values . . . .

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