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Nuclear Contamination In Connecticut
John M. Laforge
Global Spin: The Corporate Assault â€¦
Henry A. Giroux
The Freeze: A Look Back
The War On Drugs From â€¦
Slippin' & Slidin'
Onward, Christian Soldiers?
Labor Update: Organizing the New â€¦
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Onward, Christian Soldiers?
Gay Community Notes
Gay Pride, Boston, June 21, 1977: It was a hot Saturday afternoon on Boston Common, and the crowd listening to speeches was restless. At long last, Charley Shively (professor of history at Boston College and a founder of Fag Rag, one of the first gay-liberation publications in the country) began his keynote speech. Sounding like a cross between William Jennings Bryan and an angry drag queen, Shively declared that even with a doctorate from Harvard University he was not allowed to teach gay history. He burned his Harvard diploma. He then shouted that his insurance company would not honor his 20-year relationship with his lover, and burned his insurance policy.
Shively denounced the economic exploitation of gay people in straight-owned bars and burned a dollar bill. He read the Massachusetts statutes criminalizing sodomy. "Burn it, burn it!" the now-frenzied crowd screamed. As pages of the penal code went up in smoke, Shively opened his family Bible and read from Leviticus. It took a few moments before the crowd fully understood the pièce de résistance of Shively's political theater. Suddenly, the once-united crowd split. "Burn it, burn it!" yelled those who saw the Bible (and, by implication, religion) as central to the oppression of gay people. "Don't burn it! Stop him, stop him!" screamed the rest. As Shively ripped the pages from the black-bound volume and lit them, the crowd went wild: fighting broke out, some people stormed the stage to rescue the word of God, and others shouted with joy.
In the 20 years since Shively burned his Bible, the general feeling about organized religion in the queer community has become, if not more tolerant, at least less reflexively hostile. Gay and lesbian religious groups have taken a more prominent place in a number of community events, and many advocates for gay civil rights focus on promoting the image of gay people being as no less religious than their heterosexual counterparts. But the place of organized religion in gay political activism is still a contentious topic. Witness the anger and resentment many gay men and lesbians are voicing at the announcement that the Metropolitan Community Church (officially called the United Federation of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC), but commonly referred to as MCC), a Pentecostal, evangelical gay church, will cosponsor, along with the largest gay rights lobbying group in the U.S., the Human Rights Campaign, the Millennium March on Washington, which also carries the slogan "For Faith and Family."
This distress is summed up by Richard Schneider, editor of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, who says: "I am not a religious person; this is a secular political movement. MCC's sponsorship implies a fundamental system of beliefs and views about life that I either reject or don't care about. America is based on a theory of separation of church and state. The gay movement should be as well. MCC has no business sponsoring a secular political event."
Reactions like Schneider's betray a deep-seated ambivalence toward the role of organized (gay) religion in the secular struggle for civil rights. Religion, like sex, is one of those topics on which everyone has an opinion. Given the church's horrendous history as a source of persecution and oppression for queers, gay people have a particularly contentious relationship with religion. The MCC's visible role in political organizing a spokesgroup for a broad spectrum of gay people ignites the suspicions and fears of those who are not connected to organized religion.
An added problem is that the MCC is not just a religious group; it is emphatically Christian, with roots in the most conservative of American Protestant traditions. Is it any wonder that nonbelievers are irked at having to march under the auspices of an organization that, to them, represents a dangerous, even repulsive view of the world? Some gay and lesbian Jews maintain that given the overwhelming dominance of Christianity in U.S. culture, MCC prominence in organizing the march is, on the face of it, an act of erasure. Even the use of the word Millennium in the name of the march, is based on a Christian marking of time.
The Human Rights Campaign and the MCC have, until now, skirted addressing these complicated issues; their unstated position has always been that the MCC, as a community institution, has every right to sponsor a national march. But a memo circulated widely on the Internet by MCC's founder Reverend Troy Perry to the Church's General Council gives some indication how Perry and his co-religionists might see the situation. In addressing why MCC should sponsor the march Perry argues that it fits neatly into MCC's mission:
I am writing to bring you up-to-date on the proposed Millennium March on Washington, and to share with you why I believe it is vital for UFMCC to exercise a leadership role in this event.
It Helps Fulfill Ufmcc's Mission Statement: Our Mission Statement calls upon UFMCC to "embody and proclaim...liberation. Christian social action and justice." Human rights movements around the world have historically used public marches and rallies on behalf of the work of social action and justice. Through the Millennium March, UFMCC is going to boldly proclaim our unyielding commitment to this vital work. But the march will do more than simply proclaim--it will give each of us an opportunity to live out our faith and our commitment in a very public way.
