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!

PREJUDICE AND THE EROSION OF FREEDOM

By Paul M. Lewis

As we enter into another springtime, we are reminded of the reawakening and renewal of life. Easter is just days away, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and all of us remember that creation regenerates itself after a period of dormancy.

At such a time and in such an atmosphere, why then write an essay entitled, “Prejudice and the Erosion of Freedom?” Because, seemingly in opposition to the promise of warmer weather to come and the blossoming of crocuses and daffodils, there has been so much in the news of late about the diminution of liberty and self-determination. Or, perhaps more to the point, about the unending tug of war between points of view related to civil—and religious—rights, and how things ought to play out when the rights of one run headlong into those of others.

It was only three or four years ago, for example, that we were euphorically talking about “The Arab Spring,” a time when people rejoiced at the resurgence of democracy in Islamic countries, from the Maghreb region of North Africa to the Middle East. Today, with Egypt in the clutches of dictatorship once again, Syria in a protracted civil war, ISIS on the rise, and the ascendance of politico-religious extremists in Algeria, Tunisia, and of course Libya, we are all very much less sanguine about those prospects.

Recently, I was also reading in the Atlantic magazine an article entitled “Is It Time For The Jews To Leave Europe?” by Jeffrey Goldberg, which outlines in depressing detail terrible acts of anti-Semitism in France, Denmark, England, and of all places, Sweden, a real surprise to me, I have to admit. People are beginning to forget the horrors of the Holocaust, resulting in acts of prejudice and hatred both small and large directed toward those who can easily be identified as Jewish. In France, crudely lettered signs of “Nique les Juifs,” Fuck the Jews,” and “Juif, la France n’est pas pour toi” – “Jew, France is not for you,” have begun appearing with alarming frequency in the gritty Parisian suburbs of Montreil and Créteil. And in the Swedish city of Malmö, Jews have been beaten for the simple act of daring to wear a Star of David, or a kippah (i.e., a yarmulke). In years past, the Jews of Algeria often spoke of having to choose between le cercueil ou la valise, the coffin or the suitcase, in other words, death or departure. Nowadays, more and more European Jews are feeling the same pressure.

Here in the United States, gay people have seesawed up and down between the elation of victory and the sting of defeat. On the plus side, same-sex marriage is now legal in thirty-six states and the District of Columbia. But on the other side, the Christian Right has fought back hard. Witness the passage last week of the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” by the Indiana legislature, signed by Governor Mike Pence. And even though there are current, frantic efforts at “damage control,” as it’s written, this new law gives carte blanche to anyone who wants to refuse services to LGBT people. Don’t care to bake a cake for a gay wedding because this flies in the face of your “sincerely held religious beliefs?” No problem! What about a dry cleaner who wonders about who might be wearing those two tuxedos somebody just brought in? It seems as though she could say, “Sorry, take these to the guy down the street. I don’t think he’s a Christian,” and the customer would have no legal recourse but to do so. And God forbid (literally,) if two women ask for a room with only one bed in an Indiana motel. If the answer is, “No, we don’t do business with people like you,” the only recourse would be for the women to hope that the next motel down the road is run by someone less prejudiced. Or, of course, one of the women could always go register, while the other hides in the car. Heading back into the closet, we might well be told, is always another option.

Why do religions have to condemn anyone who doesn’t espouse their beliefs? The question is not an easy one to answer. And the First Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t always clear things up all that well. Let me remind you of its exact wording:“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Where exactly is that sweet spot, endlessly and precariously balanced between the rights of people to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs, and that of all of us to speak and assemble as we wish, or not to ‘deny any person within its (i.e. the States) jurisdiction the equal protection of the law,” to quote another of the Amendments, the fourteenth? Most of us can, and do, agree that beating a person up, to say nothing of killing them, because of their religion, or their sexual orientation, is beyond any such legal protection. But what of the deranged point of view that feels free to write “Fuck the Jews,” or to say people are not obliged to serve gays, because they are an abomination in the sight of God, and serving them would somehow taint those who do so?

