The Religious Right's Assault On Gay Rights: A Parent's Perspective
By Alvin Rankin
It's always a pleasure to discuss one's family and children with a
captive audience, especially knowing that that audience is probably
sympathetic. This may be a "sermon to the already converted."
Catherine Fahringer said it best in a pre-convention article. She
described the need we all have for regular, mutual affirmation of
ourselves as freethinkers. The annual Foundation convention provides
that "fix" for each of us.
Many of you have probably read Dan Barker's latest book, Losing Faith
In Faith. Somewhere in his wonderful text the point is made that
becoming a freethinker doesn't happen overnight. We ex-religious
persons arrived at freethought by an educational process. Long for
some; short for others.
In his book, Dan maintains that there is no "magic bullet," no short
stream of 25 words or less that converts a believer into a non-believer
in one fell swoop. However, some of us experience a "magic moment." It
might be an event that serves as a catalyst to make all the ingredients
of that ongoing educational process suddenly combine. In that moment,
we become "born-again freethinkers."
Some of us remember that "magic moment" just as clearly as most of us
recall precisely where we were and what we were doing when we heard the
news of President Kennedy's assassination. Though neither Joyce nor I
expressed it verbally at the time, in retrospect both she and I agree
we had experienced the "magic moment" at precisely the same time, in
the aftermath of events following the revelation of our son's being
Neither of us came from overly religious backgrounds. But we did
provide our son and daughter conventional exposure to religious
rituals, baptism, communion, confirmation, Christmas, Easter and other
traditions. Our son was even an altar boy for four years, and I played
the organ occasionally in church. For most of our children's growing up
years, we were that arch-typical American family with all those
trappings so highly touted by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. If you
know "Toys R Us," then you'll understand when I say that "Ozzie &
Harriet Were Us!"
Our "Leave It To Beaver" family consists of the requisite father,
mother, a son first, and a daughter second. Our two children had two
cats, two dogs, and we have two cars in the garage, and a pick-up
truck. Our children were even born on the same day, Nov. 22, exactly
two years apart. Didn't plan it that way--but the coincidence meant
that they shared every birthday party and grew up almost like twins.
Both our son and daughter scored high academically, and enjoyed a
measure of popularity among their peers, perhaps even envy.
Indeed, our whole family seemed envied by our social circle. We own our
own business. Our large, lovely home is secluded on nine acres of
heavily forested land with rocky creeks and small waterfalls. This
setting was near perfect for the Country Club style of social life we
were living before the "magic moment" came. Actually, the "magic
moment" turned out to be a Big Bang.
This shot heard round our family's world occurred in early February,
1987. Without warning, our daughter, 18, temporarily disappeared into
the night, and we had not the slightest clue where she had gone. Until
we found her safe five days later, we lived in a hell no religion could
invent. She had eloped with a 25-year-old guy we didn't even know. To
this day, we don't really know why. They had fled over the border into
South Carolina, a state that dispenses holy matrimony like barbecued
hot dogs, with few requirements and fewer formalities.
During our anguish, our son Gordon, 20, travelled home from college to
help look for his sister, Meg. It was during this time that he chose to
tell us that he is gay. Not only that: he announced that he, too, had
been "married" to a guy for nearly a year.
Talk about a double whammy! Our world turned upside-down; our idyllic
existence, and our "Ozzie & Harriet" lifestyle was forever shattered.
But Joyce and I are extremely resilient people. We believe in the old
adage that if life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. We quickly
resolved to pick up the shattered pieces and make a stained-glass
window, and I don't mean the kind you find in churches. I mean the kind
of mosaic that exalts diversity and celebrates family in whatever
Nothing seemed humorous at the time. But a few months later we began to
smile and laugh at the various reactions our friends and relatives
exhibited whenever we told them about "This Was The Week That Was." In
one week's time, we had discovered that both our son and our daughter
were married to males, and that we had acquired both of these
sons-in-law without having to pay for either wedding!