It Helps Fulfill Ufmcc's Vision Statement: The UFMCC Vision Statement calls upon us to address the "justice and faith needs" of people in many cultures and countries and to "celebrate the inherent worth and dignity of each person." Through the Millennium March on Washington for Equality, we will effectively address these needs and bring public attention to the worth and dignity of our people. Our Vision Statement also calls for us to reach many new members with our message of spiritual hope, and I am absolutely convinced that the public relations and news value of the march, along with UFMCC's leadership role as a co-sponsor, will serve to reach many new friends and members for UFMCC's local churches.
It Helps Fulfill Ufmcc's Ministry Priorities: The Millennium March on Washington has a direct impact on fulfilling UFMCC's Ministry Priorities. It is going to provide exemplary opportunities for leadership development. We will use this event to forge new strategic alliances and to position UFMCC with non-UFMCC groups. Through networking and technology, UFMCC will have the opportunity to reach tens of thousands of persons who have not yet been touched by our local church ministries.
It Helps Fulfill Ufmcc's Founding Purpose: From the earliest days, UFMCC has been committed to a three-fold Gospel of Christian salvation, Christian community, and Christian social action. This march honors our commitment to social action. But in my heart of hearts, I honestly believe this march will help us fulfill all three of our founding purposes. In addition to living out our commitment to social action, I am convinced that it will bring us together in a spirit of community and shared purpose.
And I believe with all my heart that people who need to hear our message of Christian salvation will have an opportunity to hear and embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ through our participation. As Perry notes, there has been a long history of churches and organized religion working for social justice. (And an even longer history of working against social justice.) One of the most used arguments for the appropriateness of MCC's sponsorship of the march is that Black churches played an immeasurably vital role in the Black civil rights movement. This historical analogy strikes an emotional chord, but is quite wrong. Black churches and Black Christianity, were far more central to African American lives and social structure than the MCC (or organized religion in general) is to the gay and lesbian community. To make the analogy borders on a cultural inappropriateness that is insensitive and off-base.
But the MCC's desire to sponsor the Millennium March on Washington brings to the fore more profound political questions. The most important of these is a questioning of the limits of "tolerance" and even multiculturalism in organizing. Progressives have generally embraced religious and cultural tolerance. While agreeing that personal religious beliefs should not be the basis for social policy, there has been a strong tendency to "tolerate" and not condemn personal beliefs. For example: it is a person's moral right to be against abortion, but that personal belief should not, and cannot, be the basis for public policy. It is a similar case with homosexuality (and many other issues.)
Many gay and lesbian civil rights organizers have taken great pains when fighting laws and referendums championed by the religious right not to criticize the personal beliefs of "people of faith" (a phrase coined by progressives to generate an atmosphere of respect towards people of various religious faiths and organizations whether they agreed with them or not.) Organizers like Suzanne Pharr and think-tank organizations like Political Research Associates have been very careful not to characterize or condemn personal religious beliefs as wrong or intrinsically harmful. (And in fact, any savvy organizer knows that constant, aggressive attacking of personal religious beliefs will not be very effective. In Perfect Enemies, their book on gay rights organizing in the U.S., Chris Bull and John Gallagher give examples of the varied results that occur when organizers both attack or criticize personal religious beliefs, and when they avoid the topic and focus on the political applications of those beliefs.) The question here is do we have to "respect" people's religious beliefs because they are "religious beliefs" even when they may not be doing immediate harm? Does a gay person, for instance, have to "respect" the beliefs of a devout fundamentalist Christian when those beliefs condemn homosexuality as "an abomination?" And if that person is then attempting to impose those beliefs by law on society, is it possible to fight the inappropriate application of the beliefs and not the beliefs themselves? Are their limits to the traditional notion of liberal, or progressive "tolerance?" In the gay world and gay politics is it important, or necessary, for non-religious people to accommodate or help promote the agendas of those who are believers?
To a large degree this idea of "tolerance" has permeated the middle-of-the-road segments of the gay rights movement. It has been generated by an "if they tolerate us, then we have to tolerate them" attitude--a sort of live and let live mantra that clearly does not work in reality--but by a desire to reposition homosexuality as "normal." In this mind-set, the MCC's sponsorship of the Millennium March on Washington makes perfect sense, even as there are plenty of gay men and lesbians who are appalled by it. It is, in essence, a gay marriage of convenience between secular assimilationists and gay men and lesbians who identify as part of a religious community. If we are all part of a community struggling to gain certain basic civil rights and anti-discrimination laws, shouldn't we all work together.