This may merely be the price we pay for living in democratic and pluralistic societies. How often do we hear of such problems in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where only the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam can be practiced, one of the religion’s most conservative and puritanical branches, and where religious police actually patrol the streets to enforce the strictness of its code? Indeed, one of the problems in Europe these days, and which no one can deny contributes to the increase in anti-Semitism, is the mounting influence of Islam, specifically radical Islam. France alone, a country of 66 million people, has almost 5 million Muslims, many of whom are themselves poor, dispossessed, marginalized, and openly discriminated against by the likes of Marie Le Pen’s National Front Party, which polls say may well win in the elections coming up in 2017. Mme Le Pen says she and her followers believe passionately in laïcisme, the time-honored French doctrine that religion should not impose itself in public affairs and government institutions. And yet, the National Front is known to be virulently anti-Muslim, possibly anti-Semitic (although more recently they deny this), and they were at the forefront of the massive demonstrations against gay marriage seen in France in 2014.

Yes, spring comes round each year, with its promises of renewal, resurgence, and regeneration. And that is a good thing. In my mind, in fact, this is the real message of Easter, the promise of resurrecting new life from tattered and desiccated forms, or even of the lifting of one’s awareness from old, worn out ways of understanding our being, to a higher level of consciousness. But ramshackle and decaying ways of seeing the world are hard to rid ourselves of. Just ask the Jews of Monteuil, or the Muslims of Créteil (yes, not coincidentally, that’s where many of them live), or the gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people of Indiana.

Can we learn to live together in peace and harmony, tolerating—if not honoring—each other’s differences, or are we doomed to fight it out to the bitter end? Is it possible to strike the right balance between not establishing a religion, and permitting the free exercise thereof? And what of equal protection for all under the law? Personally, I like the image of new life emerging from the mud and the muck. So, let’s hope that this spring, this Easter, this Passover will be a new day for all discriminated-against people, and will bring with it a renewed resolution to allow everyone to live as they see fit, as long as there’s no harm to anyone else in so doing. If not, I’m sorry to say, I fear we’re facing yet another long, hot summer, burning with prejudice, and with the slow, but steady, erosion of our cherished personal freedoms.

WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO WORK?

By Paul

Who gives people the right to work? Is it the employer him or herself, or is it rather the government – the collectivity of the common wisdom (we hope) of the people of the country – which oversees, manages, and administrates the laws of the nation under which the business is set up? I am not speaking here of whatever educational or employment history an individual may have to have that makes that person suitable, or not, to work in a given position. That decision clearly must rest with the employer alone to make. What I am talking about is the fundamental and inherent human right to work, irrespective of race, or gender, or physical or mental impairment, or religious affiliation, or sexual orientation.

This inherent right seems to be under attack these days, based largely on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Much of the problem began with and harkens back to the disastrous 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United, which prohibited the government from making restrictions on corporations when it came to political donations. Corporations were seen to be “persons” in this regard, and therefore they were said to have the same rights as individuals regarding “political speech.”

This principle was invoked in the recent Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby case, in which the court decided in a 5 to 4 decision that closely held corporations (i.e., “people”) are not required to follow the law and provide their female employees with no-cost access to modern forms of contraception. Instead, the 5 conservative judges said that it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prevented laws “substantially burdening an individual’s free exercise of religion.”

The logic is that it is substantially burdensome to a company’s right to the free exercise of religion to be required to give women no-cost contraception as part of the organization’s normal insurance package. And, if that is the case, can we now be far from the same principle being applied to the decision not to hire, or to fire, an individual, if this “religious corporate person” finds that individual’s way of living objectionable on religious grounds. This at least is the fear that many LGBT groups have expressed in regard to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that has been languishing in Congress for some time now.

Just recently, in light of all of the above, such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center have all said it is time to jettison support for ENDA because of the inherent major loopholes in it for religious organizations.   The one dissenting voice, the Human Rights Campaign, has for the moment stuck with supporting ENDA, (as much as it has no current chance of even being brought to the floor in the Republican controlled House).