The reactions of our friends and relatives were just as unpredictable
as the trajectory of fragments dispersed by the Big Bang. In some
cases, persons we thought would be understanding and accepting turned
out to be anything but, and some of those from whom we anticipated
possible rejection welcomed the new composition of our family with open
arms. In a situation like that, it's easy to find out who your real
Except for Christmas and Easter, our family generally had abandoned
religious observances and church by the time our children entered high
school. The subject was rarely discussed. As I look back on it, each of
us in his or her own way had already embarked on independent journeys
in the direction of freethought.
Long before we knew our son was gay, both Joyce and I were educated
enough to know that homosexuality is not a choice, but is innate,
probably originating in the womb from a combination of genetic and
hormonal factors. No one would willingly choose to be gay. But the
discovery that a family member is gay or lesbian brings many people to
a fork in the road, where a genuine choice may have to be made: the
choice between what most religions and their scriptures have to say,
and what recent scientific and medical evidence strongly supports. The
decision that Joyce and I made to leave religion entirely turned on
this one choice. I like to compare it to the comments that Dan made
early in his book concerning the first, teeny tiny steps he took away
from fundamentalism and how they later became increasingly larger giant
steps. We had already taken the small steps and even some big ones. If
the church was wrong to condemn Galileo, and if it was wrong about
homosexuality, then it became easier to wonder how many other things it
is wrong about. We had graduated from small steps so huge that when
our Big Bang "magic moment" came along, we were pole vaulting.
Before 1988 rolled around, Joyce and I had discovered the two
organizations that have made such a difference in our lives. Dan
Barker's appearances on several talk shows about that time prompted us
to join the Freedom From Religion Foundation. During a visit to the
library, Joyce learned of a nearby group affiliated with PFLAG--The
National Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
PFLAG is made up largely of heterosexual parents, friends and families
of homosexuals. Local PFLAG chapters provide support groups for those
new to the situation of having a gay family member. Local chapters and
the national headquarters in Washington, DC are involved in educational
efforts through literature, talk shows, and speaker's bureaus; and the
Federation at all levels provides opportunities for parents to become
advocates for the rights of their gay children.
PFLAG now has more than 300 chapters in the United States and 11 other
countries. For over four years, Joyce has been a member of the National
Board and serves as Southeast Regional Director, covering the
Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Puerto Rico. In each of
these states and elsewhere, many parents, including ourselves, have
willingly marched and participated in Gay Pride Rallies and other
events. We have witnessed first-hand the bible-waving preachers and
their minions harassing our kids. Fundamentalist preachers of every
color have assaulted us and our children with bull horns yelling the
usual blatherings of biblical hellfire and damnation.
Our first open encounter with the Religious Right occurred in April,
1989. Some parents in the PFLAG chapter in Charlotte, North Carolina
like to think that it was our chapter that pioneered the strident
advocacy PFLAG is beginning to assume at the national level. We
picketed Vice President Dan Quayle in the spring of 1989 when he made a
speech to a local fundamentalist group, "The Concerned Charlotteans,"
organized, they say, to promote traditional family values.
They spend most of their time promoting hatred for homosexuals and
people who support gay rights. The Concerned Charlotteans (I call them
The Concerned Charlatans) also devote energy to promoting prayer in
school, to closing adult book stores, to censoring books in the
libraries, and trying to ban abortion clinics, state lotteries and
alcohol sales. The head of this organization is a Church of God
preacher named Joe Chambers. Ol' Joe is a friend of Ol' Jesse--you know
Jesse Helms, North Carolina's #1 Turkey. It was Ol' Jesse who
apparently pulled the strings to get Quayle to speak at the annual
banquet of the Concerned Charlotteans.
The banquet was attended by over 1,400 persons and brought together an
odd assortment of people. The core group consisted of Chambers and his
flock. Their church is located in an obscure section of the city which
attracts KKK types disguised as bubbas. They are mostly all-white,
poorly educated, and chronically under-employed. The women are treated
as second-class citizens, never wear cosmetics or cut their hair, never
wear shorts or slacks, and go around in a style of dress that can best
be described as "Church-of-God chic."
