Wednesday, April 23, 2008
by Wayne Besen
In 2002, a large gay rights organization was hosting a luncheon that featured a transgender speaker. During the Q&A, there was discussion on the merits of adding "gender identity" to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) - which, if passed, would protect people from being fired because of their sexual orientation.
In the middle of a serious debate, a new staffer, who was just hired from the bluest city in a blue state, earnestly rose to his feet. He proclaimed that he "couldnâ€™t comprehend" anti-trans attitudes and was dumbfounded that average people still held deep-seated prejudices against such non-conforming individuals.
"Why was this out-of-touch person hired for a GLBT movement job?" I thought to myself, upon hearing his assertion. It was one thing to believe that transgender Americans deserve equality - which I do - and quite another to be "perplexed" that some conservatives are still freaked out by transgender (and, yes, gay) people.
If we are really interested in change, employees of GLBT groups should be as comfortable in the Waffle House as they are in the U.S. House of Representatives. If you can't speak the language of the American people, then you aren't much help to the cause.
Workers at our major GLBT organizations should be encouraged to get out of their sterile cubicles and visit places where discrimination is still a daily part of life. It is easy to lose touch with the very people we are trying to persuade, and get a false sense of security when living inside an insular world.
I know this to be true, because I live in New York City, and previously resided in Miami Beach and Washington, DC. Without frequent travel to other regions, it would be simple to confuse the echo chamber of Chelsea with the thoughts and values of Middle America.
Unfortunately, there are some activists who are living in a bubble. This was made clear to me on a liberal GLBT list serve last week when some advocates claimed that it did not matter whether Americans thought homosexuality was inborn or a choice. Nothing, of course could be further from the truth.
To mainstream America, the question of nature vs. nurture is the only one that matters. In most of the country, when a person comes out they get asked three questions:
1) When did you know you were gay?
2) Are you sure it's not a phase?
3) Are you able to change?
Of course, the answers most often given are:
1) I've always known I was gay.
2) It definitely isn't a phase.
3) I believe I was born gay and there is no way I could change.
When a person comes out to people they care about, these straightforward answers are enough to turn many people from anti-gay to pro-gay. These responses help people realize:
1) Sexual orientation is often fixed at a very young age, if not in the womb
2) A person's coming out is not some sort of rebellion or attempt to mock religion or societal norms
3) Attempts to go straight are a waste of time and quite possibly harmful, so why try?
The rise in acceptance of GLBT people directly correlates with the understanding that sexual orientation is a natural phenomenon. A May 2007 Gallup Poll showed that 42 percent of Americans believe that homosexuality is inborn, compared with 13 percent in 1977. The number who say upbringing and environment fell from 56 percent in 1977 to 35 percent today.
Residual opposition primarily comes from those who still believe that homosexuality is a casual choice that can be altered through therapy and prayer. A November 2004 Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates poll shows that 79 percent of people who think homosexuality is inborn support civil unions or marriage equality. Among those who believe sexual orientation is a choice, only 22 percent support civil unions or marriage rights.
In a perfect world, it would not matter whether sexual orientation was a product of nature or nurture. But, this is the nation that twice elected George W. Bush. Clearly, the issue of "choice" matters and activists who deny this reality are doing so at their own peril and that of the GLBT movement.
Of course, the message should not be shame-based, such as, "we can't help being gay." It is perfectly fine for homosexuals to point out that they are happy and would not change if they could. We should also say that homosexuality is a natural and normal orientation - and the moral equivalent of heterosexuality. In doing so, we blunt the right wing's pseudo-science where they claim being gay can only come from parental neglect or abuse.
Obviously, bisexuals have some choice in partners. However, they have no more choice in the fact they are bisexual than heterosexuals or homosexuals have in their uni-polar attractions.
While who we love is not a choice, we can choose to be effective activists by telling the truth about sexual orientation and not promoting bizarre ideas that are a distraction and anathema to mainstream Americans.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
by Wayne Besen
The Huffington Post reports that the California Supreme Court may overturn Proposition 22, a referendum passed in 2000 that prohibits gay people from marrying. The article suggests that the court may also come out in favor of same-sex marriage as early as May 23.
