BIGOTRY BY ANY OTHER NAME

By Paul M. Lewis

Now that marriage equality is the law of the land (as much as certain states are still attempting to throw up roadblocks against its implementation), it’s curious to see how some religious people are reacting. One tack that seems particularly egregious is the claim that anyone who is adamantly pro-traditional marriage (so called) is now the supposed aggrieved party. “I have every right to believe what I believe and to say what I say about the errant and sinful nature of gay marriage,” they say.

Is that so? Of course it is, at least so far as it goes. It is difficult to imagine anyone, gay or non-gay alike, who would argue against a person’s right to believe, or to say, whatever he or she likes (given the usual exclusions, of course, such as defamation, or the iconic yelling fire in a crowded theater, when there is no fire). This is the very essence of the First Amendment, that we are free to express whatever views we care to about almost any subject. In a sense, the more controversial the topic and the views expressed, the more the right to speak or write about it ought to be defended. It is, after all, especially in its most egregious form (e.g. hate speech) that we have no choice but to protect and secure the right to express it, because one person’s extreme is another person’s truth. What often gets overlooked in declamations about the First Amendment, though, is the fact that those who oppose extreme views on controversial subjects themselves have the right to express their own opinions about the opposing point of view, and about those who hold it.

The argument being made by the ultra-orthodox is actually somewhat convoluted, but boiled down to its essence, it amounts to something like this: They, themselves, are experiencing unfair defamation of character when those whom they criticize as sinners call them bigots. “Is it really bigotry,” they say, “when what we are simply doing is pointing out what we sincerely believe to be immoral or unbiblical (or un-you-name-the-holy-book) behavior?” “No,” they reply to their own question, “it is not bigotry; it is simply our God-given right, indeed, God’s mandate, to call a sin a sin.”

But is it truly unfair to call them bigots? In attempting to untie this knot, it may be useful to clarify exactly what is meant by the word bigotry. It is a term much in use these days, one frequently tossed about and applied in many varied circumstances. As such, it deserves closer scrutiny. In delving deeply into the meaning of a word, it’s useful to begin with the etymology of the term, its provenance, if you will. In this case, the etymology remains admittedly a bit unclear. But one commonly held suggestion is that it may be a corruption of the Germanic oath “bi Gott,” a bigot being someone who swears “by God” that he/she is right and that this purported truthfulness is sanctioned by the deity. In modern usage, a bigot has come to mean a sanctimonious person, someone making a special show of holiness or religiosity, in particular vis-à-vis another person’s actions or beliefs, and who as a result takes it upon him or herself to condemn these actions or beliefs.

Those who follow the orthodox interpretation of virtually any organized religion condemn gay people based on their holy book, or at very least on their bishops, priests, rabbis, pastors, mullahs etc., defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Any variation therefrom is held to be against the laws of God, as He has made his dictates known. It would seem hard to deny that this fits squarely in with the accepted definition of bigotry, as the condemnation of another person’s actions or beliefs out of religious conviction. But then there is the follow-up question: Does that mean that LGBT people, and their supporters, are themselves also bigots, when they call the ultra-religiously inclined bigots? Here, the word seems not to fit, inasmuch as most LGBT people are surely not acting out of any special show of holiness or religion.

It’s clear that those who believe God made the world one way—and one way only—and that in this scheme of things two women, or two men, who love each other are not allowed to marry one another, open themselves to charges of intolerance and bias. Again, it bears repeating that such people have every right to hold to these extreme views and to express them in whatever forum or circumstance they wish, but in doing so, they do not have the right to claim exemption from charges of discriminatory behavior, or to hold that they are being treated unfairly when someone calls them a bigot. And whining about the supposed unfairness of another’s appellation doesn’t get you very far. God knows, the religious right has said some truly terrible things about LGBT people over the years, things that amount to hate speech. And while we may have called them bigots in return, at least we can say that the word, in accordance with its literal definition, actually applies.

There’s no doubt that words can be injurious. Being called fagot and queer, to name a few of the less horrible terms, does not feel good. And neither do actions—prohibitions—like not being able to marry the person you love, or the inability to visit a loved one in a hospital, or the denial of citizenship to a loved one from another country—all of which have, thankfully, now been corrected. But other bans continue to remain in place, such as the so-called right of an employer in many states to fire a person, simply because that individual is lesbian or gay.

