By: Albertus Magnus Re: Undercover #1 Title: Undercover With the Religious Right Author: D

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By: Albertus Magnus Re: Undercover #1 Title: Undercover With the Religious Right Author: Donna Minkowitz Undercover With the Religious Right Donna Minkowitz braves self-loathing, outright hatred, and some pretty cute outfits to bring you this report from the Christian Coalition's "Road to Victory" Conference. Donna Minkowitz is a writer at The Village Voice. "APPROACH THIS AS A MASOCHISTIC FANTASY," I tell myself, standing in the registration line for the Christian Coalition "Road to Victory conference." Some people hang weights from their nipples. I force myself to be in situations where I have to give standing ovations to people like Phyllis Schlafly and Jesse Helms. I can pass only if I project a persona that disgusts me. Every evening I rush back to my hotel and throw off my self-hatewear as quickly as I can, rushing dyke T-shirts back onto my body before it's too late. I realize with surprise that I'm terrified of turning into Darcy P., the right-wing Christian woman I'm pretending to be. Who is this demure being in a ridiculous green felt hat with a huge flower on it at the next morning's plenary, who ferociously applauds statements like, "We real women want husbands -- husbands of the male gender! I feel sorry for the radical women's movement, because they cannot experience that kind of love"? Getting into the role is a little too easy for me. Is there any way I could become her? Darcy's clothing, demeanor, and speech broadcast a female submissiveness that's stripped of all eros. How is it possible to desexualize such comprehensive submission?, I wonder, even as I produce the desired effect in my bearing. Christian Coalition women (and for TODAY, myself) appear to have ground up their clitorises and converted them into a fine powder of rage against whatever target "Pat" Robertson supplies. Schlafly takes the stage and challenges every woman in the crowd to discredit the concept of sexual harassment. "It's a charge that can be used to defeat and destroy any man the feminists go after! Even the U.S. Navy is on the run now -- in the Tailhook investigations, the idea is that all men are guilty!" Later, at a workshop promoting the idea that women shouldn't be allowed in combat, a woman behind me hisses "Slut!" when the lecturer, Elaine Donnelly, inveighs[1] against "that Lieutenant Paula who went on TV, crying that she'd been harassed." Donnelly and the audience guffaw together at the thought of "that woman raped by Iraqi soldiers who waited a whole year to tell the nation! Why'd she wait that long?!" I have to go out of character or implode, so I take myself back in time to five months previous, when I was attending a very different conference at this D.C. hotel, the Washington Hilton. For who knows what sublime reason, the Christian Coalition is holding their gathering in Dupont Circle, the gay neighborhood where tens of thousands of lesbians and gay men filled the streets during last April's March. Back then this very ballroom was the site of a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force town meeting called "Fight the Right" and a national strategy session on the Colorado boycott. But is it only the site that feels familiar? Weeks earlier, I had felt an odd feeling of kinship when I spoke on the phone to the Reverend Terry Twerell, director of the Coalition's New York City chapter. Unlike most religious-Righters I interview, he knew who I was: During New York's Rainbow Curriculum battle -- an 18-month fight over a public-school curriculum that taught children to "respect and appreciate" gay people -- his allies had cited my articles to buttress their argument that lesbians want to recruit the young. "I feel like I know you," I laughed to him. "Yes," Twerell laughed back. The sensation of talking with such an intimate enemy was something like the feeling the prey has for the hunter, or the hunter for the prey. Because the religious Right and the gay movement so often see one another as the ultimate danger, they sometimes also relate to each other as the ultimate fantasy. At the "God and Country" banquet the first night of the conference, I swoon in ecstasy as all 2,200 of us rise to our feet and sing patriotic songs together. Led by soprano Martha Trice and her singing son, Robbie, we croon nine anthems before the evening is over. The one that induces the most warmth and passion in me is definitely the country song "God Bless the U.S.A."; I flare my nostrils like Jim Nabors, I boom the signature line, "I'm proud to be an American," feeling like a man and energetically waving the small American flag that was thoughtfully included in my place setting. Even better is the "Salute to the Armed Forces," during which Robbie and Martha call out the names of the different services, ask banquetgoers who have served in them to stand, and then sing that service's anthem. I get tears in my eyes during the Marine anthem, when Oliver North, the banquet's honoree, stands up at his table on the dais. I hate the military and detest patriotic music. I would spit on Ollie North at a moment's