What, in fact, is meant by a religiously affiliated organization? We are not talking here only about churches themselves. Instead, what comes under this wide rubric encompasses hospitals, universities, nursing homes etc. But if private companies, “persons” under the law, such as Hobby Lobby, have the right to discriminate based on religious grounds against women and their right to no-cost modern contraceptives, will it be long before the courts say that such companies equally do not have to hire “out gay people,” or transgender persons, because this violates their sincerely held religious beliefs?

The question has been raised again of late in part because the White House has sought a way around the roadblock faced by ENDA in the House of Representatives. Pres. Obama has issued an Executive Order prohibiting companies that do business with the Federal Government from discriminating against people due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, according to an editorial piece in the July 9th, 2014 issue of the Los Angeles Times, religious organizations are already up in arms and lobbying the Administration for the right of religious organizations not to be held to this standard.

Rev. Rick Warren, for example, whom the President invited to give the invocation at his first inauguration, was the leader in sending a letter to Pres. Obama with a warning that “an order that didn’t contain a religious exemption would threaten ‘the common good, national unity and religious freedom.’ ” How exactly not allowing organizations to discriminate against particular citizens of a country threatens the common good of that country remains something of a mystery.

Let us imagine a case in point. Suppose a small construction firm contracts with the National Park Service to put up a new entry kiosk at Yellowstone National Park (the first and the oldest national park in the country). And suppose a woman applies for a carpentry job with this firm to work on the project. She is well qualified, has several years of experience, outstanding work habits, excellent references, and has just moved to Wyoming with her wife, whom she recently married in California. But the town where they have settled is a small one, and it’s not long before the wife of the owner of the construction firm hears from the man who happens to live next door to the two women that he “suspects” they are lesbians. The head of the construction company and his wife are devout evangelical Christians, or let us say devout Muslims (if that makes any difference to anyone), and he is extremely uncomfortable with having hired a “known lesbian,” even if he thinks she is performing excellently on the job. If Rick Warren gets his way, the head of this company could summarily fire this otherwise excellent worker, due solely to the fact that she is married to a woman, and because this “offends” the sincerely held religious beliefs of the head of that firm.

Although this is an entirely made-up story, many such real examples take place every day in states where there is no protection for LGBT people against employment discrimination. And even in states where there is such protection, how many teachers have we heard of recently who have been fired from long-held posts in Catholic schools, who have been doing outstanding work and who were loved by their students, solely because it became known that they had recently married their same-sex spouse?

The LA Times editorial goes on to point out that Rick Warren and others have requested that the language of the Executive Order be modeled on language which provides for such religious exceptions in ENDA (thus the objection to ENDA of many LGBT groups). Perhaps an argument can be made, indeed has been made, that a carpenter is not a teacher, who is by definition a role model to children, and so church-affiliated schools have the right to fire teachers who enter into same-sex marriages, if this is against the tenets of their religion. But what of a young man hired by Hobby Lobby, whose supervisor hears that he is gay? Should Hobby Lobby, which under the law is now considered a “person” with sincerely held religious convictions, be able to fire this young man, solely because his private “life style” (so called) offends their belief system?

These are complex questions, pitting the constitutional rights of both sides against each other. Where you come down on the answers depends not only on how you feel about the rights of organized religion, but perhaps also on your own inherent sense of fairness and justice. And let us not forget that in the case of the President’s Executive Order we are talking about spending money that comes from our collective taxes, that is, the taxes of ALL of the people, not just of those who think like Rick Warren.

Do all citizens of the country, LGBT individuals included, deserve the same rights? That, in the end, is perhaps the most fundamental question, and the one that the Rick Warrens of the world ignore to their own ultimate peril.

HOW HUMBLE AND HOW LOVING A PAPACY?

By Paul

Much has been made of late regarding the loving humility and the Christian charity of the new pope.  He has been compared to John Paul II in terms of both warmth and personal charisma, and that comparison may be accurate.