Words may have specific and precise meanings, but bigotry, by any other name, still remains bigotry. Certain orthodox religious people may not like it. They are not used to “being called names,” as we used to say when we were children. In the end, though, if the word fits, it must be applied, and there is no earthly (or heavenly) reason that I can see not to use it.

Does it hurt a sincere Christian believer when people call him or her a bigot because that person says LGBT people have no right to marry? I suppose it may well. But my advice to them is to buck up and learn to take it. Or better still, maybe they will even be inspired to think: Is it true? Am I actually a bigot!

DHARUN RAVI, THE LATEST IN HOMOPHOBIA

By Paul

Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student whose spying with a webcam on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, led to the roommate’s subsequent taking of his own life, has been sentenced to thirty days in jail.  He was also fined $10,000, given three years probation, and assigned to 300 hours of community service.  In all probability, he will not face deportation back to his native India.  The question remains: does such a punishment fit the crime? 

The gay community has been split on the answer to that question.  Some believe that it is far too lenient, that thirty days behind bars pales to nothing in comparison to the life of a young man.  Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, it is a safe bet to assume that Ravi will be alive and building his career and family.  His ex-roommate, however, not to put too fine a point on it, will still be as dead then as he is now, a life unfulfilled and cut too tragically short, due to a stupid and uncaring so-called prank that Dharun Ravi somehow thought would be a fun thing to do.  To call such an act, with such consequences, insensitive, as the judge did, is nothing less than a colossal understatement.   It was a horrendously callous, heinous, and hateful act maliciously perpetrated on an extremely private and highly sensitive young man. 

Ravi could have been sentenced to up to ten years, but the judge maintains that he took into consideration the fact that the defendant had no prior record and that normally charges of so-called bias crimes are reserved for violent assault or murder.  If Ravi’s actions were not a violent assault, and I suppose no one could reasonably say that they were, at least it could well be argued that the effect of his actions surely did turn violent in the end. 

I am not advocating here for a harsher sentence for this young man, as unfeeling, cold-hearted, and uncompassionate as I think he clearly was.  His actions were utterly stupid and vacuous, and as much as he claimed to have had no bias toward gay people, what he did clearly contradicts and gives the lie to what he says.  Even so, I do not see the good that would come from putting him in prison for a long period of time.  We can only hope that he will live his entire life with the memory of the evil he perpetrated on an innocent man, who had never harmed him in any way.  And if it is true that karma brings to all of us the fruits of our actions, good and bad, we can only assume that Dharun Ravi will in one form or another reap what he sowed.

On the side of Tyler Clementi, it does no good to wish that he had been able to better weather the storms of hatred and bigotry.  All gay people experience this kind of thing, perhaps not so directly as Tyler did, but still no one who grows up in the United States and who is gay, whether man or woman, can escape the sting of hostility, ill will, and homophobia.  Witness, merely just as the latest example, the bigoted and hate filled Baptist preacher in North Carolina, who recently declaimed from his pulpit that all lesbians and gay people ought to be put into a pen surrounded by electrified wire and left there to die.  These are the kinds of messages that LGBT people grow up with in this culture, and given the fact that the messages are so pervasive, so invasive, and so insidious, especially for young people it is difficult in the extreme not to allow them to penetrate to some extent. 

As one grows older, for the most part, one finds ways to ward off and deflect the hostility that so often surrounds us.  Indeed, it manifests itself in so many ways, large and small, that gay people are well advised to learn ways to manage and cope.  Some do so by hiding, or at least by dissimulating, and sad to say there are times when that may be the wisest thing to do.  On the other hand, if you live in a large city, especially on either coast, perhaps for the most part you can be relatively, or entirely, open.  Even so, the act of coming out is one that keeps on presenting itself.  Every time a gay person meets someone new, or is put in a new situation, a kind of decision has to be made as to how “open” he or she will be.  Just how safe is it?  What could the consequences be?  Is it worth the effort to do or say what a straight person might not even think twice about in the same circumstances?  Should we, for example, make reference to “my partner,” or “my husband,” of “my wife,” or would it be better entirely if nothing at all were to be said?  How am I feeling, how strong, how much energy do I happen to have right now, how much gumption, how much will, how much courage?    

