A nationwide campaign of organized intolerance led by the Religious Right, often supported by local clergy and public officials, is denying equal rights to Americans who are singled out for discrimination based on their sexual orientation. This is the picture that emerges from the 1998 edition of People For the American Way Foundation’s annual report on anti-gay activity, “Hostile Climate.”
The report compiles and analyzes a nationwide sampling of intolerant incidents directed against gay and lesbian Americans in 1997. It reveals that out of the 170 incidents described in the report, Religious Right organizations were involved in nearly 40 percent of the cases. More than one quarter of the incidents included in this new report occurred in just four states: California (14), North Carolina (11), Massachusetts (10), and Washington (9).
“The Religious Right has poisoned the public dialogue about gay and lesbian rights and, as a result, our public discussion of these issues is often stuck in the dark ages,” said Carole Shields, President of People For the American Way Foundation. “Where we should all be seeking to bring justice and equality to all Americans, the Religious Right is instead playing a destructive game of blaming the victims of anti-gay and lesbian discrimination.”
In 1997 the Religious Right acted as the single, loudest voice promoting intolerance against gays and lesbians. Religious Right leaders like Pat Robertson (Christian Coalition Founder), Gary Bauer (Family Research Council), Beverly LaHaye (Concerned Women for America), and Jerry Falwell used all the pulpits available to them – including TV, radio, direct mail, and the internet – to spread the poisonous message that hatred of gays and lesbians is not only acceptable, it is required of “godly” people.
That message was received loud and clear and amplified by other bigots in 1997:
- Montgomery, AL, Mayor Emory Folmar: “I used the word ‘queer’ and I’ll use it again. I’m not going to call them gay. I don’t approve of their lifestyle one bit.”
- Costa Mesa, CA, talk radio host: “Lesbian love, sodomy are viewed by God as being detestable and abominable. . .Civil magistrates are to put people to death who practice these things.”
- American Family Association of Kentucky’s Dr. Frank Simon: “There are hundreds of children in America who are dying of AIDS because they were sexually abused by homosexuals.”
- Asheville, NC, Baptist minister: “We would not want a parade for thieves or people who rob banks, or a parade for adulterers, homosexuals or lesbian lifestyles.”
Fifth Nationwide Report
This year’s report is the fifth to be issued by PFAWF since it began monitoring and reporting on anti-gay activities. This year’s report includes incidents from 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico as well as incidents that are national in scope.
The incidents range from legislative attacks on equal rights, to employment discrimination, to harassment and even beatings of high school students that are sometimes ignored or abetted by school officials, to instances of hate speech and hate-inspired violence.
The report groups the discriminatory incidents according to six categories: employment, arts and entertainment, marriage and family, education, religion, and general intolerance.
By far, the single most common form of intolerant incident involved education – with incidents involving school boards, teachers, students, and even the California Board of Regents.
- The Religious Right attacked an award-winning film, “It’s Elementary: Teaching About Gay Issues in School,” which is used to train teachers about how to deal with gay and lesbian issues in the classroom, claiming that its purpose is “cynically recruiting a new generation to become homosexuals.”
- An Alabama state senator charged that the Women’s Studies program at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa was “promoting sex between women” and threatened to cut funding unless administrators addressed his concerns.
- In Michigan, the Wayne-Westland community school board rescinded a decision to expand its code of conduct to protect students and faculty from harassment because of sexual orientation. The school board acted after its president, a lesbian, had lost her re-election bid in a campaign that included anonymous flyers titled “Take a Hike Dyke.”
- In Provincetown, MA, a group opposed to efforts to promote an anti-bias curriculum for the schools took over the PTA and demanded that the PTA president, a lesbian mother, sign a letter informing the school committee that the words “gay” and “lesbian” should not be spoken by teachers of students younger than the fifth grade.
Many incidents involved efforts to deny employment to gay men and lesbians or to block them from receiving the same benefits routinely provided to heterosexual employees.
- In Newton, MA, the Board of Aldermen shelved a domestic partners benefit ordinance which they had originally passed 13-10 after a local group opposed to the ordinance threatened to have it put on the ballot as a referendum.
- In Los Angeles, Anheuser-Busch fired a gay man because he had a photograph of his companion on his desk and did not conceal the fact that he was gay from his co- workers.
- The Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is routinely violated by military commanders who aggressively investigate the private lives of military personnel. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network reported that such violations rose more than 25 percent last year — from 443 in 1996 to 563 in 1997.
- American Airlines came under attack from national Religious Right organizations for its support of gay and lesbian pride events and organizations, anti-discrimination policy in hiring gays, and marketing to the gay community. Family Research Council President Gary Bauer attacked the company’s policies as “open endorsement of sexual behavior that has been universally discouraged because it is immoral, unhealthy and destructive to individuals, families and societies.”