Each of these prelates seems to have, or to have had, a special place in his heart for the poor of the world.  And the poor, let it be said, are surely in need of a strong advocate, inasmuch as they represent the very definition of powerlessness in society.  By contrast, those with money are those with influence, and can for the most part do and get what they want.  The poor get what is left over, if indeed anything at all is left.  So, I applaud the pope in this regard.  It is surely a very good thing for the poor to have friends in high places, and it is difficult to think of a higher position in society than that of Pontifex Maximus, at least in religious circles.  To note just how high an office this is let us just remember for a moment that the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, was the first hereditary Pontifex Maximus (of the old religion).  It is often said that this title, Pontifex, comes from a combination of the Latin words “pons” and “facere,” and that they translate to mean “builder of bridges.” More probably, however, it relates to an old Etruscan term, and refers instead to a preparer of the roads.  It was the job of the Pontifex Maximus to keep the “pax deorum,” or peace with the gods.  This meant being a sort of highly valued go-between, mediating the way and conjoining gods and men, and helping people stay on the path that took them to the gods.

Given this regal background, to say nothing of the later trappings of the Imperial Papacy accrued over the centuries, the question suggests itself whether a person today can for long remain humble and lowly while occupying such a lofty place in life.  Let us hope that it is possible.  Let us give our best wishes to Francis I, who apparently took his name from that of Francis of Assisi, a saint made famous by his humility.

So far, at least, it would seem that the new pope is determined to maintain this simple demeanor, that same ability and willingness to reach out to ordinary people, and not to hide behind the truly formidable trappings of the Roman Pontiff.  His immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, was by contrast less successful at this, if it was a goal of his at all.  And so Catholics are rejoicing, and feeling relieved that they may have a more human leader at the helm these days.  In his recent installation ceremony, the new pope even spoke of the need to protect the environment, which must be something of a first for the head of a major religion.

Still, not everyone rejoices in quite the same way, and that is where we will have to wait and see just how inclusive the new pope’s love and humility turns out to be.  That’s because the truth of the matter is that not everyone is impartially and uniformly equal within the Catholic Church.  Let us take as an example first of all the role of women in the Church.  It goes without saying that we saw not a single representative of exactly half of all humanity within the conclave that elected the humble Francis I.  Nor were there any women in red occupying any of the balconies flanking the loggia from which Francis I gave his first “urbi et orbi” blessing (to the city and to the world), at which he asked for all to pray for him.   Nor will any Catholic see a woman on the altar celebrating mass on any Sunday, or any other day of the week, anywhere in the world, because women are shockingly banned from the priesthood, even though the reasons for this are entirely historically based and not at all rooted in any of the Christian scriptures.

But let us simply take for granted that it is unlikely, if not unthinkable, that Francis I, or any future pope in our lifetime, will ever change this policy, even though it is essentially merely a habit (and a bad one at that), a tradition, a custom, an historical norm.  We are told, let us not reach too high, let us not attempt to overreach, lest the men in charge of the church be made to feel uncomfortable to the point of becoming apoplectic.  All right, who wants to be responsible for giving an old man a heart attack?

Are there, however, other ways in which the new pope could reach out to and make women feel more valued, more included, more truly part of the church many of them love?  In my view there is.  In what could be both a simple and a highly dramatic gesture, why not consider allowing women to become deacons?  Yes, it is true that the diaconate has long been considered a step in becoming a priest, and when I was a young man and still considering myself Catholic, deacons were by definition priests-in-training only.  However, much has changed since that time, and today there are deacons aplenty in many Catholic churches.  They are so-called lay people, who never have any intention of going on to become priests.  Nor are such lay-deacons required to remain celibate.  It seems to me, therefore, not such a stretch, not so much an unthinkable step for the pope to cast the mantle of inclusion over women in this regard and to allow them to take on this important role.  It would be a wonderfully welcomed step, one that would help many Catholic women feel a deep sense of hope, of joy, and of empowerment within the church that has for too long regarded them as second-class citizens.