This, of course, is part of the larger problem: what is the gay civil rights movement really doing? What are its goals? As contentious as the MCC's sponsorship of the march is, the earliest slogan of the event--positioning it as a march "for faith and family" (wording agreed upon by MCC and HRC)--has caused equal consternation. Though few would deny that some gay people are involved in faith communities or define themselves within the most mainstream concepts of "family," the predominance of this theme in a national march smacks of blatant family-values pandering. Gay people should have civil rights because they are U.S. citizens and human beings, not because they believe in God or live in traditional affectional or sexual arrangements.
Interestingly the MCC's involvement in the Millennium March on Washington--and the controversy over the place of religion in gay organizing it has incurred--is offset by other religious news from New York City. On May 11, New York Mayor Gullianni announced that the city would extend the same rights in housing, city contracts, and death benefits that married couples have to the 8,700 unmarried gay and straight couples who have registered as domestic partners. On May 24, John Cardinal O'Connor, the archbishop of New York, gave a sermon at high mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral that condemned the proposed legislation: "Marriage matters supremely to every person and institution in our society. It is imperative that no law be passed contrary to natural law and Western tradition by virtually legislating that marriage does not matter." He further noted that the domestic partner bill "will eventually lead to moral and social changes our society neither anticipated nor traditionally desired from our earliest days as a people. An institution as fundamental as the family cannot be manipulated. [Marriage] he concluded is the "first and vital cell of society."
While O'Connor referred to his homily as a simple reflection on a social issue and noted that the church had no right, or intention, to impose its moral beliefs on non-believers) he did alert the news media, provided them with a platform to film his sermon, and passed out printed texts of it with the most outrageous statements in bold. his was also only the latest in a string of O'Connor's "reflections"--in the past he inveighed against the gay rights bill, legal abortion, safe-sex or AIDS education in schools, lax divorce laws, and he forbid Catholic hospitals with city contracts from giving out any information on birth control. In some instances, such as the City's gay rights bill, he managed to change the content substantially. In the light of this religious interference into public life is there any wonder that many gay and lesbian people are uncomfortable.
But O'Connor's newest rampage gives us another insight into how the MCC became a march sponsor, and why it should come as a surprise. It is a logical outcome of the wrong direction in which the gay-rights movement has been headed for almost two decades. In the early 1980s--in response to increasingly vicious attacks by a rapidly growing religious and political right wing--a change occurred in the movement. Before then, the majority of gay activists had focused on a clearly defined legal argument: gay rights were basic civil rights. Gay people's personal lives, relationships, and sexual habits were of no concern. But as the religious right continued to demonize homosexuals as sinful, immoral, and murderous, the gay rights movement recast the image of gay people as "normal." As a result, gay lives and culture were sanitized. The emblematic bumper sticker was no longer Gay Rights Now! but Gay Families Are Families, Too; no longer Gay Pride but Hate Is Not A Family Value. Gay life, in this portrayal, was as American as apple pie, white picket fences, and church socials on Sunday afternoon.
The problem with this strategy is that it doesn't work. Homophobia has many causes, but at heart it is the deeply rooted belief of the dominant heterosexual culture that homosexuals are intrinsically different and dangerous because they engage in same-gender sexual activity, that they betray the natural order of the world. Acting like "normal Americans" does not erase this. When gay people want to act "normal" by getting legally married, for example, heterosexuals get even more bent out of shape. Look at the hysteria that fueled the Defense of Marriage Act.
A New York Times poll (April 30, 1997) found that 58 percent of teenage boys and 47 percent of girls feel that "homosexuality is always wrong." In his new book One Nation, After All noted sociologist Alan Wolfe discloses that while almost all of the suburban Americans he interviewed expressed tolerance of a wide range of sensitive issues such as affirmative action, religious difference, multiculturalism, and feminism they repeatedly used words like "abnormal," "sinful," "unhealthy," "perverted," and "mentally deficient" and were united in their refusal to see homosexuality as an "alternative that is the moral equivalent of any other." A New Yorker (January 5, 1998) poll discovered that if given the choice 56 percent of "average Americans" would rather see their children unhappily married with no children, then happily partnered in a stable gay relationship with children, while only 21 percent opted for happy, homo-kids.
Many gay people--even those who vehemently oppose the MCC's sponsorship of the Millennium March on Washington--don't hate organized religion (although there are many who do). Instead, like most Americans (gay and straight), they feel that religion and politics should not mix. But even more important, they also understand the realities and politics of homophobia and queer hatred in their lives. They are fed up with the notion that gay people should have basic rights under the law because they are "like everyone else." They are tired of gay people and the gay community being homogenized as white-bread America, losing their distinctiveness and edge in the process. For many gay people, the MCC sponsorship and packaging of the march on Washington crosses the line; the strategy that they represent risks eradicating the unique and startling power and glory of queerness. It's enough to make you want to burn a Bible.