notice. But fascistic spectacle is enjoyable, let's face it. Why do you think the crowd was roaring at the 1992 Republican National Convention? When will I get another chance to let myself go and imagine I'm part of a group of people who are superior to all others? This group identity is better than any drug. As a reporter at the Republican convention, I had to stay outside it, as a reporter; here, in disguise, I can let myself taste the intoxicating elixir of a collective spirit stronger than the gay community's. The Right's collective spirit is much stronger than ours because they shut out every person and character trait that doesn't blend in. The other banquetgoers and I feel supernaturally strong singing about American power together because we know that everything outside our magic circle is inferior. IN MY HEAD, I KEEP COMPARING this conference to Creating Change, the annual National Gay and Lesbian Task Force conference for grass-roots activists. The conferences couldn't be more different, even if both organizations held similar views about the rights of queers. The reason is the dramatically different ways the rank-and-file activists conduct themselves. Unlike NGLTF's meet, "Pat" Robertson's convention has only three hours set aside for small workshops. The rest of the time is slated for huge plenary sessions at which all 2,200 of us sit down and hear the Authorized Word from the Christian Coalition's speakers. The plenaries themselves are vastly unlike those at Creating Change, because no one in the audience takes it upon him- or herself to offer input or feedback to the people addressing us -- no called-out suggestions, hisses, "Fuck you!"s, jokes. For a group of activists, the Christian Coalition is extraordinarily passive. People don't even mill around while others are speaking, greeting their friends and making new contacts or sharing reactions to the speakers' words. How can they have a whole conference without any flirting or networking? Don't Christian Coalition members from Texas want to hear how their Florida counterparts are trying to fight gay rights bills? Wouldn't it be helpful to share strategies? But there is little of that indeed. I introduce myself cheerily to people all over the conference, but I seem to be the only one doing so. Didn't they ever hear of down-home Christian friendliness?[2] This is the most encouraging discovery for me from the conference. While the gay and lesbian movement's enthusiasm for internal dissent has occasionally been a weakness, it has also been a strength. The Christian Coalitionites don't network with each other because they don't think that they have anything to learn from other rank-and-file types, or that others have anything to learn from them. If an idea isn't certified by "Pat" Robertson's think tank in Virginia Beach, it's probably not worth thinking about. So if their leadership collapsed tomorrow, it is unlikely that all the Christian Coalition members currently intriguing for school board positions, antigay laws, and Republican Party chairmanships would remain a threat on the local level. Imagine a hive that's lost its queen. Our movement will never be vulnerable in that way, because no one organization or strategist is vital to its health and well-being. Everywhere in the country, lesbian and gay activists spring up with their own ideas, visions, politics, thoughts, and tactics. Until this weekend, I'd never realized that our zest for disagreement was a Godsend. I'm also surprised by the paucity of skills-building workshops at this conference (in contrast to Creating Change, which has dozens of workshops on subjects from handling the media to running successful electoral campaigns). I know they conduct two-day "Leadership Schools" at the local level all over the country, consisting largely of skills-building; they must prefer to do their tactical training in small settings where the media is less likely to be present. It seems the primary purpose of this conference is symbolic: presenting both the media and the Christian Coalition's rank and file with a picture of the Coalition as enormous, mainstream, and powerful. Nearly every contender for the 1996 Republican nomination for President attends the convention. Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, William Bennett, and Pat Buchanan, among others, address the gathering, and each vehemently aligns himself with what several of them call "the culture war" against "secularism" and sexuality. Both Democratic National Committee chair David Wilhelm and his Republican counterpart, Haley Barbour, address the conference, underscoring the message that the Coalition is at the center of the political debate and not the fringe. (Wilhelm points out his disagreements with the Coalition but says he thinks they could fit right into the Democratic Party's agenda of promoting "morality.") The wealth of symbolism here takes unusual concrete forms at the convention's marketplace, where [one] can buy everything from greeting cards with unctuous drawings of infants -- to benefit the National Right to Life Committee -- to no less than four recently produced antigay videos. "This one is really good," says Andrea Sheldon, Lou