Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ongoing Struggle for Civil Rights and New Strategies of Gay Bashing by Religious Right

Lest anyone think that the anti-gay votes of two days ago should concern only the gay community, the New York Times chose today to focus its lead editorial on the implications of those votes for the nation at large ( The editorial notes the heart-breaking irony of an election that shattered one barrier to full inclusion for a minority group, while creating new barriers for yet another marginalized group of citizens:

Even as the nation shattered one barrier of intolerance, we were disappointed that voters in four states chose to reinforce another. Ballot measures were approved in Arkansas, Arizona, Florida and California that discriminate against couples of the same sex.

We do not view these results as reason for despair. Struggles over civil rights never follow a straight trajectory, and the ugly outcome of these ballot fights should not obscure the building momentum for full equality for gay people, including acceptance of marriage between gay men and women. But the votes remind us of how much remains to be done before this bigotry is finally erased.

Much remains to be done. Clearly, one significant task we face as a nation is education. When the majority chooses discrimination, we need education to help these citizens understand that voting away rights for any group is dangerous for all citizens.

One of the primary reasons anti-gay votes must be of concern to citizens everywhere is that the decision to take away rights from one group sets a precedent for removal of rights from other groups. A nation committed to—indeed, founded on—the belief that all human beings have certain inalienable rights by virtue of being human cannot accord some citizens fewer rights than it accords others. It cannot do so, that is, without undermining the notion of inalienable rights for everyone. It cannot do so without courting the erosion of the rights of every citizen once the precedent for removing rights has been established.

As the Times editorial notes, people’s fundamental rights should not be subject to popular vote. They are established by the constitution that binds us together (constitutes us) as a nation. They are safeguarded by judicial decisions that apply and uphold the constitution regardless of popular opinion:

Apart from creating legal uncertainty about the thousands of same-sex marriages that have been performed in California and giving rise to lawsuits challenging whether the rules governing ballot measures were properly followed, the immediate impact of Tuesday’s rights-shredding exercise is to underscore the danger of allowing the ballot box to be used to take away people’s fundamental rights.

Had the people of the red-state South who have just voted against the first African-American ever elected president been permitted to vote on whether African Americans should have full human rights in the 1950s and 1960s, the popular majority against those rights would have been overwhelming. And would have been just as immoral and untenable as the majorities that passed anti-gay legislation two days ago.

An editorial in today’s Tufts University student newspaper underscores these points (

This amendment [i.e., Proposition 8 in California] targets a single group to intentionally obstruct one of its freedoms. That is not democracy; that is rule by mob and fear — something the founders desperately sought to prevent . . . .

This is discrimination. In fact, it’s one of the last “acceptable” forms of discrimination in our society. Past generations fought a Civil War, marched in the streets and pushed for equal legislation, and since then, much has changed. But this vote shows us just how far we have left to go . . . .

The passing of Proposition 8 must be viewed with the importance and gravity that was attached to previous civil rights clashes. This is undoubtedly just as important. As such, we condemn the passing of Proposition 8 and urge the California Supreme Court to overturn this discriminatory amendment.

The passing of Proposition 8 must be viewed with the importance and gravity that was attached to previous civil rights clashes: that is absolutely correct. But it will take hard work to convince many mainstream Americans that the struggle for LGBT civil rights is part and parcel of a continuous narrative of struggle for civil rights in the U.S.—as the Times and the Tufts editorials both rightly note that it is—rather than a struggle for "special rights" on the part of a minority not deserving of those rights.

There is an exceptionally strong countervailing force in this educational battle now, and significant indicators that this force has been heartened by the election. Ironically, an election in which the religious right and neoconservative ideology appear to have been decisively defeated is sparking renewed determination to use the gay rights struggle as the flashpoint for a battle of bitter resistance to the agenda of change promised by the new administration.

Without intentional resistance to that strategy by the new administration and those who elected it, the mandate for change that gave such heart to the gay community may now usher in a period of renewed stigmatization and marginalization of gay citizens.