Mixed in with this audience was a generous sprinkling of well-dressed
and groomed mainstream types, well educated, upwardly mobile yuppies
few of whom would ordinarily be caught dead socializing with the Joe
Chambers crowd. They were attracted to the media glitz surrounding Dan
Quayle and for obvious social and political reasons.
Quayle devoted his entire speech to his views on traditional families.
If you watched the Republican convention, you don't need me to
Meanwhile, on the sidewalks outside the Civic Center marched an
assortment of picketers. There were gays and lesbians, of course, in
addition to abortion rights activists, E.R.A. supporters, and other
libertarian causes. But what grabbed the media's attention were six
parents marching in support of our gay children. The wording on our
signs ran the gamut:
"I Love My Gay Son" "Jesse Helms, Joe Chambers, and Dan Quayle are
Practicing Homophobes" "The Bigots Are Having Quayle For Dinner"
The last one is my favorite.
In 1990, when President George Bush came to Charlotte to stump for
Jesse Helms' re-election, a larger number of parents showed up to
protest. Having become bolder and more activist, Charlotte's PFLAG
chapter became the first in the nation to have picketed both the
President and the Vice-President. We received a smattering of national
publicity, but nothing compared to 1991.
PFLAG holds annual conventions. Chapters in Chicago, New York, Denver,
Detroit, and Los Angeles have hosted such conventions. But the
relatively small city of Charlotte was selected to host the milestone
Tenth Annual PFLAG Convention in the fall of 1991. The Charlotte
chapter designated Joyce and me to co-chair the event.
The Religious Right mounted a vigorous campaign to try and stop us. The
Concerned Charlotteans spent thousands of dollars to print newsletters
and buy cable TV and radio time to spread unbelievable distortions and
outright lies about PFLAG. First, they attempted to strong-arm the
hotel into cancelling our convention. The hotel stood its ground, and
became one of our staunchest allies. Attempts were made to intimidate
the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention Bureau. Those agencies also
were supportive of PFLAG and ignored the "funny mentalists." (I know
they're "funny," but I don't understand the "mentalist" part.)
I usually don't like to give churches credit, because I think in
general they do more harm than good. However, I would be remiss if I
failed to mention that our convention was widely supported by
mainstream churches, particularly the Episcopalian and Unitarians.
About 30 days before the convention, Ol' Joe became desperate. Despite
the fact that editorials in the leading newspaper assured the populace
that 500 heterosexual parents from four countries would have no more
effect on the city than an American Legion Convention, Joe Chambers
predicted that Charlotte would be inundated by thousands of homosexuals
bent on sodomizing the city's youngsters with the blessing and approval
of their equally depraved parents.
We discovered that Chambers had planted a mole on our mailing list to
receive all of our convention literature. His interpretation of our
printed materials reached all-time highs of perverse sickness.
For example, our literature mentioned that we would have special
insignia on name tags to identify parents who were attending for the
first time. The idea, of course, was to encourage veteran
conventioneers to welcome newcomers. Joe Chambers bought cable TV
airtime to claim that our name tag insignia was merely a clever system
for soliciting sodomy sex with strangers and to swap sex partners.
That was sick enough, but Joe went bananas when he discovered that one
of the workshops would be conducted by Ralph Speas, a Humanist
Counselor of the American Humanist Association, and ably assisted by
Tom Malone of the Freedom From Religion Atlanta Chapter. He talked
about nothing else during his regular weekly 60-minute program on a
Christian radio station the week before the convention. His rantings
and ravings had become so hysterically emotional, it wasn't clear
whether he had concluded that all homosexuals are atheists, or that all
atheists are homosexuals.
One disturbed woman phoned his call-in show to tell him how frightened
she was that Satan's demons would begin possessing all the office
buildings in downtown Charlotte near the hotel to contaminate the city
with AIDS. One man called to say that he thought all good Christians
should take their guns into the hotel and shoot all the devils on
sight. Even Joe must have realized that things could get out of hand,
as he quickly cut the man off by saying, "No, no, brother! We must show
these people compassion and urge them to turn from their sinful ways."