There is in addition another whole swath of humanity, which also appears to exist outside of the humility and love preached by Francis I, namely, gay people.  Then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is on record as having said that gay marriage is “destructive of God’s plan,” and he claimed that the adoption of orphans on the part of loving same-sex parents is tantamount to child endangerment.  Are these the words of a loving and humble man, it has to be asked?  In fact, it could well be said that it is especially incumbent on the Catholic Church these days to tread carefully when it comes to matters of sex and love, as its own history is a clouded one in this regard.  Even in Argentina, the new pontiff’s home country, only some 25% of Catholics actually attend church on Sunday, and virtually no one follows the church’s teaching on contraception and birth control.  The sordid and depressing details of child abuse on the part of Catholic clergy in virtually every country where there are Catholics is so well known that it hardly bears repetition here.  And divorce, too, is as common among Catholics as it is in the general population.

Love is a great goal toward which we all ought to constantly strive.  It is what makes this sometimes cold and lonely world a place where all of us can find solace and a degree of happiness.  Is it, therefore, a good thing for the head of an organization that professes to live by the love of God and by the teachings of Jesus Christ, that great Avatar of Love, to preach exclusion and separation?

When I was still a monk, I well remember one of the great hymns of the church, sung in the beautiful simplicity of Gregorian chant.  It began: “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.”  In translation, this means: “Where (there is) charity and love, there God is (too).”  There are several words in Latin depicting the idea of love, and although some authors have used them interchangeably, it is generally believed that “caritas” refers to the greater love of all humankind, beyond the purely personal, while “amor” applies to the love we feel toward those who are closest to us.  Note that the hymn, whose author is unknown but which has been in existence for close to a thousand years, speaks of both.

So, let us hope – and those who pray, let them pray – that Francis I will open his heart to all people.  We all ought to rejoice that he is so keenly attuned to the needs of the poor, and that is a good thing.  May he continue this crucial mission throughout his papacy.  But again, is it truly commensurate with Christian love (and charity), is it part of God’s plan to willingly shut out whole other segments of humanity in the process?  If the Catholic Church has a role to play in the world of the 21st century, its leader must embrace all people, no matter what their race, color, creed, social or economic standing, sex, or sexual orientation might be.  Otherwise, he may be an affable and avuncular old man, but he is also one who lives by the code of a creed no longer relevant in today’s world.

 

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.

THE GAY AGENDA

By Paul

I have grown tired of hearing fundamentalist preachers accuse gay people of having a “Gay Agenda.’  Personally, I have never seen such a document, and it was not part of any training I ever received.  As a result, I decided I ought to come up with one myself, so that the next time I am accused of having such an agenda, I will know exactly what I am being accused of.  So, here’s one version — mine, that is — of what could be thought of as “The Gay Agenda.”

1.  Do what you can to live in beauty.  Grow vegetables and flowers; create, appreciate, and display art; attend plays and dance performances; listen to music; paint and decorate your home, however grand or humble it may be.  But remember that beauty is not just what you do; more importantly, it is what you think and who you are.

2.  Speak nicely to people.  Treat them well.  Unless, of course, they are small-minded fundamentalist bigots, in which case you may do whatever is necessary to as politely as possible point out their small mindedness and their bigotry to them.

3.  Infiltrate as much as possible every profession and every area of work.  Do not forget blue-collar jobs, so-called, as well as professional and artistic ones, again so-called.  And by all means become a soldier or join the police force, if you feel so inclined.  At least for now, however, you might wish to avoid hairdressing and window dressing, as we may already have a monopoly on these professions.

4.  Have children, if you wish (although not too many — the world is already over populated).  Better still, adopt them.  Work with children.  Young people need to know that we love them and wish them well.  Otherwise, they grow up to become small-minded fundamentalist bigots (see #2 above).

5.  Enter politics, if you dare.  Politicians make laws which in part control our lives.  It’s better to be in control of the controls, than to be controlled by controllers who wish us ill.

