Saturday, December 20, 2008

Not Getting It: The Human Rights Question and Gay Americans

I have thought long and hard in the past few days about just why many gay Americans, and many progressive Americans, and many American people of faith who regard the religious right as, on the whole, a rancorous and invalid expression of authentic faith, are reacting so strongly to the choice of Rick Warren as the pastor of the new administration. Many commentators seem taken by surprise at the vehemence of our reaction—as if (to my surprise in turn) we have just been play-acting when we note that we are denied rights, and that being denied rights galls.

The question of human rights is clearly central both to the response of many citizens to the Rick Warren choice, and to the reaction of those mystified by this response. In my view, many Americans simply aren’t getting the human rights thing—not when it comes to gay citizens. And I’m left wondering why.

The only way I know how to seek an answer to that question of why so many of my fellow citizens are oblivious to the question of my rights, and shocked at my anger at having my rights denied, is to reflect on my own experience. And there’s a danger there.

Confessional speech can so easily turn into or be dismissed as solipsistic speech. We’re told repeatedly, those of us seeking social change, to tell our stories, stories of our experiences on the social margins. But when we do so, it seems many citizens aren’t hearing what we’re saying—perhaps because they assume we’re engaging in a venting exercise, and not telling stories that critique our social structures, that raise questions about how power and privilege are allocated in our society. About the very unequal allocation of power and privilege in our society.

Perhaps because many gay citizens think that speaking out of our concrete experiences is an exercise in social analysis and in envisaging a different, more humane future for all of us, while many other citizens just hear the predictable yammers of people asking for special privilege and not rights, it seems we’re passing like ships in the night in this country—those of us who work for an inclusive participatory democracy, and the majority of citizens who don’t get the visceral response to the Rick Warren choice.

In my view, this is why the stories gay citizens tell about our painful experiences of marginalization absolutely have to be set against the backdrop of human rights and of social solidarity. As long as those in the mainstream can pretend that these stories are happening somewhere over there, in a place that doesn’t affect every one of us—as long, that is, as those in the mainstream choose to see our stories as pretend stories of pretend suffering—we can go on, as a nation, professing exemplary ideals of democracy, while belying those ideals grossly in our treatment of one group of citizens.

We can go on, in other words, behaving as not a single other contemporary democracy in the world behaves: witness what has just happened to the UN resolution to extend the 1948 UN statement about human rights to gay human beings. To say this is to say that there is something woven into the fiber of this nation, of the American people, that is, to say the least, tone-deaf to the question of human rights for gay citizens. And somehow the experiences of those of us who are gay and lesbian in the U.S, and which are often experiences of having rights violated and denied, aren’t being heard—not in a way that reaches the mainstream.

How can that be, I wonder? As I look at my own experiences—unique ones admittedly, in some respects—as an openly gay theologian, who has worked in church-related institutions in which my rights have been grossly violated, and who also has a long history of working in historically black church-related institutions—I see some keys that help unlock the mystery. For me, at least.

I have become aware in the past several days that one of the triggers for my anger at the Rick Warren choice has to do with his statement comparing gay folks to pedophiles. That statement sends me through the roof. That long-told lie—a lie that has long since been discredited—sends me through the roof.

And here’s why. As I think I’ve mentioned on this blog, at a teaching position at a Catholic university some years back, I met that lie in all its ugly force, when I was given a one-year terminal contract, and was denied a reason for the termination.

As I’ve noted, when I approached the chair of the faculty grievance committee to file a grievance requesting that I be given a reason for being terminated, the chair initially stonewalled me, asking, “Well, what if the reason was that you have molested a student?” I pointed out that I had not done so, and that had I done so, the college would have had a contractual basis for firing me, and would not need to play the shell game it was playing to disguise its real reasons (academic-freedom ones) for terminating me.

I never received a reason for the termination. I resigned in protest. Not long after this, I heard from a friend that he had met the son of the president of the faculty senate, who had been in one of my classes. He informed my friend that his father was proudly telling people I had been fired because the campus couldn’t have “that sort” around—the sort that might “put their arm around a student.”