Sheldon's plump, vivacious daughter, offering me Gay Agenda II: The March on Washington. Across the way, a competing salesperson shows the orginal Gay Agenda continuously on a TV monitor. San Francisco Pride marchers are cavorting on-screen whenever I pass by. (The other antigay tapes are The Gay Agenda in Public Education and that runaway hit, Gay Rights, Special Rights.) If you want something a bit more intellectual, you can head for the elaborate displays from the Heritage Foundation and Empower America, Jack Kemp and William Bennett's Republican baselet -- at once the most dweebish and the most corporate-looking tables in the market, offering position papers on everything from national health care (against) to "morality" in public education (for). The niftiest overall booth is for KaloVita, a vitamin, cosmetics, and household cleaning supply firm "owned and endorsed," the sign says, by "Pat" Robertson. "Pat" wants each of us to buy a franchise selling KaloVita door to door. "Do you wanna win $1,000?" a slick, leisure-suited sales agent at the booth asks me. I do, and fill in a KaloVita raffle entry blank. (The unfortunate friend whose number I enter is later inundated with phone calls from an aggressive Robertson representative who wants to know why my friend hasn't bought a franchise yet.) And surrounding us on all sides are Rush Limbaugh mugs, T-shirts, baby bibs, and books. Some of my Christian brethren show the good taste to look down on these: "Wanna buy a Rush Limbaugh diaper pail?" a well-groomed Virginia man next to me sneers to his wife. "Why would anyone want all this stuff?" Maybe they were just being fat-phobic. CHRISTIAN COALITION EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR RALPH REED told the media this conference was going to emphasize more palatable issues than abortion and homosexuality, issues that make the religious Right look less like self-righteous, hate-mongering zealots -- taxes, private-school vouchers, term limits. But as it turns out, nearly every panel contains at least one diatribe against gay rights. Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma even manages to slip several into a plenary on "Health Care Reform and the Family." ("We have an administration that wants to impose open homosexuality on the military! That continues to nominate individuals who attack family values, like Roberta Achtenberg!") And contrary to most media portrayals, the Christian Coalition's economic agenda is no less reactionary than its social one. Nickles harrumphs that "they're going to mandate health care on every single employer in America!" In his opening address, "Pat" Robertson says that the problem with the health care system is that individuals don't pay enough and insurance companies pay too much. The big antiqueer event of the conference is a plenary billed as "Victory in the Big Apple: The New York City School Board Races." It's not at all clear that last May's New York school board races actually were a victory for the Right in numerical terms, but it's understandable that religious-Right activists are eating the story up. The fact that the Christian Coalition could win any seats on school boards in overwhelmingly "liberal" New York -- the Christian Coalition's first foray into a city with a non-white majority -- was a major surprise. The fact that they could do it by running on an antigay platform was an even bigger one. No wonder the convention treats Queens School Board 24 president Mary Cummins and her comrades as conquering heroes. The normally mild-mannered Twerell takes a much more aggressive tone here than he ever did in New York, where he frequently professed to be in favor of "tolerance for homosexuals" even as he fought to prevent schoolchildren from learning about us. "The Philistines gathered on the shores of New York City under the kingship of Lord Dinkins," he booms, "and they sent a Goliath ahead of them named Joe Fernandez. Joe Fernandez said, `Though our children can't read and write, we're gonna teach them that the homosexual lifestyle is OK! We're gonna let them read books like Heather Has Two Mommies!' But we had our David -- Mary Cummins." "People come up to me all the time and compare me to Joan of Arc or Patrick Henry," the diminutive, elderly activist says lightly when she's introduced. "But I don't feel like Joan of Arc or Patrick Henry. I identify with Rosa Parks more than anybody. "There is no more-fertile field than a six-year-old child," Cummins muses. "Hitler knew that." Cummins quotes to us from "the homosexual agenda" -- a document she says she's "read parts of": "The traditional family is the spawning ground of hatred and must be destroyed!" Has the Right developed a gay version of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion? My fantasy is that Cummins knows I'm here and is going to stride over to where I sit, pull my disguising hat off my head, and denounce me as a homosexual activist. Cummins has denounced me so often on talk shows that she too feels like an old friend. Still, simply hearing her talk is painful enough. "There isn't a state in this country that doesn't have pending legislation to do as much, or worse, than Joe Fernandez