Anticipating a favorable ruling, the right wing is working to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to ban gay marriage. However, these efforts were set back when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to fight against the potential measure and called it "a total waste of time" at the Log Cabin Republicans National Convention.
The Log Cabin Republicans deserve credit for getting the governor's stance on the record. With the latest poll showing only 51% of Californians against gay marriage, Schwarzenegger's support will likely embolden moderate fence sitters to side with equality.
If same-sex marriage becomes a reality in America's largest and most influential state - and is not overturned by a Constitutional Amendment - it will be the biggest earthquake to hit in years. The sheer number of couples who will marry (and divorce, it is California, after all), will forever change this debate. It will cause a legal mess, as many of these married couples - often with children - migrate to states that still discriminate. The consequences of such relocations will force the entire country to grapple with this issue. No longer will the debate be theoretical, but will focus on the discrimination endured by families whose married status vanishes the moment they cross state lines.Florida:
Now that "The Terminator" has spoken, it is time for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist
to come out against a state constitutional amendment
that would prohibit same-sex marriage. Florida's GLBT advocates need to remind Crist that in 1978, Gov. Ronald Reagan opposed the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gay and lesbian schoolteachers. The actions by Reagan and Schwarzenegger - certainly not considered wimps - ought to give Crist the political cover to stand for justice
.Love Won Out:
In 1998, fifteen socially conservative groups launched a huge "ex-gay" advertising campaign that was billed as the "Normandy Landing in the cultural wars." The attack began with full-page ads in The New York Times and USA Today. Now, ten years and several scandals later, it appears that the right wing may be reconsidering its strategy.
My organization, TruthWinsOut.org, joined local organizations at the Billy DeFrank Center
in San Jose to counter Love Won Out
, Focus on the Family's ex-gay road show
. The anti-gay conference only drew 700 participants, down from past events, which drew thousands of mainly confused parents who were dealing with children who had come out.
More important, this was the second consecutive symposium where Focus on the Family chose not to market to the general public. As in Memphis, the group's usual "ex-gay" billboards did not hover over major highways. The group also did not solicit press from major media outlets until days before the event. Instead, they concentrated their marketing efforts in right wing churches.
The subdued atmosphere of Love Won Out follows a decision by the largest "ex-gay" group, Exodus International, to recall their Washington lobbyist. It is too early to know if the right wing is rethinking the ex-gay issue or simply regrouping to launch another major ad blitz. Perhaps, the twin disasters of Sen. Larry Craig and Rev. Ted Haggard may have severely eroded the already shaky credibility of the ex-gay industry.The Pope:
Speaking of fading road shows, the Pope is in town. On the way over, the Pontiff told us that he is "ashamed" of pedophile priests
. I am glad he made it over here in a "timely" fashion to inform us that sexual abuse is wrong. Unfortunately, until the Vatican allows priests to marry, accepts openly gay clergy and admits women to the priesthood, the abuse will continue. Offering regret without reform is a farce.Presidential Race:
The presidential race is getting ridiculous. To win the Oval Office, one has to pretend he or she isn't a product of the Ivy League and has ambitions of joining a bowling league. Obama's critics are attacking him because in San Francisco he rightfully characterized some people as "bitter" and said they "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
This happens to be a true statement. Many blue collar Americans have helped to create their depressed reality by voting against their economic interests. They have consistently chosen conservative politicians who talk like "common folk" but vote for aristocratic policies. When you elect people who choose finance over farming and mutual funds over manufacturing as the base of our economy, don't blame the immigrants, liberals or homosexuals when your jobs are overseas.