This is to say, early in my career as a Catholic theologian, I met the lie that gay folks are pedophiles, and I saw how it is used to smear somebody, destroy his reputation, and provide a bogus justification for terminating him—in the absence of any scrap of evidence to back the lie.

Just because. Because gay folks are pedophiles. Never mind that this was one who had lived in a committed relationship for years, and who had never once even dreamed of crossing any lines of propriety with students or anyone else.

I wish I could say that this has been my sole encounter with that toxic lie. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been. This is part of my violent reaction to Rick Warren’s continued lying about gay human beings and our lies, in the name of Christ. I react as anyone unjustly lashed over and over rects: I react with a violent reaction against the violation of my personhood and my flesh. Which is all the more horrendous when the one doing it claims to speak for God.

Down the road, same script all over again in my professional life—showing me that the gays-pedophiles lie remains alive and well in our culture, and will remain alive as long as it is instrumentally useful for people to tell when they want to violate the rights of gay folks. For any reason at all. Useful for people of faith to tell when they want to violate the rights of gay folks and not be held accountable for doing so.

Here’s what happened in my last encounter with that ugly lie. As I have also noted on this blog, at a later point in my career, I lost another position at another church-owned university—this time an historically black one (HBCU). In this case, I was informed that the university wanted me gone and was offering to buy out my contract. I agreed to the severance arrangement. I was told, in writing, in a document I was not allowed to keep, that the reason for this offer was “inability to work with this administration.”

Then all hell broke loose. The university rescinded the severance offer, forcing me to seek legal counsel. My attorney told me I had a strong case: for fraud and inducement, violation of agreements made with me, damage of my career and livelihood, and defamation. At the same time, he warned me that, because this was happening in Florida, a state with no—absolutely none—legal protection for gay citizens, I should expect a very nasty battle. With mud-slinging.

In Florida, after all, employers can fire any employee at will for no reason at all. And as a hospital administrator informed a gay woman who asked to visit her dying partner in the hospital while I lived there, Florida is an anti-gay state with anti-gay laws. Good luck making a case that your rights have been violated in such a state. Good luck defending yourself against grossly obvious misrepresentations of your character and work in such a state.

Employers know that they can get away with murder in such states. And they do so. And those in faith-based institutions can be among the most gleeful reputation-destroyers and liars, especially when the person they are attacking is gay and has chosen to stand up for her or his rights.

So here’s what happened when I began to seek legal counsel: soon after that, suddenly, in my email—my home email—there pops up a message. It purports to be from an internet social networking group, and it asks me to make a statement about how I happened to know someone in that network. Someone to whom my page in the network was linked. A friend of my nieces and nephews, with whom they were raised.

At the time I got the message, I had forgotten I even had that social network account. This was before Facebook and MySpace had taken off. My nieces and nephews had all signed up for the network, and had sent me (and their parents) invitations to join.

I joined, as did my brother and his wife. Our pages were linked to those of the young folks in the family, which linked us in turn to their friends. And then those of us who were adults, and who knew little of this new technology and its importance to young people in establishing social contacts, forgot we even had these pages. We sent a message here and there to our nieces and nephews, and then never visited the site again.

That is, I forgot until I got the message asking me to explain how I happened to know the young man who was a friend of my nieces and nephews—a young man whom I knew well because he had spent many summers with my brother’s family, as a quasi-member of the family. A young man who had grown up with my brother’s family and was the best friend of my youngest nephew.

When I got that message out of the blue, I had a very good idea why I was getting it at just that time—right after I had sought legal counsel to deal with a church-related HBCU that had made a promise of severance pay to me, and had then violated that promise. I could not and cannot say that the message came from any particular person within the institution with which I was now in conflict.

What I could say with certainty, though, was that this was not the first time I had experienced these insinuations at that particular workplace. And I had experienced them right from the top, from a person I knew well at this institution.

Case in point: not long before the process of disempowering me began from that person at the top, my nephew came for a visit. My niece came a few weeks later. The nephew who visited was the youngest, the friend of the young man about whom the questions regarding my connections were being raised.

When my nephew visited, he was intently interested in a modeling career. He tends to go through phases—perhaps like any young person, except his are all-consuming, and then he drops that interest and goes on to another. He came with me to my office one day and asked if he could check his email while I worked.