These are questions that LGBT people face every day, sometimes multiple times a day.  For the most part (although with some very notable exceptions), it is true at least in this country that these are not life-threatening things, nor are they any longer likely to land anyone in jail (as they can in such countries as Uganda, or Zimbabwe, or even Russia).  All the same, they can be unrelentingly exhausting.  And young people in particular, who are just coming to terms with who they are and opening up to friends and family, as I have said, are especially prone to the insidiousness of it all. I do not doubt that it was this kind of atmosphere, as well as the distorted bias and bigotry of his roommate, that contributed to that terrible and fateful decision on the part of Tyler Clementi

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this story.  Tyler will not go on to flourish as a musician, or anything else, and for the rest of their lives his parents are going to somehow have to come to terms with the gaping wound of the absence of their son.  Dharun Ravi will go on to put this behind him, even if – let us hope – he will never forget what he did.  Perhaps the bigotry in this case was unthinking on the part of a senseless and delusional young man; perhaps it was more malevolent.  We will probably never know which.  In the end, however, it makes very little difference.  One way or another, a unique and promising life has been snuffed out, we are all the less for it, and homophobia has triumphed once again.

PAPAL BULLY PULPIT

By Paul

Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI we may well have a new definition for the term “bully pulpit.” Last week, just to make it more clear in case anyone hadn’t gotten the message already, the Pope reiterated his unyielding opposition to gay marriage, and his absolute support of Catholic bishops in the United States who oppose gay unions. In the Pope’s words, traditional families and marriage must be “defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature.” He went on to say that whatever injured the institution of marriage also injured society.  He added that he hoped that the US Midwestern bishops, who were paying him a friendly little visit, would continue their “defense of marriage as a natural institution consisting of a specific communion of persons, essentially rooted in the complementarity of the sexes and oriented to procreation.”  Note this relatively new term, by the way, “oriented to procreation.”  I imagine this has emerged out of a series of workshop meetings, wherein the bishops discussed the argument made by pro-gay marriage advocates that not every traditional marriage ends in procreation.  What if, for example, one of the spouses is sterile, or the woman is beyond the child-bearing years, or the couple just decides they don’t want to have children?   So, I’m guessing they figured that “oriented to procreation” was an attempt to ward off this very plausible argument.  I’ll let you be the judge if they succeeded.  Personally, I don’t think they did. 

Bur let’s get back to what we started off with, the term “bully pulpit.”  The original meaning comes from Teddy Roosevelt, who used it in reference to the presidency, and to his ability to use that prestigious post to rally people in support of his point of view.  In those days, bully meant “great” or “wonderful,” as in the expression “bully for you!”  Today, of course, the word has a very different meaning, and has migrated to indicate a person who attempts to harass and harm people whom he perceives to be weaker than he. 

Much has been said recently, and rightly so, about childhood bullying in school yards and on playgrounds,  But what we have here in this case is an example of an eighty-four year old man bullying – or attempting to bully – a whole class of people.  Instead of using the enormous power and prestige of his office for good and to talk about the Divine Spirit, or about the love and acceptance that human beings as reflections of that Spirit ought to have for one another, the Pope squanders the opportunity and gravely misuses his office to berate those who have never done him harm in any way. 

Or does the Pope in fact believe that gay people actually are harmful to him and to his church, merely by existing?   Just a few years ago, for example, he stated (in typical language) that being gay was evidence of a “strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as objectively disordered.”  His advice to gay people was to lead a life of “chastity.”  In essence, this was his way of saying, zip up, shut up, and never have a love relationship that will be fulfilling to you as a human being. 

Let us examine a little more closely some of these words that the Pope uses.  He calls being gay an intrinsic evil.  What could be clearer than that?  Intrinsic means essential to or containing wholly within.  Thus, gay people, in his definition, are evil and corrupted through and through, simply by the fact of their being gay.  What follows from this is that they are “objectively disordered.”  In philosophy (which the Pope has studied deeply) the term “objectivity” relates to something having an inherent reality or truth all its own, independent of anyone’s view of it. And “disordered,” of course, refers to a dysfunction in a normal pattern or system; in medical terms, it means diseased.  Thus, my reading of the otherwise obscure term “objectively disordered” is that the Pope believes gay people to be, by their very nature, dysfunctional and disturbed, in a word sick, no matter who says anything else about them. 

