Wednesday, January 21, 2004
by Wayne Besen
It is a dark and shameful day for all Virginians. A draconian new anti-gay law took effect this morning that threatens the Commonwealth's reputation and puts the state on the brink of economic suicide.
The new law, the so-called Marriage Affirmation Act, not only bans civil unions, but strips gay people of their basic right to enter into private contracts, such as wills and medical directives with their life partners. According to the text of the law:
"A civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage is prohibited. Any such civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement entered into by persons of the same sex in another state or jurisdiction shall be void in all respects in Virginia and any contractual rights created thereby shall be void and unenforceable."
Right wing legislators implausibly deny that this barbaric law will nullify private contracts. But it doesn't take Alan Dershowitz to figure out that this does, indeed, threaten basic legal arrangements. Read the text, it's as plain as day.
In a practical sense, what does it all mean?
It means that if a lesbian wants to leave her estate to her partner of four decades, her dying wishes may now be contested in Virginia. A gay man who has faithfully been with his life partner for 20 years may be banned from his partner's hospital bedside, even if they have gone through the expense and inconvenience of drawing up legal paperwork to prevent such a travesty of justice.
I have trouble believing that fair-minded people in Virginia would want their representatives to vote for such a mean-spirited law that would disenfranchise thousands of families.
Jonathan Rauch, author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, told the Washington Post, "On July 1, Virginia takes a big step backward, into the shadow of Jim Crow." According to Rauch, "To abridge the right of contract for same-sex partners is to deny not just gay coupledom, in the law's eyes, but gay personhood."
Such blatant and cruel alienation of the gay and lesbian community comes with a considerable financial cost that will hurt Virginia's economy. The total buying power of the gay and lesbian community is estimated at $485 billion, according to Witeck-Combs Communications Inc., a Washington public relations firm, and MarketResearch.com of Rockville, MD.
Much of this money will not flow into Virginia, and a new Seattle-based activist group, www.VirginiaIsForHaters.org is spearheading a boycott of the state. In 1992, a similar boycott of Colorado cost the state an estimated $40 million in tourism revenue.
Admittedly, organizing a boycott of Virginia will be difficult. There are no major cities with large gay populations, such as Denver. In the one city with a respectable gay population, Norfolk, many of the gays can't speak out because they are in the military and would lose their careers. Furthermore, there are no swank resorts such as Aspen where Hollywood stars can gain media coverage for the cause by announcing that they are vacationing elsewhere.
However, even a relatively unsuccessful boycott could still be calamitous to the economy because Virginia will be viewed as a closed minded state that is hostile to creative people. In The Rise of the Creative Class, author Richard Florida found that tolerance is a key indicator of emerging economies, and cities with strong gay communities were more likely to attract companies and succeed in the new economy.
In other words, if you want to attract high tech companies like Yahoo, you can't have a state run by Yahoos.
If you think back to high school, many of the guys who now run high tech companies were called nerd, geek and sometimes fag simply because were different. Intolerant bullies on the football team often beat them up.
High tech companies have long led corporate America in instituting pro-gay policies. I believe this is not only because it helps them recruit good workers, but because many high tech corporate executives empathize with gay people who were also picked on in high school by self righteous jocks.
The passage of the "Marriage Affirmation Act" has turned Virginia into one big high school locker room where those who do not conform to a narrow view of humanity will be legislatively wedgied and towel snapped by the General Assembly. Open-minded heterosexuals will not want to do business or raise their children in a place viewed as an ignorant backwater and the Bible Belt will eventually strangle the state's economy.
Virginians should not let the intolerant politics of a few extremists make the Commonwealth into a pariah state. Citizens of wisdom and conscience should demand that the Marriage Affirmation Act be repealed before too much damage is done. While the specious law does nothing to affirm marriage, it could marry Virginia to an intolerant reputation and affirm a false stereotype of the Commonwealth as Neanderthal and hostile to creative people who drive economic innovation.
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
by Wayne Besen
Gov. Jeb Bush's pronouncement that Florida will open the nation's first "faith-based" prison is a terrible idea that is unethical, probably unconstitutional and may even lead to favoritism of fundamentalist Christian inmates.
Bush and prison officials disingenuously try to allay public fears by claiming that the prison is nondenominational with the 791 prisoners representing 26 faiths. However, Bush quickly exposed the transparency of this supposed pluralism.
"I can't think of a better place to reflect on the awesome love of our Lord Jesus than to be here at Lawtey Correctional. God bless you," said Bush.
Bush doesn't get it. There are many taxpaying Florida citizens who don't consider Jesus "our Lord." We are offended by his apparent religious supremacy and we don't agree with his slick, tax-funneling scheme to support his preferred faiths. It is clear that this ill-conceived initiative most likely violates the separation of church and state.
While Bush's new initiative may claim to represent several faiths, this too can be deceptive. No faith is monolithic and each religion has several branches, which interpret religious texts in radically different ways.
Gay activists such as myself will be watching closely to make sure our tax dollars are not illegally used to teach a right-wing view of religion or homosexuality. We consider such extreme religious views dangerous and bad for society.
True freedom of religion requires Bush to fully embrace the value of all faiths represented in the prison system. This includes equal treatment and a full array of services for Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as unorthodox faiths such as Wicca.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the new scheme is the potential for abusive favoritism, religious coercion and additional punishment for nonbelievers. The governor has already made it clear that Lawtey is his pet project. This may send a signal or create the perception among inmates that entering Bush's beloved experiment may be a ticket to early release.
It is not a leap to see how an inmate might think a parole board may be more sympathetic to Bible-believing inmates at Lawtey than they might be to nonbelievers at traditional state prisons. This may coerce some inmates to fake conversions to receive systematic advantages. Others who remain true to their unpopular faith, or proudly profess no faith, may receive harsher treatment by the Florida correctional system.
While Bush says each inmate has a "choice" in whether to participate in a faith-based program, the only choice inmates may truly face is conforming or confronting the consequences of not converting.
I doubt that Bush wants the emergence of a theocratic prison system that gives early release to prisoners in faith-based programs. However, a paradigm such as this can easily spin out of control. Prison officials know the governor has placed a lot of political capital into this program.
"Wouldn't it be nice if we could figure out a way to lower that 38 percent (recidivism rate) closer to zero percent, for your family and your community?" asked Bush during his speech announcing the new faith-based prison.
Although he has no solid evidence, Bush clearly believes repeat offenders would nearly vanish if inmates found religion. This attitude of religious favoritism will surely filter its way down the correctional food chain, as employees of the governor will work to please him.
Sadly, the most likely people to be abused by this inchoate religious pecking order are those least likely to complain. How apt is a gay, Jewish or atheist inmate to object to religious persecution when such a minority prisoner might have to face the wrath of angry prison officials or zealous inmates? And what incentive does a virtually powerless inmate have in challenging a favored policy of a powerful governor?
In fact, the first evidence of faith-based intimidation has already occurred. In a Miami Herald article announcing the new program, Lawtey inmate Bryan Lemaster was asked about inmates who want to stay at Lawtey without taking part in religious programs.
"They'll get weeded out," said Lemaster. "When that gets taken care of I think it will be pretty good."
One does not have to watch HBO's "Oz" to realize what "weeding out" might imply in a prison setting. The governor's shortsighted new program is likely to fail because it is almost certain to lead to gross inequities, religious partiality and doctrinal discrimination.