Pam Spaulding suggests this with her usual lucidity today ( As she suggests,

The election is over and the religious right is still hungry, its fangs still dripping with the blood of the carcass of civil rights that it has consumed with the passage of the anti-gay ballot initiatives. Even as it savors the win, it is hunting for its next prey—states without marriage amendments, and states that extended civil marriage via court ruling.

As Spaulding notes, growing indicators of a renewed gay-bashing strategy by the religious right ought to spur the gay community to develop a plan of counter-resistance—and to refrain from the circular firing squad so dear to progressives’ hearts when something goes wrong in our movements. As it clearly did in this election—and I plan to return to Spaulding’s points in a later post about the role of the African-American community in passing proposition 8. Discussion of this topic is heating up in the blogsphere and media, and it deserves careful analysis.

Patricia Nell Warren expresses concerns similar to Pam Spaulding's in a powerful posting yesterday at Bilerico ( Warren also predicts renewed gay-bashing by a religious right heartened by its “victories” on Tuesday, at the same time that it is smarting from a resounding defeat at the national level represented by the Democratic sweep in the election:

The religious right, and the more conservative Republicans, will make every effort to drag Obama's administration down. We will see a continuation of the dirty campaigning -- the throwing of any old piece of dirt and road-kill they can get their hands on -- the looking for some excuse to impeach Obama on some issue or other. These efforts will get the ongoing support by the same conservative major media that did everything they could to slant things against Obama during the election.

Warren notes that the effort to drag Obama’s administration down will center on a “rising tide of efforts” to further the marginalization of gay Americans:

For LGBT people, the hardest part of all, will be the rising tide of efforts to legislate us into oblivion. Reading the religious-right press this morning, I see that they are quite happy with the statewide election results on individual "moral" issues, to the point where they seem okay with having gotten that victory instead of victory for McCain.

As Warren also notes, the success of the attempt to push against this cruel utilitarian use of a stigmatized community will depend in large part on whether the new president intends to cash in his promises to defend the rights of gay Americans. Those promises will be sorely tested as heat is turned up by the religious right and its allies in an attempt to undermine the new administration:

When Obama courageously mentioned the word "gay" in his speech last night, I'm sure that he meant it in the passions of that magic moment. But the new President will have to get on board with us as far as full protection of our citizenship rights. If he doesn't, the "yes, we can" slogan doesn't mean squat for LGBT people. So we'll have to hope that Obama and his administration are really prepared to get down and fight for us.

For Obama, going all the way on our rights might be the hard part.

Meanwhile, gay people of faith will be delighted to hear that Mormon and Catholic leaders in the past several days have noted their concern for our welfare, According to a Salt Lake Tribune article yesterday, Elder L. Whitney Clayton of the LDS Presidency of the Seventy, has generously stated that Mormons now want to reach out to their gay brothers and sisters battered by the LDS spearheading of the proposition 8 fight and “heal any rifts caused by the emotional campaign by treating each other with ‘civility, with respect and with love’” (

Those heartwarming words are echoed by the current head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—that is, of the American arm of the other church that donated lavish resources to removing the rights of gay citizens in California this week. In his congratulatory statement to Mr. Obama, Cardinal Francis George writes, “We stand ready to work with you in defense and support of the life and dignity of every human person” (

The dignity of every human person. Civility, respect, and love. What heartwarming words!

Curiously enough, though, I’m not reading anything on blogs of gay citizens and our friends and family to indicate jubilation that Mormons and Catholics are so intent to safeguard our dignity, since they respect and love us. Strangely enough, it feels otherwise, somehow, as if what these churches set out to do and accomplished in California is about an assault on human dignity based in anything but civility, respect, and love.

We do have work to do now as a nation. And God help us, empty promises and lying words aren't going to get us there. Not even when those words drip unctuously from the mouths of religious leaders.