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Acceptable Bigotry
Tim Francis-Wright

6 August 2001

The Boy Scouts of America held its annual jamboree on federal land in Fredericksburg, Virginia, last month. As reported by Newsweek, $5 million in federal money went to support the gathering, including sending several hundred employees to teach courses required for merit badges. The Boy Scouts prohibit both gay scouts and gay leaders. Nevertheless, federal funds aided the jamboree, in spite of an existing policy prohibiting discrimination in federal training programs.

Most Americans would feel outraged if the Boy Scouts, citing statistics about misuse of handguns, prohibited anyone who kept a handgun at home from being a scoutmaster or a scout. Few Americans would argue against banning individual gun owners who had been negligent with their firearms. But a wholesale ban would be at once irresponsible, inflammatory, and idiotic. Yet the Boy Scouts have as wholesale a ban on homosexuality as the entirely hypothetical ban on handgun owners mentioned above.

There are several reasons that a respected charity could blatantly discriminate against homosexuals, but not discriminate based on other factors. First, federal law prohibits discrimination based on religion, race, or national origin in almost every aspect of commerce and in the activities of any tax-exempt group. Few laws protect gay or lesbian Americans from that sort of treatment.

In fact, many laws grant special rights not to homosexual relationships, but instead to heterosexual relationships. Heterosexual couples can get married in every state and territory of the United States. Husbands and wives enjoy legal and economic protection during divorce proceedings, including special court systems designed for this purpose. My legal rights as a husband and father are numerous and so deeply ingrained in American law that the government may take them away under only extraordinary circumstances. If I were in a homosexual relationship, society would not allow me to seek justice in divorce court. My relationship would not and could not automatically make me a legal guardian of my partner's children. My rights as a gay partner or gay parent would be severely limited, and many state governments would limit my rights as a matter of course.

Second, the political clout of gays and lesbians in America is minuscule compared to the political clout of other minorities. The largest gay rights organizations in America have only modest successes in moving forward full civil rights for and acceptance of homosexuals. For every move forward, like Vermont's approval of civil unions for gays and lesbians, there are several moves backward. Popular radio hosts openly slur homosexuals on the air (see, for example, Don Imus and El Vacilón). Except for the odd professional golfer or tennis player, gay and lesbian professional athletes remain closeted. The Salvation Army almost got away with enlisting the Bush Administration in avoiding local regulations prohibiting discrimination against gay and lesbian employees. James Hormel's nomination to be ambassador to Luxembourg took months to resolve--Senators Inhofe, Hutchinson, and Lott blocked a vote on his nomination merely because he is a gay man.

One reason for the weakness of gays and lesbians in politics is that the socially conservative core of the Republican party is against extending basic civil rights to gays and lesbians. Nevertheless, a significant number of gays and lesbian voters vote Republican. A significant portion of gay and lesbian voters support a party that, ultimately, regards them as sinners at best and devils at worst, so it is difficult for gays and lesbians to speak with one voice on the most important issues.

Third, many Americans are convinced that homosexuality represents an alternative lifestyle that is somehow inimical to the American way of life. Certainly, homosexuality is an alternative to the nuclear heterosexual family with two adults and at least one child. Few Americans, however, protest the alternative lifestyles practiced by childless married couples; by families that include grandparents, parents, and children; or by celibate priests or nuns who choose to remain single for life. Each of these categories of families represents an alternative lifestyle determined, in some cases, by conscious choices, not by the vicissitudes of genetics. If America can survive centuries of these nontraditional families, then it can survive other sorts of nontraditional families.

Some Americans believe that homosexuals flaunt their sexuality and thereby degrade society. While every person expresses his or her sexuality to different levels, heterosexuals enjoy privileges that allow them to flaunt their sexuality, albeit in socially acceptable ways. Heterosexual women traditionally wear engagement rings once they have chosen a permanent mate: a diamond ring on the left ring finger both signifies devotion to one man and proclaims that the wearer is heterosexual. The marriage ceremony makes a heterosexual relationship legitimate in every sense of the term. A huge industry concerns itself with the clothes that the participants wear, the music they hear, the halls that they rent, the food that they serve, and the ensuing vacations that they take. Once married, both members traditionally wear a gold band on the left ring finger that flaunts heterosexuality wherever the wearers go. Marriage is an honorable institution, but one could see it as merely the flaunting of heterosexual values. Society is hardly degraded if everyone is allowed the same kind of display institutionalized around heterosexual couples.

