The Religious Right's Assault On Gay Rights: A Parent's Perspective By Alvin Rankin It's a

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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 gay. 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 form. 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 friends are. 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 elaborate! 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 affirmation here. [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 USA (608) 256-8900


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