6.  Think carefully before becoming a priest, a preacher, or a mullah, as many religions are predatory toward gay people.  If you must chose such a state, you may have to hide who you are and live a life of misery and repression.  Most importantly, never allow the ignorance and small mindedness of organized religion to spoil your relationship with the all-loving Divine Spirit.

7.  Get married, or enter into a domestic partnership, if you can find a compatible mate.  Be as happy, or as unhappy, as straight people living with their mate.  In so doing, you will show that, so far at least, we have not completely unhinged the bonds of holy matrimony.

8.  Travel the world, learn other languages, visit and appreciate other cultures, and be open about who you are, unless it endangers life and limb.  In the latter case, be most circumspect, or avoid those places entirely whenever possible.

9.  Cherish the world in general: rocks, plants, rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans, animals and all creatures, as well as people.  The planet is your home, too.  Do not despoil it.

10.  Above all, as much as possible be honest, forthright, and kind to all.  Remember that not everyone is a bigot, and many people are open and welcoming.  The best way by far to spread The Gay Agenda is to act like a real human being, which by the way you are — no matter what those who push The Anti-Gay Agenda may say.

 

WHAT ARE YOUR VALUES? AND WHY DO YOU HOLD THEM?

By Paul

Can’t we all just get along?  These are the now famous words of Rodney King, the Black man whose beating at the hands of the Los Angeles police was the spark that ignited the 1992 riots/civil unrest (choose your term), which engulfed the city for three days.  The answer to that iconic question may unfortunately be, apparently not. 

Now twenty years later, Los Angeles is surely a calmer place than it was back then, but one that is nonetheless still divided.  Just as the country is, and the world, for that matter.  Rick Santorum rails against all manner of evil abortion and gay rights activists, Mitt Romney and Republicans generally seem to believe that nothing the president has done could ever possibly have been for the good, the Supreme Court justices appear to be split along ideological lines over healthcare reform, and all this reflects a country where the overall division between Red and Blue reflects an almost even 50-50 split. 

But let’s not stop there.  The reforms of the Arab Spring, so hard-fought and so hoped for, now seem to be devolving into a series of sectarian struggles between those who want western style democracy and those who favor Sharia law. Egypt, for example, centuries ago a paragon of peace and stability and learning in the Arab world, is struggling these days over how to define itself.  Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who might just become the next Egyptian president, believes that women should be veiled and segregated from men in the work place, that adulterers ought to be stoned to death, and thieves have their hands cut off.  Similar struggles are happening in places like Morocco and Yemen, and who even knows what will take place in Syria, once its current bloody dictator finally gets his well deserved comeuppance?  The St. Petersburg, Russia, city council has just passed a law making any open positive reference to homosexuality illegal, and in Uganda they are deciding whether gay people ought to be jailed, or simply put to death. 

The world over, religious leaders from the Pope in Rome to the Ayatollah in Iran to any number of fulminating right-wing preachers here in the United States inveigh against the destructive evils of secularism.  God will in the end win, we are told, and the godless shall reap their just deserts.  Meanwhile, liberals too often think that those who disagree with them are either sadly misinformed or, well let’s admit it, just plain dumb!  Which, to be sure, probably does not help matters much (as tempting as it may seem), and in the end it drives a bigger wedge between us. 

So, the question in my mind is whether or not there is any way to bring us together.  And the stakes, by the way, are not small.  Leave aside for now the whole question of religion, or of hand-cutting, or of condemnation of homosexuality, bad enough – God knows (does God know?) in itself – and let’s focus for a moment on the very fate of the planet.  ExxonMobil, the archconservative oil company that made more than 40 billion dollars in profits last year (yes, billions, with a “b”), has an “enemies list” of Washington politicians who do not agree with its policies.  Like the religious right, they have now become an almost exclusive backer of Republican politicians, and want desperately to get Obama out.  Mitt Romney will be much more pliable, they conclude, and friendlier to their needs, and he has in fact promised that he would be delighted to cooperate.