Far too many Americans believe that homosexuality and pedophilia are one and the same. Parents are rightly concerned that their children might unwittingly trust sexual predators. But several studies have found that homosexuals are no more likely to be pedophiles than heterosexuals are. To some extent, the conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia is an innocent, but misguided, conflation of harmless but unusual behavior with harmful and aberrant behavior. But ultimately, the fear that gays and lesbians will molest children is not much different from the bigoted fears of the past, such as the fears that black men would rape white girls, or that Jews would sacrifice Christian children.

Some aspects of American society, notably the military, have adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to homosexuality. What this approach lacks is a "don't care" component.

The armed forces do care about homosexuality, even to the point of discharging volunteers because of homosexual acts during off-duty hours. In 1948, Truman's executive order to desegregate the Army made the armed forces a progressive force against racism in America. His order flew in the face of conventional wisdom that held that desegregation would ruin the morale of the troops. Today, the armed forces are a reactionary force that excludes gay and lesbian soldiers, in large part because of the morale of heterosexual troops. No President has been willing to issue a similar executive order against homophobia in the armed forces.

The "don't care" approach already applies to many facets of civilian society, even to activity that is illegal. Very few employers, for example, will ask their employees or job applicants about marijuana use or underage drinking during their college years. They don't ask. Employees and applicants don't tell. Ultimately, the employer doesn't care because the activities in question have no bearing on job performance. For drug and alcohol use, this policy serves America and Americans well. But too many Americans still care too much about whether someone is gay to make a policy like this stick.

Finally, many religious denominations provide the basis for animus against homosexuals. The Hebrew Bible contains passages that excoriate men for laying down with other men (for example, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13-14). One might expect, then, that Jewish denominations would be united in their treatment of homosexual behavior. In reality, different Jewish denominations treat homosexuality differently. In particular, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism do not view homosexuality as sinful, in light of medical discoveries about the nature of homosexuality.

Fundamentalist Christians eagerly point to the Hebrew Bible for support of their hatred of gays. They dismiss as interpretive readings of New Testament books like Galatians that call for expansion of the Church's teachings to ostracized groups. They particularly dislike commentators who interpret the association of Jesus with lepers to allow for acceptance of gays and lesbians. Even if the Bible were free of inconsistencies or errors in translation, every Jewish and Christian religious denomination interprets the Bible in its own way. Determining the books that are held as holy requires interpretation. Determining which Old Testament prescriptions and proscriptions retain the authority of God requires interpretation. (Are the 10 Commandments superseded by the two Great Commandments in the Matthew 22:34-40? Are the dietary laws of Leviticus superseded by Paul's vision in Acts 10:9-16?)

Many mainstream Christian churches, such as the Roman Catholic Church, view homosexual acts as sinful, because they occur outside of marriage. Other Christian groups oppose this notion, because sexuality is a gift to hmanity from God. Ultimately, however, the teachings of any Christian church on homosexuality are effective political, because the Bible and many other religious texts are filled with ambiguity.

The Koran has more explicit strictures against homosexuality. In many Islamic societies, discrimination against homosexuals is justified by the teachings of the Koran. In Egypt, for example, 52 men were arrested and put on trial last month for "fomenting strife," in this case being in a gay disco. Despite protests by international groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Egyptian human rights organizations have either been silent about the arrest or, astonishingly enough, supportive.

Much of the same logic used by the faithful to discriminate against homosexuals was used in the past against blacks. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the most notorious example. Until 1978 Mormon doctrine held that blacks were the cursed descendants of Cain and Ham, and were therefore ineligible to serve as priests. In June of that year, the LDS President and apostles reported receiving a revelation that corrected the Church's views on black priests. Much as the Mormon Church abandoned polygamy in 1890, it abandoned its dated views on race in 1978.

The Southern Baptist Convention exists because its leaders felt that Christians could and should own black slaves. Many other Christian denominations condoned slavery, to various extents, for centuries.

Yet all of these positions, once so important to the denominations involved, have changed over time. These examples demonstrate that religious teachings of particular denominations can and do change. Most religious institutions have overcome the biased teachings of the past. The Catholic catechism no longer portrays Jews as the killers of Christ. Protestant churches have eliminated virtually all of their anti-Catholic rhetoric and many mainline denominations actively seek open communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The teachings of the past that equated brown skin with inferiority are no longer part of mainstream religions. But anti-gay sentiment still has as an important component the religious teaches of many of the world's religions. Religious leaders need to reflect on whether God's will really includes such hatred.

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