I told him of course, but pointed out to him that the computer system belonged to the university and not to me, and to be aware that he should not log onto any site that would be problematic in the workplace—rules I also apply at home if he asks to use my computer. He agreed.

Later, I happened to see he had sent his modeling portfolio by email, saving it on the desktop of my computer. He was trying to arrange interviews in Florida. I was helping him with this. I knew about the portfolio, as did his parents. We had all helped him organize it. It was a typical professional portfolio of any young man applying for modeling jobs with agencies that supply clothes models.

When I saw the portfolio on my work desktop, I thought nothing about it and put it into my recycling bin. That is, I thought nothing about it until I came to work the next day and found that the portfolio had somehow found its way in the night out of recycling and back to the desktop.

This was hardly the first clue I had had that a careful monitoring system—no, I have to be honest: a spying system—was in place, vis-a-vis my office. I was under no illusions about the system when a request was made to have a camera installed in my office, to “protect the computer.” I knew, because I knew the person at the top in this university, that when this supervisor decided to do an employee in, it was routine for her to obtain copies of that employee’s email for years back, if necessary, and to go through them with a fine-toothed comb looking for evidence to justify her dismissal of the employee.

I had seen her use this method of supervision, in fact, with two other employees in the past who happened to be gay. To my shame, though I protested in each case and had my hands resoundingly slapped, I allowed myself to be convinced that the supervisor had some strong reason for taking action against those employees—reason that went well beyond sexual orientation. I allowed myself to be convinced of this, God help me, even when she spoke to me of one employee's probable liaisons with students, of which I had seen no evidence.

When that request to explain how I knew my family’s friend at the social networking site came through, I also remembered some incidents that had just taken place when my nephew visited. The university photographer had insisted on taking pictures of my nephew, Steve, and me at a university banquet on my birthday.

I had naively thought nothing at all of this. He was, after all, snapping pictures of various folks in attendance at the event. Once again, though, I had found those pictures mysteriously uploaded to my computer—at which point I realized an ugly game was being played, one that was insinuating I had some kind of relationship with my own nephew!

This is, unfortunately, the level at which many folks continue to think about gay people and our lives. It is the level to which many folks continue to stoop even when they know better, because they know that it works, when they want to attack someone is gay for other reasons: it works to insinuate these ugly things about gay people, particularly in cultures where the equation of homosexuality with pedophilia remains strong, and where gay people lack any legal protection if their rights are violated in the workplace, in housing, etc.

And it works—this has to be noted in the context of the Rick Warren discussion—precisely because many people of faith continue to indulge themselves in these lurid fantasies about gay human beings and gay lives. People of faith who should know better.

Part of the reason, I’m convinced, that many Americans just don’t get how anguished we feel when our rights are trampled on and when folks of the ilk of Rick Warren are given such prominence in the new administration, is that buried deep inside the minds and souls of many people in our society are still toxic lies about gay people and gay lives.

And religion in our society is responsible, to a great degree, for keeping those toxic lies alive. In some church-related cultures—I’ve met this in both Catholic circles and in the heavily evangelical context of HBCUs—it is still perfectly acceptable to equate being gay with being a pedophile. No eyebrows will be raised at that equation, in these circles. If one is gay and calls for proof—for accountability for the lie being told—one is likely to be informed that this is a religious issue and gay people, being the dirty pedophiles they are, are anti-religion.

Angry? Grieved? Disappointed? Betrayed? You bet we are. This behavior has to stop. It has to stop being promoted by any churches in this land, and any church institutions. And it has to stop being given top billing at any presidential inauguration in this land.

Until it does stop, we Americans might as well forfeit all claims to being interested in human rights. Until it stops, we should continue doing what we're doing now, continue opposing declarations of human rights that include gay human beings. It’s at least honest on our part to admit that we just don’t believe in the full gamut of human rights for gay citizens.

And that we use religion to justify that selective approach to human rights. And that, in the final analysis, is why Rick Warren's presence at the inauguration is obscene to some of us, and why it signals that a business as usual that gay citizens have found toxic for decades now is going to continue with the new administration and its preferential treatment of the religious right.