Archive for March, 2010

Pulpit Bullies: Separation of Church and State, Constitutional Amendments and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Civil Rights

March 18, 2010

by Alasdair Norris (Tenzin)

The ideals of a democratic government predicated on the separation of church and state clash with religious beliefs that GLBT people are inherently sinful and unworthy of the same rights and protections as other Americans.  Although many major world religions condemn homosexuality and transsexuality, Christianity is central to the discussion of the influence of religion on public policy in America.  Christian political groups not only dictate the tone and content of the debate around GLBT civil rights, but also fund the majority of anti-GLBT ballot measures.  GLBT activists question the constitutionality of mixing religion with public policy.  Should the federal government allow religious groups to generate ballot measures and change laws to deprive gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens of civil liberties?

The fear and animosity directed toward GLBT people by religious groups has profound political and pragmatic consequences.  Many states lack protection against employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and the controversial policy “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” has resulted in the expulsion of almost 13,000 qualified military personnel. AIDS victims were vilified and ignored by the Reagan administration until the infected reached epidemic proportions.  GLBT people don’t have the right to legally marry, adopt or foster children in many states and suffer elevated rates of adolescent homelessness, harassment, hate crimes, depression, murder and suicide.

Rectifying inequities is challenging due to the Christian rights’ perception that GLBT advancement constitutes an assault on traditional values.  Over the past several decades, Christian groups launched highly successful campaigns against every public policy issue affecting GLBT people and blocked laws extending rights and protections.  Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign mobilized Florida voters to repeal a Miami law protecting homosexuals from housing and employment discrimination by a 2 to 1 margin in 1977.  Bryant’s crusade catalyzed anti-GLBT sentiments across the nation resulting in the revocation of anti-discrimination laws in Wichita, Kansas; Eugene, Oregon; and St. Paul, Minnesota and served as the prototype for national political movements such as Jerry Fallwell’s Moral Majority.  Mormons, Catholics and evangelical Christians initiated recent campaigns banning same-sex marriage across the nation.  Proponents of California’s Proposition 8 spent $38,766,260, with the Mormon church contributing around 40% and the Christian Focus on the Family contributing $727,250 .  While conservatives viewed Proposition 8’s passage as a democratic expression of the will of the people, others were frustrated by what was perceived as the imposition of religious beliefs on the political process.  This debate questions whether majority rule can fairly meet the needs of an unpopular minority in a democracy.

The increased visibility of GLBT people has alarmed conservative Christians and created a political backlash.  Anti-GLBT political agendas have been more effective in mobilizing and unifying the Christian right than more traditional concerns such as charity towards the poor.  This tendency is explained by Eric Hoffer’s thesis that fear and hatred provide the most potent cohesion in mass movements.  This fear and revulsion is palpable in the rhetoric of anti-GLBT Christians who describe “the gay agenda” as an ominous conspiracy to convert their children through rape or indoctrination in the school system, destroy traditional marriage and precipitate societal collapse.  Educational videos produced by Christian groups conflate homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality and show violent gay pornography and images of the extreme fringes of GLBT culture (the equivalent of making a heterosexual documentary showing only wife-beaters and child molesters).  Even legislation including GLBT people in hate crime laws is vehemently protested as the bestowal of “special rights.”  Anti-GLBT Christians claim that hate crime laws will render preaching Levitical proscriptions against homosexuality illegal.  Any effort to further GLBT civil rights is viewed as an attempt to impose an immoral lifestyle on society.

The rhetorical strategies employed in the debate reflect the uncomfortable juxtaposition of religious beliefs, science and politics.  Disparate etiological theories of homosexuality and transsexuality and Constitutional semantics are the most salient factors in the determination of whether GLBT people are considered deserving of the same rights as others.  The central issues are whether sexual orientation and gender identity represent lifestyle choices or innate, immutable characteristics and whether equal treatment and protection of GLBT people under the law constitutes basic civil liberties or “special rights.” Anti-GLBT Christian groups argue that homosexuality and transsexuality represent unnatural lifestyle choices, while mainstream medical thought posits that sexual orientation and gender identity are innate qualities.  Christian groups assert that sinful GLBT people can change through prayer and “reparative” therapy , but the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and The American Psychiatric Association denounce “reparative” therapy as ineffective and potentially harmful.  Scientific studies of homosexual behavior in animals, human twin and sibling studies, genetic analysis and morphological variations in brain structure lend credence to genetic and/or biological explanations of homosexuality and transsexuality, although scientists acknowledge that no single etiological factor explains all variance in sexual orientation and gender identity.  Anti-GLBT religious groups reject mainstream scientific explanations and base their beliefs and political actions on Biblical proscriptions against homosexuality and cross-dressing.