tried to do." She is referring to gay rights legislation. When Cummins is accorded a standing ovation by the crowd, she weeps what are apparently sincere tears. I've never seen her so moved, or so tender; maybe she's simply never gotten enough love? Perhaps the New York gay community could hold dinners in her honor and she'd change her opinions. Black archconservative Roy Innis -- at the time of the conference, a long-shot New York mayoral candidate -- is introduced by Twerell as the man who opened the hearts and minds of African-American and Latino New Yorkers to the Coalition's antigay message. Innis delivers an amazingly self-aggrandizing speech to the gathering: "The Christian Coalition had a problem, and so they came to Roy Innis," he booms. "The minorities had been held captive by Marxism- Leninism, but Roy Innis could free them." In his speech, he enlarges considerably on his actual role in the anti-Rainbow battle: Most observers believe Innis actually enjoys little influence in black and Latino communities and that his primary role is to convince guilt-ridden white moderates that some extremely conservative positions have black support. I FINALLY MAKE PERSONAL CONTACT with my "fellow activists" at the Gala Banquet, the last night of the conference. I flirt with my male seatmates, particularly Dave, an earnest, balding 30-something who runs a Creationist petting zoo in Austin, Texas. Dave tells me that busloads of public school children visit his menagerie every day, becoming a captive audience for his tirades against the theory of evolution. "I tell them God created the llama, God created the goat," he explains, smiling. Dave also lets me in on a wonderful quote from Ecclesiastes 10:2, one he has used successfully in political organizing for the Coalition: "A wise man's heart inclines him toward the right; but a fool's heart toward the left." (I recall that instructive bit of scripture being sold in various forms upstairs in the convention marketplace.) I commiserate with Bob, a tall, calm actuary who has just endured a battle against a "gay special-rights[sic] bill" in Broward County, Florida. "We're fighting off another one in West Palm Beach, where I live," he says. Dave chimes in: He's depressed because the Austin city council just put money for domestic- partner insurance coverage in the city's budget. The third man at my table, an urbane businessman named Bill, shocks me by saying he dislikes Oliver North. "I have to fault him for lying to Congress. I do agree with what he stands for, but he shouldn't have lied." I must say I'm a little disappointed by Bill's lack of hypocrisy. How can I report that a member of this group showed moral scruples I admire? The women at my table are scarier. Gloria, a grim 30-year-old Floridian, sits next to Bob. (Are they husband and wife or just comrades? There sure isn't sexual energy between them, but then it's hard to imagine Gloria radiating sexual warmth for anybody.) A trio of well-heeled Midwestern women in their 60s train cold glances on me. Can they tell I'm queer, or is it simply that I can't figure out how to charm them? In my fantasy, they can smell right through my hetero pretense, as dogs are supposed to smell fear. Finally one of the ladies warms up to me when I turn the conversation to gay culture. "I saw a homosexual on a talk show claiming that he had a homosexual heritage," Marlie begins affably. "It's very, very easy to reply to that. You just say, `What homosexual heritage? There is no homosexual heritage.'" Our table's attention is caught. Soon, the eight of us are talking about nothing but homosexuality. "I have this idea for a bumper sticker I want to make and sell through the American Spectator," Dave says animatedly. "It would say, `Warning: Homophobe on Board.' Bob offers his own method for countering gay rights: "It's easy. You just have to explain to people that the rectum was not designed for sexual contact." The entire table discusses the (to me) delicious notion of rectal design (Does the designer sign his name? What were the sketches like? I wonder inwardly) until we get to the subject of the Metropolitan Community Church, which fascinates my companions. "It's a church for gays and lesbians," Bill tells me gently, like someone forced to explain an obscenity to a small child. Dave urges me to check out a book called Gays, AIDS, and You, one of the best sources he's ever read about gay bowel syndrome. It's just another day with the antigay activists, and I have found their attraction. How pleasant to sit around chewing the fat about the people you hate and fighting to keep them from gaining public acceptance. How pleasant even if you belong to the group you hate. How alluring not to think and never to resist. -30- Note(s) by David Rice: [1] To give vent to angry disapproval; protest vehemently. To attack with words, inveigh against, passive of invehere, to carry in. [2] The "Christian" Coalition is a group of cults that do not always see eye-to-eye on many theological issues, but they have joined demonic forces to achieve a common goal. The lack of kinship Ms. Minkowitz reports does not surprise me.


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