Now it should be noted, I suppose, that he does go on in his kinder, more avuncular persona to sweetly remind us all that, oh by the way, we ought not to harm gay people, since they apparently can’t do much about the way they are.  So, in other words, let’s not kill them!  How nice of him, don’t you think?  This is a lesson, by the way, that could well be taken to heart by the current government of Uganda.  But why, it can be asked, would Ugandans, or anyone else for that matter, not wish to “protect themselves” against people whom the Pope is on record as saying that he believes are disturbed and evil, and whose relationships injure society?  

If Benedict XVI thinks that his words do not have grave consequences, he is not reading the newspaper every day, nor does he see how many gay people are discriminated against, attacked, or even murdered.  His words do have a marked effect.  They give comfort and solace to those who take it upon themselves to harm to gay people.   Is this the behavior that we expect from a “man of peace,” which the Pope declared himself to be upon ascending to the papacy?  Just the opposite, in fact.  His words are words of violence, not peace, and they give cover to violent action against gay people.  They tell those who are bigoted or frightened or merely ignorant that it is OK to discriminate against gay people in their hearts, as well as in their behavior and in their laws.

So, this has now become the new meaning of “bully pulpit”:  a place from which a prelate can attack innocent people, and from where his words can go out to cause grievous harm in the world.  If Benedict XVI meant to be a “man of peace,” he’d better try again.   From what I can see, so far at least, neither has he succeeded in word nor in deed.

 

NO RELIGIOUS TEST SHALL EVER BE REQUIRED

By Paul

“No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to an Office or public Trust under the United States.”  Article VI, The Constitution of the United States of America

 It was for good reason that the Founding Fathers of this country decided to include the above passage in the Constitution they created to govern the newly independent United States.  Specifically, it could be said that they did not want the choice of elected officials to be limited to persons of any one particular religion, and they most definitely did not want an “established religion,” such as Great Britain had, which could lord it over other religions. However, on a grander scale we can also read this section of Article VI as saying that they did not want religion of any kind to interfere with the running of the country.  Thus, by definition within the body of the Constitution itself the United States cannot be called a “Christian country.”  Yes, we may have many people of Christian beliefs living here (note the plural form, by the way, beliefs, that is, not just one form of Christianity), but this does not make the country Christian in any legal sense. 

Why am I even concerning myself at this point with something so self-evident?  First of all, there are those who disagree with the statement that the United States is not a Christian country.  Many, in fact, believe that it is.  For this reason, it is my fervent hope that everyone, conservative and liberal alike, would take the time to read the Constitution.  If anyone has not, I highly recommend it as an extremely interesting and enlightening document.  And for those who may be wondering, a law degree is not required in order to understand it.  Indeed, for the most part I should think that a decent high school education would largely suffice, as it is quite straight-forward, even if its English is now almost two hundred and twenty-five years old. 

I was reminded of all this when I read recently about the results of a poll taken just a few days ago among likely GOP voters in Alabama and Mississippi.  In Alabama, for example, only 14% said that they believed Mr. Obama to be a Christian, while 45% said they thought him to be Muslim, and 41% were not sure.  The results in Mississippi were even more stunning.  There only 12% believed him to be Christian, while 52% said they thought he was a Muslim, and 36% were not sure.  If we combine the number of people who believe him to be Muslim with those who are not certain (meaning, surely, that “maybe he is”), we get a whopping 86% and 88% respectively among likely Republican voters in those two states.     

Now, I hope it goes without saying that I am not trying to make a case here for any one religion over another.   Personally, I don’t think much of any organized religion.  In my experience, and again with perhaps a few exceptions here and there, I find most of them to be astoundingly bigoted and closed-minded.  What is perhaps even more interesting about these polls, however, is what I can only assume to be their strong subtext which, as I read it, is first of all that Christians are better than Muslims, and second that the president is not one of us; he is instead “other.” 

Let us leave aside for the moment, if that is even possible, the whole question of race, and continue concentrating instead on that of religion.  It was in fact Rick Santorum who stated not so long ago that he believed that Pres. Obama based his decisions “…on some phony theology.  Oh, on a theology not based on the Bible.”  These are his words.  What theology could he mean?  Etymologically the word theology means “the study of God,” and is associated only with religion.  And while Santorum may have been speaking about global warming, is it too much of a stretch to think that he also wished to tap into the belief, I will even say the fear, of apparently so many Americans that their president is not “one of them” in some very important way? 