This debate should be unnecessary since depriving GLBT people of civil liberties clearly violates the separation of church and state and the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Bill of Rights.  Thomas Jefferson recognized the dangers of religious tyranny and vehemently advocated a “wall of separation” between church and state.   The First Amendment guarantees the right of every American to practice (or not practice) the religion of his or her choosing without interference from the federal government.  This protection should also prevent the imposition of religious precepts on GLBT citizens through ballot measures and constitutional amendments generated by religious groups for religious motivations.  Christians have the right to practice their faith, but they don’t have the right to generate ballot measures and pass laws forcing others to adhere to Judeo-Christian ethical precepts because America is not a theocracy.  Changing the Constitution to conform to religious mores to deprive people of freedom and equality is regressive.  The Constitution and Bill of Rights should be living, evolving creatures and any changes should be progressive such as past recognitions that slavery, segregation, laws prohibiting interracial marriage, withholding the vote from women and racial minorities dishonors the spirit of the Constitution and are incongruent with the egalitarianism and justice championed (but not always practiced) by our American forefathers.  Conservative Christians argue that allowing GLBT people equal participation in American society constitutes special rights.  This is empty rhetoric to cloak the fact that GLBT people are suffering from their lack of freedom.  We as a nation need to extricate the notion of civil rights from religious doctrine once and for all.  As Jefferson said, “our civil rights have no dependence upon our religious opinions.”

GLBT people endure prolonged deprivation of their rights due to their minority status and consequent political disenfranchisement.  Those in power are often reluctant to champion GLBT rights due to their unpopularity (since advocating gay rights is often tantamount to political suicide), so it is unsurprising that constitutionality of withholding rights from GLBT people on religious grounds has yet to be unequivocally determined by the federal government.  The pervasive anti-GLBT sentiments expressed even by politicians make it unlikely comprehensive GLBT civil rights legislation will enacted by the federal government any time soon.  The Federal Defense of Marriage act should be repealed and the Supreme Court should strike down all anti-GLBT legislation and specific laws banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional as it did for laws banning interracial marriage in 1967.

The central question in this debate is:   Should the rights of a minority be removed by a popular vote in a democracy?  If so, this sets a dangerous precedent for others who believe in the inferiority of other groups.  If Christians who hate GLBT people are allowed to dictate public policy, racists and misogynists could use the ballot box to rescind laws protecting women, and racial or religious minorities.  Tocqueville cautioned vigilance against the “tyranny of the majority.” History shows that common sense, compassion and civil rights and protections are necessary to prevent a disenfranchised, abhorred minority from oppression at the hands of the majority.  Injustice of any kind is dishonors the spirit in which America was founded; the decision to withhold civil rights from unpopular minorities should not be up for a popular vote.

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Sources for Contextualizing GLBT Civil Rights (Expanded)

March 18, 2010

1. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer. Harper Perennial, 1951

The True Believer is a concise and disturbing sociological examination of mass movements.  Hoffer contends that hatred is the most powerful unifying factor in mass movements and that the more unreasonable the hatred, the more people feel the need “to merge with those who hate as we do.” Hoffer articulates the cohesive power of irrational hatred:  “The puzzling thing is that when our hatred does not spring from a visible grievance and does not seem justified, the desire for allies becomes more pressing.” (94)  Written in 1951 in the shadow of Nazi genocide and the cold war, this work remains salient in modern times.  Although Hoffer’s book does not specifically examine hatred directed towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender people, it describes the mechanisms by which antipathy is fomented and people coalesce around a common enemy.  Hoffer’s thesis is illustrated by the tendency of anti-GLBT Christian political groups to unite around homophobia as a central tenet of their religious and political ideology rather than more exalted Christian virtues of love and charity.  Much of the vitriol directed against GLBT people is reminiscent of Nazi Propaganda.