The campaign reached a new level of absurdity when "John McMansion," the Republican presidential nominee, who owns at least eight homes and is one of the wealthiest men in the U.S. Senate, said Obama's comments were elitist
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
by Wayne Besen
It was business as usual when Tonight Show host Jay Leno asked his guest, Ryan Phillippe, to give his "gayest look" because he once played a gay character on the soap opera "One Life to Live." The mortified reaction of Phillippe, however, combined with the outrage of gay rights groups, hopefully represents the end of a shameful era where it was acceptable to portray homosexuals as punch lines instead of people. While Leno apologized, the industry has a sorry record of thoughtlessly exploiting gays for cheap laughs.
Gay advocates have traditionally given comedians and sitcom writers wide latitude because for decades their material offered rare visibility. At one time, it was a relief when comedians made cracks about the "love that dare not speak its name," even if it came with the cruel cost of homosexuals being made the constant butt of tasteless jokes. While their words stung, they were certainly preferable to railing preachers who declared gays sinful or the conservative politicians who attacked basic legal rights.
With little information about homosexuality - comedy offered a way to raise the topic among peers. Gay people could use the occasion of a joke to see how friends reacted and get a better idea who might be accepting - or who also might be gay.
Additionally, comedy served as a useful icebreaker in educating people about this controversial topic. For example, when I attended The University of Florida in the early 1990's, I would often speak to social science classes about my sexual orientation. Most of the students, at that time, had no openly gay friends. To break the palpable tension, I regularly told a joke about how I came out to my girlfriend.
I recounted to the students that since I was unable to utter the word "gay", I took three tangerines off of a tree. One represented me, the other my girlfriend and the third a guy I was interested in at school. I then guardedly told my girlfriend, "if I were to go on a date, who would I go out with. After that, with hesitation, I slid the citrus that represented me, next to the produce that represented my male crush. The self-deprecating punch line was, "that was certainly one way to tell my girlfriend that I was a fruit."
The joke was always a hit and many of the students opened their minds after they laughed. Humor was a way to find common ground so we could discuss the real issues of crass stereotypes and rampant discrimination.
Nonetheless, I would never dream of telling that antiquated joke today as the world has dramatically changed. In contemporary America, the majority of people know someone who is gay or lesbian. Visibility is no longer a major issue and there are positive role models for today's gay youth. There are also a plethora of state and federal laws that now protect homosexuals from discrimination, while the next generation is favorably disposed to full marriage rights.
Indeed, in 2008 there is nothing shocking or bizarre about the existence of gay people in everyday life. We are bankers, sanitary workers, doctors, parents, flight attendants and talk show hosts. Unfortunately, many comedians still act as if it were 1978 and immaturely treat homosexuality like an exotic novelty.
If one watches network sitcoms, gags involving gays are disturbingly ubiquitous. The wisecracks are astounding in their sheer number and outright brazenness. After all, could you imagine if Leno had learned that an actor's first role was a Jew and he urged him to "look Jewish"?
Unfortunately, there is a double standard when it comes to homosexuals in America. All too often, it is acceptable to disguise humiliation as humor, with the audience laughing at us, not with us. One wonders if many of today's writers could complete a sitcom script without lacing it with homophobic laugh lines.
Deciding when a joke is funny or anti-gay fodder is a delicate task. It does not help the gay and lesbian movement to be seen as killjoys, but, at the same time, much damage is done when we are comically killed for the joy of others. Society should be concerned whether the cumulative effect of demeaning jokes has a negative impact on gay teenagers, who are more likely to commit suicide.
So, where is the appropriate place to draw the line?
If gay individuals or groups do something that is actually amusing or absurd, it is perfectly acceptable that they be laughed at and lampooned. However, simply being gay - or insinuating that someone is homosexual - should not be considered inherently funny. The punch line should never be: "Ha, ha, ha, you're gay." If the comedy writers can't come up with more creative jokes, they should seriously consider new jobs.
Jay Leno's interview with Ryan Phillippe was quite perfunctory and the comedian had no apparent malice. He had simply trotted out a tired industry formula that had been repeated thousands of times. But, the old routine did not elicit a routine response, signifying that gay people are finally standing up to the stand-up comics.