- Senators Lauch Faircloth (R-NC) and Don Nickles (R-OK) fired their pollster because he is gay.
A disturbing number of incidents involved improper actions by public officials, even police officers. Some politicians engaged in blatant demagoguery on the issue of gay and lesbian rights.
- In Washington, DC, a police lieutenant used license numbers to identify patrons of a gay club and to extort money from them.
- In Mitchellville, NC, a sheriff ordered a high school football coach’s phone conversations to be illegally taped and then threatened to make the tapes public unless the school fired the “closeted” coach.
- In Marysville, WA, the school district adopted a sex education policy which states that: “Homosexuality shall be discussed only in conjunction with… sexually transmitted diseases.”
- When the California Board of Regents voted to extend housing and health benefits to the domestic partners of its gay and lesbian employees, Governor Pete Wilson went to extraordinary lengths to try to reverse the policy, which he had railed against in a speech before the Christian Coalition. He managed to force a new vote before the entire Board and appointed three new Regents the day before and day of the vote. Wilson’s move fell just short, and the measure passed 13-12.
- A Kentucky state senator reacted with outrage to a state Court of Appeals ruling that same-sex couples are covered by the state’s domestic violence law.
- A member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives filed a bill to amend the island’s civil code to ban same-sex unions to “make it very clear to homosexuals that this society does not tolerate their conduct.”
- President Clinton’s nomination of James Hormel, an openly gay man, to be Ambassador to Luxembourg, has been held up indefinitely in the Senate, after the Religious Right and its political allies raised a storm of protest. Senator Bob Smith (R-NH) vowed, “I’ll filibuster until I drop…”
As in previous years, a significant amount of anti-gay bias was directed at art and entertainment dealing with gay themes or at gay artists or entertainers themselves.
- At least 30 daily newspapers censored a popular comic strip, “For Better or For Worse” because of a series of strips dealing with the romantic concerns of a gay teenage character. Three of the papers cancelled the strip completely.
- The Religious Right raised a furor over attempts to portray gay characters in a positive light, focusing much of their wrath on the public “coming out” of actress Ellen DeGeneres and her TV character “Ellen.” Religious Right organizations launched a boycott against Disney because of its ownership of ABC, which aired “Ellen,” and because of its decision to provide gay and lesbian employees with the same employment benefits it gives its heterosexual employees.
- San Antonio’s city council eliminated all funding for the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which sponsors the city’s annual lesbian and gay film festival as part of its diverse cultural programming.
Harassment and violence
Some incidents recorded in 1997 involved harassment and threatened or actual violence against individuals who are gay or are believed to be gay by the perpetrators.
- In Sussex County, NJ, a gay 1996 graduate filed a lawsuit over harassment and violence he suffered as a student and against which the school took no meaningful action. He was subjected to name-calling, spitting, shoving, and, in his junior year, a beating that resulted in the loss of 80 percent of his hearing in one ear.
- In Atlanta, GA, a bomb blast injured five patrons of a lesbian nightclub. The “Units of the Army of God” claimed credit in a letter, saying, “We will target sodomites, there [sic] organizations and all those who push there [sic] agenda.”
- In Pacifica, CA, a 12-year-old middle school student was persistently harassed by other students because his manner was more feminine than some of the other boys. He suffered migraines, weight loss, eczema, asthma, and even considered suicide. Rather than taking meaningful action against the perpetrators, school officials questioned the boy’s truthfulness. The boy ultimately transferred out of the school to escape the harassment.
Many incidents involved actions by religious leaders to deny equal rights to gays and lesbians and to cut them off from their own churches:
- The Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese went on the attack against a vote by the Oak Park village board adopting a domestic partners registry. The archdiocese said in a press statement that “heterosexual marriage and family life is an essential building block of a healthy and well-ordered society. As such it deserves to be both promoted and protected by public policy. Such protection implies, of its very nature, that no other social realities will be granted equivalent status.”
- Religious Right groups went on the attack against President Clinton after Rev. Troy Perry, a gay minister, was included among the 120 religious leaders taking part in an ecumenical breakfast at the White House. Family Research Council’s Robert Knight said, “We are witnessing the Administration’s moral meltdown. What’s next? A memorial to Church of Satan founder Anton LeVay?”
- Atlanta’s Emory University approved the performance of same-sex commitment ceremonies in its campus chapels, but enacted such strict limitations that few if any chapels can be used for such ceremonies.
- In Ames, IA, an openly gay pastor was barred from his ministry because he acknowledged being in a committed same-sex relationship. His church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, allows homosexuals to minister, but only if they take and keep a vow of celibacy.
- The Redwood Falls (MN) Church of Christ barred a performer from its holiday concert because of his sexual orientation, even though he had grown up in the community and had been baptized in the church.