Gay Rights Threaten Freedom of Belief, Conservative myth 2.0

Gay rights have for decades been portrayed as a threat to the free expression of “traditional” religious views. More recently, right wing forces have developed more sophisticated reasonings, going so far as adopting narratives that portray conservative-leaning religious minority groups (e.g. Mormons) as victims of “pro-gay bigotry”. A recent National Review article embodies this developing right-wing tactic of spinning the tables on how society categorizes “oppressed” & “oppressor” groups in America:

The outbreak of attacks on the Mormon church since the passage of Proposition 8 has been chilling: envelopes full of suspicious white powder were sent to church headquarters in Salt Lake City; protesters showed up en masse to intimidate Mormon small-business owners who supported the measure… The wisdom of hate-crimes legislation aside, there is no doubt that a lot of hate is being directed at Mormons as a group. But why single out Mormons? And why now?

With this misleading introduction, The National Review proceeds to frame the gay rights movement as picking on other minority groups in America which are too weak to defend themselves.

Dozens of church bodies — including the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Christian bishops of California, and a wide variety of evangelicals — supported the proposition. It’s also worth considering that, while gay-rights advocates cannot discuss same-sex marriage for more than 30 seconds without making faulty analogies to Jim Crow-era anti-miscegenation laws, some 70 percent of blacks voted for Proposition 8. While there have been a few ugly racist statements by gay-rights supporters, such vile sentiment has been restricted. Not so the hatred directed at Mormons, who are convenient targets.

To date, 30 states have voted on initiatives addressing same-sex marriage, and in every state traditional marriage has come out on top. But somehow the fact that Mormons got involved during the latest statewide referendum constitutes a bridge too far? In truth, Mormons are a target of convenience in the opening salvo of what is sure to be a full-scale assault on much of America’s religious infrastructure, which gay activists perceive as a barrier to their aspirations. Among religious groups, Mormons are not the biggest obstacle to same-sex marriage — not by a long shot. But they are an easy target. Anti-Mormon bigotry is unfortunately common, and gay-rights activists are cynically exploiting that fact.

This developing right wing counter-narrative on pro-gay grassroots activities is, in my opinion, one of the most effective strategies employed by the right since Anita Bryant began to frame opposing queer rights as necessary to “save our children”. I do not believe this because there is any truth to conservative claims, on the contrary there is no evidence. Criticisms of the Mormon church by the queer rights movement have taken place on a political stage that the Mormon church on their own accord chose to enter.  Our nation's political traditions does not allow religious authorities to intervene in the policy-making process with impunity, rather like everyone else they must advocate their policy views and deal with the criticisms from their peers that is a part of the policy making process.

The secret to their success is the same as their previous success employing the “save our children” narrative: The LGBT movement lacks a large enough presence in certain communities. In Anita Bryant's time, queer youth was a community which lacked the presence of a strong voice and representation within the larger youth community and society as a whole. The key is simple to understand. For decades right wing forces devised countless strategies to convince the public that queers were fighting to get into classrooms ands “recruit” children into the homosexual, gender transgressing lifestyle. For a while this worked, however this strategy has suffered from a fate of diminishing returns.

Over the past decade or two, and most certainly in the past 5 years, queer youth organizing and visibility has exploded in unprecedented ways. Thousands of “gay straight alliances” now exists in every state in the nation (and also in the unrepresented areas of D.C. and Puerto Rico). Gay, lesbian, bisexual and (increasingly) transgender children/youth have graced the big screens, newspapers and the television sets (thank you Ugly Betty). Most importantly than any media coverage however is the sheer act of queer youth coming out to those around them and explaining themselves to their peers and family. These individual coming out processes among queer youth have dealt a mortal blow to the right wing mantra of decrying “homosexual recruitment”. Millions of queer youth sharing their stories has proved to most of America that these children weren't recruited into anything, they just want to live their lives and control their own bodies and minds. Unfortunately, in faith communities, such a critical mass of activism among equality minded believers has yet to occur, although there has been significant progress.

I have always admired the work of groups such as Soulforce, that do the hard but necessary work organizing equality minded people of faith and practitioners of non-violence.

Another groups that stands out to me is the LGBT-Affirming Mormon group Affirmation, which seeks to reconcile two identities that our media has repeatedly framed as mutually exclusive, namely pro-gay sentiment and Mormon identity.

These groups seek to raise the visibility of LGBT people and their allies within faith communities. Having a healthy LGBT presence in faith circles is important to the queer rights movement and queer people (even athiest/agnostic queers) because is takes away from the latest right wing mantra, which seeks to frame equality for LGBT people and religious liberties as mutually exclusive. Nothing could be further from the truth.   We've heard these same arguments before when right wing religious forces once argued that ending slavery, segregation, contraception bans etc. would silence religious voices. History has shown the fallacy of their arguments, as it promises to show in the future.

What I find disturbing is how, while LGBT groups still squabble over who “blew it” on prop 8, the right wing is stepping up use of their new tactic. In Arizona a fight has arisen over a pro-equality statement proposed to be entered into a Bar Association Oath:

A conservative legal group is calling on lawyers to oppose a proposed revision to the Arizona Bar Association oath of office that pledges equal representation to LGBT clients.

In a letter to bar association president Edward Novak, the ADF [Alliance Defense Fund] and other conservative lawyers said that “the proposed provision is unnecessary, exceedingly ambiguous, and unconstitutional.”

“We are concerned most particularly that the proposed provision’s vagueness violates due-process and free-speech guarantees and that its application infringes First Amendment rights by compelling conduct and expression in conflict with an attorney’s philosophical or religious beliefs as well as his other professional responsibilities.”

The letter, signed by more than 30 conservative attorneys in the state, said that lawyers who refuse to take the oath or violate it could have their licenses revoked.

Indeed, this language has become increasingly effective across the board with right wing causes. The “infringement of religious liberties” card has also reared its head with the recent controversial decision by the Bush Administration to allow doctors to refuse to give women abortions or even prescribe contraception. At first glance, this argument seems valid. After all, someone shouldn't be forced to do something against their beliefs.

At closer look however, no one is being forced to do anything. Forcing someone to violate their beliefs would be like forcing a Hindu to eat a steak or a Muslim to eat pork. Last time I checked however, people who enter into a job of public service have, once they willingly decide to enter that field, must uphold their responsibility to the public. A fireman can't refuse to stop a fire at an abortion clinic because it goes against his religious values. A Muslim public school teacher cannot refuse to teach a class of Jewish students because they feel it may violate their religious beliefs. There is a line between religion and our secular government that the right wing is trying to blur here. By crying violation of religious freedom, they mask a strategy of imposing ONE religious ideology on a nation of varying ideologies and beliefs.

The National Review article ends with a disturbing finisher:

[Commenting on legal challenges by pro-gay organizations and individuals to Prop 8] There’s a real possibility the will of the people will be spurned a second time, democracy be damned. They’ve already burned the Book of Mormon. The First Amendment is next.

The Queer Rights movement cannot let this narrative to stand unchallenged. We need a greater push for funding for groups like Soulforce and Affirmations. We need to have a cascade of coming out processes within faith communities that we saw in the past few years among youth. I fear the right may be evolving into a more sophisticated, significantly less overtly anti-queer lobby, while continuing to be just as anti-equality minded behind the scenes. We have to rise to this new, much more challenging, reality. We cannot lose before the next stage of our fight has even begun.

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