2. All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America by Suzanna Danuta Walters.  The University of Chicago Press, 2001

All The Rage examines the misconception that increased visibility equates increased societal acceptance and describes the backlash against increased visibility and the commodification of GLBT lifestyles.  Walters describes the way in which the increased visibility of queer people has coincided with an exponential rise in hate crimes and anti-GLBT ballot measures.  Walters reported a 127% increase in hate crimes between 1988 to 1993 and cites a 1998 FBI report of a 14.3% increase in hate crimes between 1997 and 1998, even though the rates of other violent crimes decreased (9).  The number of anti-GLBT ballot measures burgeoned during this same period with 160 anti-GLBT bills in 1996 and 472 in 1999.  Walters constructs a compelling argument that questions whether GLBT visibility has resulted in the political empowerment of GLBT people and describes the ways in which positive representations of minorities paradoxically coexist with social injustice towards those being depicted.  She uses The Cosby Show as an example as one of the most popular shows in South Africa during apartheid. This book is written from an academic perspective by a sociologist that would likely be studied by GLBT people, gender or media studies classes.

3. The Holy Bible

The Bible is central to the queer rights debate since most of the rationale for depriving queer citizens of civil rights is derived from the Bible.  The most cited proscriptions against homosexuality and cross-dressing are found in Leviticus 18:22 which states: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable” and Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.”  Although anti-GLBT Christians argue that traditional marriage equals one man plus one woman, the Old Testament model of marriage often included one man, one woman plus as many concubines as could be desired and supported by the husband.  Not all patriarchal extra-marital affairs were with female concubines.  According to some Biblical scholars, King David’s favorite sexual partner was named Jonathan. Historically, the Bible was employed to justify atrocities such as slavery and wife slaughter. Using the Old Testament as a model for modern morality is problematic due to draconian mores that allow killing unruly children, adulterers and idolaters.  Other Deuteronomic and Levitical prohibitions are equally archaic such as proscriptions against mixed fiber clothing and shellfish.  Although a literal interpretation of the Bible justifies discrimination against GLBT people, many progressive Christians advocate GLBT inclusion and equality.

4. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness by Nick Ray, Former Senior Policy Analyst, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Policy Institute. published in Kicked Out edited by Sassafras Lowrey Homofactus Press 2010

While much of the focus on GLBT civil rights is focused on the gay marriage debate, this work examines an understudied phenomenon associated with homophobia in our culture– an epidemic of homelessness of GLBT youth.  Many queer youth are literally thrown out by their parents when they come out as gay and queer youth are estimated to account for between 20 and 40% of all homeless youth (Ray 2010).  This is an ethical and civil rights issue because all homeless kids have elevated rates of physical assault, rape and murder and the risks are compounded for gay and gender-variant individuals.  GLBT homeless kids also suffer from elevated rates of mental illness and suicidal ideation and consummation. Nick Ray cites a study from Pediatrics that found that half of the gay teens surveyed reported a negative parental response to their coming out and 26% were thrown out for being gay.  Many queer kids never even get to grow up and be deprived of their civil right to marry or adopt children.  Ray’s article examines both the causes of GLBT homelessness and the lack of appropriate funding to address homeless youth, both queer and straight.  This problem is the direct result of the hostile climate towards GLBT people in the culture where even parents find their offspring so repulsive that they throw them out.

5. Is there a homosexuality gene? December 2006 by Lisa Zyga

6. Gay brothers may hold genetic clues Study seeks scientific explanation for roots of homosexuality

7. Is there a genetic cause for HBS? by Charlotte Goiar 2005-2010

These scientific and journalistic distillations of scientific sources examine the potential genetic component of homosexuality and/or transsexualism.  This research is salient since many who seek to deprive GLBT citizens of rights argue that being gay or transgender is a choice rather than an innate characteristic. Many GLBT people, doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists assert that sexual orientation or gender identity are innate personality traits and that most people are aware of their gender identity or sexual orientation from an early age.  Preliminary evidence suggests a genetic component in that homosexuality runs in families.  Studies indicate that even siblings raised separately are more likely to exhibit homosexual traits if other siblings are gay.  This finding contradicts solely environmental etiological explanations of sexual orientation.  A study of identical twins showed that the chances that one twin would be gay if the other was at 52%, compared to only 9% in non-twin siblings.  Another study found lower rates of concordance.  Evidence suggests that homosexuality is more frequently acquired from the mother’s side of the family than the father’s, leading some scientists to postulate that genetic markers involving sexual orientation are found on the X chromosome.  Homosexual behavior has been documented in animals and a group of scientists managed to genetically modify fruit flies to be exclusively homosexual (both gay and lesbian).  Dr. Alan Sanders and others believe that no isolated gene can account for all homosexual orientation and that sexual orientation is determined by a complex interplay of genetics and environmental factors.