Hotel security and the police cordoned off the hotel and downtown area
more tightly than when Bush and Quayle came to town. A major network
flew in camera crews from New York City to cover our convention.
Unfortunately, all regular network programs and news broadcasts of any
kind were pre-empted that weekend for non-stop coverage of the Anita
Hill, Clarence Thomas hearings. But we did make TV broadcasts in
Canada, England, and Australia.
The whole event was a big success for us, and a big bust for Ol' Joe.
Usually Joe and The Concerned Charlotteans attract dozens of
volunteers, such as the time they picketed the film, "The Last
Temptation of Christ." But this time he mostly picketed alone or with
one or two others on the hotel sidewalk. His tactics had backfired. He
had even frightened away his most ardent supporters in the
fundamentalist, evangelical communities. Neither Joe nor the city of
Charlotte will ever be the same again.
The 11th PFLAG Convention in Seattle (September, 92) was the first to
do away completely with invocations and prayers before meals. About a
third of all parents in PFLAG are Jewish, and I estimate another third
to be freethinkers. That coalition assures that PFLAG will never be a
religious nor a partisan organization.
Joyce and I took advantage of the Seattle convention to spend a few
weeks in Oregon helping PFLAG parents with their fight to defeat
Measure 9 on the November ballot. Had Measure 9 passed, Oregon's
Constitution would not only have made homosexuality illegal, but would
have mandated discrimination against gays and supporters of gays. PFLAG
would have had to close its doors in Oregon. Fortunately, a majority of
Oregonians did not want their state to be the first to outlaw free
speech, and the measure failed.
But we cannot become complacent. The Religious Right and the Christian
Reconstructionists who call for the execution of all homosexuals and
non-believers are lurking out there. They are organized. They have
money and political savvy. We cannot match their money, but we must
match them in commitment and skill. They have overturned
anti-discrimination ordinances in Colorado, and last week they flew a
high-powered lobbyist representing "Concerned Women of America" into
Charlotte to urge the City Council not to add sexual orientation to its
list of minorities protected from discrimination. I'm sad to say, they
were successful in defeating it.
But we must do more than just defend against the attacks of religious
homophobes. It is time to go on the offensive. In PFLAG's Southeast
Region we are planning a program that will dramatically call attention
to the homophobes themselves of the harm they are doing to our gay
children. We are assembling a computerized mailing list of all known
preachers and politicians who invoke spurious piety to attack our gay
and lesbian loved ones. Jesse Helms and Joe Chambers are at the top of
the list. Whenever we document cases of our children being harassed or
beaten or property damaged simply because they're gay, whenever one of
our children attempts or completes suicide because they can't take it
any more, whenever they are fired from jobs simply for being gay,
whenever our children suffer blatant discrimination of any kind, then
it is our intention to mail a letter to each homophobe on the list
detailing the incident and charging them with the crime, even if only
in a symbolic way. We intend to hold each of them personally and
morally responsible for the climate which they have created that
invites hatred and violence against our children.
PFLAG now has an easy-to-remember 800 number: 1-800-4-FAMILY. There are
Public Service Announcements currently featuring this 800 number all
over the country. Through this number you can determine the location
of contacts or chapters nearest you who can assist you in obtaining
information and help.
No one in this audience is likely to be surprised by the observation
that freethinkers are usually much more interesting and fun to be
around than non-freethinkers. People who belong to PFLAG are much the
same. Joyce and I feel more comfortable around freethinkers, gays and
lesbians, and their parents than we feel in society as a whole. This
is our first FFRF convention, but it won't be our last. As Catherine
Fahringer said, it's going to become our annual "fix." We've found
[This was a speech at the Freedom From Religion Foundation's 15th
annual convention in San Antonio, Texas, December 5, 1992. Alvin Rankin
lives in North Carolina.]
This article is reprinted (with permission) from the January/February
1993 issue of Freethought Today, bulletin of the Freedom
From Religion Foundation.
For more information, write
Freedom From Religion Foundation
P. O. Box 750
Madison, WI 53701