All of the above may seem a little disparate and disconnected, but I believe the theme that holds the whole mishmash together comes down to one simple word: values.  Religious people like to think of themselves as those who “vote their values,” but as a matter of fact that is exactly what everyone does.  You do not have to be religious to have values.  Indeed, it is virtually impossible to live in the world without having some sort of value system.  Even criminals have values.  They may not be yours, or mine, but they have values. 

What are values, after all?  You don’t need to be a philosopher to answer that question.  Values are very simply those ideas, those ideals if you will, which each of us considers to be right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, fitting or unfitting, seemly or unseemly, proper or improper.  Values are a kind of internalized ruler, a yardstick that we all carry around within us against which we measure the world, the people in it, and their actions, as well as our own.  Whenever we say “That guy was a jerk,” what we are saying is that he did or said or espoused something that is contrary to my value system.  And I damn well don’t like it! 

That’s the thing about values, in fact.  They really mean something to us.  We very much believe them, despite the fact that too often they may be held at an unconscious level.  One way or another though, whether we are fully aware of them or not, they are deeply, profoundly imbedded in our consciousness.  This is not a game or a mere academic exercise.  These are the very “rules according to which people live their lives,” and you’d better watch out if you cross those rules.  At one end of the spectrum, people kill each other because they have different values.  They stone dissenters, or they cut off their hands, or they imprison them.  At a somewhat milder, though still dangerous enough level, they just call each other names, or put those names on “enemies lists.”  All because what the other guy did or said is not right; it’s improper, it’s inappropriate, it’s unseemly, it’s sinful, it’s – well – it’s downright wrong

What follows from our values is not just how we lead our individual lives, but how we believe that society ought to organize itself.  In my own value system, for example, while the individual reigns supreme, we also ought to mitigate our more selfish instincts, treat each other politely and with respect, and give one another some space.  But not everyone puts individuals at the top of the heap.  There are lots of societies in the world where the collective is far more important than any individual’s needs.  That may come off as sounding too abstract.  What I mean, for example, is that maybe the family, or the tribe, or the religious group is what ought to call the shots, and it’s incumbent on each individual person to bend him or herself to the will of that group. Let’s say that Abu Ismail does get to be president of Egypt some day, and you happen to be gay.  Well you’d better hide that fact and not espouse all those western (individual) style desires to express who you are.  Best just shut up, marry a woman, and have kids, because religion and “the family” (read: one man and one woman) are the things that are valued here – or else! 

And who’s to say that I am right, and that Abu Ismail is wrong?  This very question, in fact, takes us right back to the issue of values once again.  As soon as you see those words “right” or “wrong,” you know immediately what territory you have strayed into.  Which is why I’m glad that I live in the United States after all, because in theory at least this is where all men, and women, too, presumably (note we are talking about individuals here) are created equal, with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And if that’s not a statement of values, I don’t know what else it might be. 

Unfortunately or not, each person also believes firmly and beyond any shred of doubt that his or her values are the best values that there are.  Otherwise, after all, we wouldn’t hold them in the first place!  Which in the end is the reason why it may not be so easy to get along.  Of course, the opposite side of the proposition is, what other choice do we have?  We can wage war, we can cut people’s hands off, we can imprison them, or we can try to come to some kind of compromise whereby I’ll let you live by your values, if you’ll let me live by mine.  That’s what I thought we were trying to do here in this country, by the way.  That’s what I thought they meant when they said that we were all created equal.  That’s what I thought was meant by the rule of law. 

And maybe it is.  Maybe it’s as simple and as uncomplicated as live and let live.  Except this too comes down to a statement of values.  What it means is that it’s proper to give individuals their space.  After all, I have my rights, don’t I?  If Abu Ismail would only listen to reason, if ExxonMibil would only see how destructive their policies are, if the Supreme Court would only recognize that each of us has a right to healthcare, if the St. Petersburg city council would only let people live their lives.  It’s all so obvious, isn’t it?  Anyway, I think so.  And, God help us, let’s just hope that I’m not wrong!