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
by Wayne Besen
If the empty mantra, "Just Say No," failed to keep teenagers off of drugs, it certainly is not going to work for sex. Yet, our government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on "abstinence only" programs that promote ignorance over education, while offering a warped view of sexuality. Like all programs steeped in religious extremism, these are fear-based, anti-science and prone to great exaggerations.
Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) released a report in 2004 that found 11 out of 13 curriculums that preached "abstinence only" were rampant with scientific errors. In another study, researchers found that those who took so-called "virginity pledges" refrained from sex merely eighteen months longer than those who had not made such a pledge. However, the pledge-takers were six times more likely to engage in oral sex. "The Values Virgins" were also much less likely to engage in protected sex when they finally broke their pledge or to be tested for an STD. Disease rates between the two groups were similar.
Unfortunately, the New York Times Magazine reports that "condemn the condom" clubs are taking root at premier universities. As usual, they rely on breathless, overblown tales of breaking condoms, saying, "safe sex is not safe." Well, actually, condoms are pretty effective for those of us who had comprehensive sex education and know how to use them. I've yet to find one Bible-waving fanatic who can show me an HIV epidemic that broke out among people consistently wearing condoms. The Harvard virginity group, True Love Revolution, makes the ridiculous claim that waiting until marriage enables "better sex in your future marriage." To buy this theory, one must conclude that sex is the singular activity where practice erodes performance.
The most illogical argument comes from the co-leader of True Love Revolution (TLR), Janie Fredell, who claims that sex releases a powerful hormone, oxytocin, which blurs the distinction between infatuation and lasting love. If released during gratuitous sex, she says, it can have unhealthy consequences because the hormone can cause, "palpable sense of loss, betrayed trust and unwelcome memories." (unlike the near 50% of marriages that end in divorce?)
In the same story, Leo Keliher, the co-director of TLR, spoke of his harrowing struggle to remain celibate. He told the Times he constantly had, "physical, lustful temptation," and called his sexuality an, "untamed beast" that causes, "thoughts that come out of the blue -- basically pornography in my head...like a fly buzzing around."
It is clear that celibacy is causing a great deal of stress in Keliher's life -- which can release the deadly hormone cortisol. If you want to follow Fredallâ€™s rationale, her co-director should have copious amounts of enthusiastic sex to limit his stress level, thus reducing his body's production of unhealthy hormones, which would likely increase his lifespan. Obviously, it is really easy to use cut and paste psychiatry to support one's ideological agenda -- which is exactly what these holier-than-thou anti-sex groups are doing.
The Princeton abstinence group, The Anscombe Society, has come out against same-sex marriage - leaving gay students no option but lifelong celibacy. What they are really doing is setting some members up for failed marriages to so-called "ex-gays." Closeted homosexuals with religious hang-ups are drawn to these groups because it absolves them of having to explain why they aren't sexually active. And, quite frankly, it sometimes allows these damaged and opportunistic men to find meek wives who wonâ€™t demand much sex because they were made to believe lust is dirty.
A perfect example is Fredell, who described oral sex in the Times as, "disgusting and disrespectful" and found it shocking and implausible that anyone would walk down the street thinking of sex with strangers. The biggest farce is the marketing of such groups that claim they want to, "make abstinence look fun and interesting." (Itâ€™s not) They also portray sex outside of marriage as an act that, "deeply compromises human dignity" and causes, "personal unhappiness and social harm."
While this can sometimes be true, casual sex can also be fun and harmless -- which these groups deny. People can and do find a tremendous amount of satisfaction hooking up with people where there is no lasting spiritual connection -- just immediate physical compatibility. The all-or-nothing approach pushed by these dishonest groups is a deep distortion of reality, uses sexual desperation to create marriages that are likely to fail, and unrealistic in a nation where the average marriage age is twenty-six.
No one should be pressured into sex and there should be strong support systems for teenagers who feel they are not ready. The best option is arming young people with the facts and offering honest, comprehensive discussions on sexuality. Sadly, these propaganda programs are really only interested in abstinence because they believe sex outside marriage is sinful. In my view, however, these groups create more sin, as the "virgins" often bare all, and then bear false witness to cover-up their hypocrisy.