And so, in spite of what the president has repeatedly stated regarding his religious affiliation, a sizeable number of people in the country continue to disbelieve him.  And what if he even were a Muslim?  So long as he, or any future president, believed firmly in what John F. Kennedy said about maintaining an absolute wall between church and state, what difference would it make?   Indeed, what difference?   Difference being the operable word here. 

Maybe I was too hasty above in skipping over the whole issue of race.  Maybe Muslim, or at least “not Christian,” is in this context code for “Black”?  And that in spite of the fact that there are so many Black Christians (note, for example, how many Black fundamentalists have crusaded, and continue to crusade, against gay rights).  Maybe in the end we can only say that none of us is free of his or her prejudices.  Surely, many would say that I am prejudiced against people of faith.  For the record here, let me add that I harbor no prejudice whatsoever against people who believe in the Divine Spirit.  I may, however, have my prejudices against organized religion, and for what I consider to be good reason.  

Indeed, I believe that it is just for these very reasons that those who founded this country were so adamant when it came to separating the state from the church.  “No religious test shall ever be required.”  The italics in this case may be mine, but the sentiments are those of the Founding Fathers, and they could not be more true, more appropriate – or more needed – today. 

 

GAY MARRIAGE: PUTTING PREJUDICE ON TRIAL

By Paul

It’s well worth your time to spend the hour and a half or so it takes to view the online broadcast of the dramatic reading of a distillation of the transcript of the trial that ultimately found California’s Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional.  The reading of the documentary play, put together by Dustin Lance Black, took place on Saturday, March 3rd, 2012 here in Los Angeles, and featured a host of Hollywood celebrities.  You can see it by going to www.afer.org.

There you will witness prejudice put on trial.  And it isn’t pretty, at least not for the prejudiced.  All of the usual tired nostrums are trotted out by the defenders of Prop. 8, though to no avail.  Indeed, their main arguments, that marriage between two individuals of the same sex is somehow corrosive and harmful to traditional marriage, and that children will in some way be harmed, are not only laid to rest, but a stake is driven through the very heart of these arguments.  No wonder the backers of Prop. 8 did not want you to see this trial.

The defense of Proposition 8 is, in fact, so weak, so flimsy, so unsubstantial, so lacking in rational basis, in a word so prejudiced, that you almost – almost – wind up feeling sorry for Charles Cooper, the defending attorney.  He comes across in Kevin Bacon’s reading as a man on the edge.  It is clear that he fervently believes what he is saying, namely, that allowing gay people to marry will in some way be harmful to society and to the rearing of children.  Unfortunately, for him at least, and for his cause, he cannot say why.  All he can do is assert that this is what he believes.  And by the end, it is clear enough that the mere assertion of a belief is not reason enough for the government to deny basic legal rights to gay citizens of the United States. 

The defendants of the proposition were able to bring very few expert witnesses to the trial, and those who did show, David Blankenhorn in particular, the founder of the Institute for American Values, give testimony which it would be almost kind to call bumbling and maladroit.  On the other hand, the words of the defendants, the two couples themselves who brought suit in the first place (Paul Katami and Jeff Zarillo, and Kristin Perry and Sandra Steir and their children) are moving and eloquent testimonials to the power of love and to the enduring desire on the part of human beings to be able to share their lives with a partner in marriage.   

The legal team of David Boies and Theodore Olson, played movingly by George Clooney and Martin Sheen respectively, are eminent attorneys who are clearly at the top of their field.  They cross-examine and they disclaim, they argue and question, and they speak with the force not just of the law, but of truth and justice. 

I will admit that when the trial was originally announced, I wondered if it was wise to risk so great a prize by bringing it to a courtroom, where prejudice might win out.  Better perhaps, I thought, to wait and try again at the ballot box some time in the future, once public opinion had evolved.  But I was wrong.  This trial brings out the weakness, the rank animus, and the ignorance of those who are against gay marriage in a way that I never could have dreamed.  And this play – this dramatic reading called simply “8” – refines and condenses those arguments, which took place over the course of weeks, into a riveting ninety minutes. 

But again, don’t just take my word for it.  Go to the website of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), and see for yourself.  You won’t regret the time you spent, and you will come away feeling heartened and uplifted that, in the end, truth and justice will win out. 

And who knows?  Maybe someday, after 32 wonderful years of living together, when equity and equality will have won out over bigotry and ignorance, my partner and I may even decide to someday get married.  We’ll keep you posted.  But for now, and despite all that has been said and demonstrated, it seems as though the debate still rages on.