Although many people assume sexual orientation and gender identity are related, they are not.  There are transgender people who identify as gay, straight, bisexual and asexual and it seems possible that the biological factors implicated in gender identity differ from those that contribute to sexual orientation. Etiological hypotheses for gender variance range from brain structure disparities, exposure to excessive sex hormones in the prenatal environment and genetic mutations.  A genetic study of transgender individuals found repetitions in segments of DNA indicative of a possible genetic mutation that could explain male to female gender variance (from Psychoneuroendochrinology) and postmortem dissections of brain tissue found pronounced morphological variations between the brains of male-to-female transsexuals and gender-congruent biological males.  Other theories involve variations in enzyme-producing genes that metabolize sex hormones.  One study discovered an elongation in androgen receptor genes in male to female transgender women.

The political implications of a possible biological etiological origin of sexual orientation and gender identity are profound since some might believe GLBT people more deserving of equality if their sexual orientation and/or gender identity are not volitional.  Although it seems unlikely that conclusive scientific evidence of a genetic cause of homosexuality and transsexuality would sway some Christians who discount evidence that the earth is older than 5,000 years in the form of fossil records and carbon dating, genetic proof could influence public policy affecting GLBT people.

8. Los Angeles Times  Proposition 8 Tracking the Money: Final Numbers

This website examines the funding sources for anti-gay ballot measures such as proposition 8.  Funding of efforts to deprive GLBT citizens of civil rights and protections are overwhelmingly religious.  Proposition 8 received most of its funding from the Mormon church, Conservative Christians, the Catholic church and James Dobson’s fundamentalist Christian group Focus on the Family.  The overwhelming evidence that anti-GLBT ballot measures were funded by church groups and individuals with a religious agenda indicates that the passage of these ballot measures constitutes the imposition of religious beliefs on a minority and have no place in a democracy founded on ideals of the separation of church and state.  The erosion of the separation of church and state is the goal of many conservative religious groups who argue that the separation of church and state is a liberal myth and the founding fathers intended this to be a Christian nation.  (I think Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers would disagree.)  Efforts to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches engaging in political action are underway.

9. 10. The Bill of Rights

The First Amendment

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.”

The Fifth Amendment

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

The Fourteenth Amendment Section 1.

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The Bill of Rights is integral to the discussion of GLBT civil rights since the passage of anti-GLBT measures violates the separation of church and state, the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment, the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  An effective legal strategy to challenge anti-GLBT laws should include references to the founding ideals of this country and the ways in which the imposition of religious ideals on citizens is antithetical to the principles of this democracy.  Throughout American history, citizens have eventually recognized when practices were incongruent with the standards of equality and liberty championed by the Constitution and changed laws to address the injustice of slavery, segregation, intermarriage prohibitions and the right of women and racial minorities to vote and own property. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights should never be altered to conform to bigotry and prejudices of other citizens, even if they constitute a majority opinion.

Study Finds Increase in Psychiatric Disorders in Gay and Lesbian Populations After Gay Marriage Bans

March 5, 2010

Although the legal and pragmatic ramifications of institutional discrimination against gays and lesbians is frequently discussed in the public arena, the psychological aftermath of anti-gay ballot measures receives less attention. Homosexual populations face elevated rates of alcohol abuse and suicide even in relatively accepting environments, but evidence suggests the rates are exacerbated in areas where bans of same-sex marriage are enacted.  Researchers from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions report increased levels of alcoholism, mood and anxiety disorders in states after constitutional amendments banning gay marriage were passed.  Diagnoses of generalized anxiety disorder increased by over 200 percent.   The March issue of the American Journal of Public Health describes institutional abuse as “societal-level conditions that limit the opportunities and access to resources by socially disadvantaged groups” and describes the importance eradicating institutional discrimination to rectify ”disparities in the mental health and well-being of LGB individuals.”  A report from the American Psychological Association states that the impact on the mental health of GLBT citizens in states that recently passed discriminatory statutes is not attributable to preexisting problems, but is the direct result of the hostile political climate portraying GLBT citizens as subhuman and unworthy of the same rights as heterosexuals.  The APA also found that negative affects were ameliorated in those with stronger social support networks.