Published in: September-October 2004 issue.


The Logic of Humiliation  The images of torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib Prison horrified an American public already weary of a prolonged war in Iraq, and the GLBT community reacted with special horror because many of the photos showed the prisoners engaged in real or simulated homosexual acts. The use of such acts as the ultimate humiliation is fraught with homophobia, as a number of gay and lesbian writers pointed out. That’s what makes it so odd that some conservative pundits tried to blame the Abu Ghraib nightmare on—you guessed it—gay people! Robert Knight of the Culture & Family Institute, for example, reasoned that the choice of this method of torture by the U.S. guards was caused by a culture of permissiveness in which homosexuality is no longer viewed as a big deal. “We were told homosexuality is harmless and normal, and the military should live with a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy that allows homosexuals to stay in the barracks,” complained Knight in an article. Isn’t this rather like saying that the use of stoning as a punishment in the Old Testament is due to the Hebrews’ lax attitude toward rocks? Earth to Knight: the whole point of torture is to inflict the ultimate degradation on your captives, precisely that which is most horrifying or repellent, not what your society has come to accept.

Choose Your Tradition  Opponents of same-sex marriage are fond of saying that they’re defending a “traditional institution” that hasn’t changed for x thousand years. Proponents have countered that the definition of marriage has changed since ancient times—or even since the Victorian Age, when women were still viewed as men’s property. Actually, you don’t even have to go back that far to find definitions of basic social concepts in transition. The editors of the American Heritage Dictionary recently broadened its definition of “marriage” to reflect the recent change in its usage. Blame the gay rights movement for that; but the editors also point out that the dictionary’s definition of “family” has undergone major revision in the last forty years, reflecting the gradual movement away from the “nuclear” family toward a range of possible combinations of men, women, and children. But the nuclear family itself is a rather recent phenomenon: go back a couple more generations and “traditional family” meant an extended set of relatives covering three or more generations. So when religious conservatives defend what they call “traditional family values,” by which they seem to mean the 1950’s-style family of mom, dad, and 2.5 kids, they’re talking about a demographic phenomenon that had about the same lifespan as the four-door station wagon.

Latest Latter-Day Saint  If the Catholic Church continues to struggle with how to accommodate its gay and lesbian members, the Protestant way is to spin a new church off from the one that’s rejecting you—and the more homophobic the mother church, the more necessary such a spinoff may be. Thus it is that gay and lesbian Mormons have founded their own church—actually its origins go back to 1985—called the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ (RC), with a predominantly gay and lesbian clergy and membership. As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, the RC adheres to the Book of Mormon, “but also has its own book of scripture, Hidden Treasures and Promises, which contains revelations members believe were given to church leaders by God.” Not surprisingly, the new teachings provide dispensation from the traditional Mormon requirement of complete chastity except within (heterosexual) marriage, permitting gay couples to have sexual relationships without losing the blessing of the gospel. The Tribune article, which assumes a fair amount of familiarity with the Mormon religion, notes that: “Like the LDS [Latter Day Saints] Church, Restorationists have endowment ceremonies but they do not do them as proxies for others nor do baptism for the dead.” What this means is not entirely clear, so it may be best not to speculate on how the RC might adapt these practices to accommodate the teachings of the latest latter-day saint.

Bush a “Sodomite”?  That’s the question that was raised by the journal Tikkun in a piece that considered how a literal interpretation of the biblical story of Sodom might apply to modern times. An accurate reading of Genesis reveals that the sin of Sodom was actually “the Sodomites’ general refusal to treat the powerless in a welcoming and generous way.” The article then observes that policies pursued by the Bush administration include tax giveaways for the rich and a denial of funding for programs that help the powerless and the poor. “While the billionaires rejoice in their windfalls, and the millionaires stuff the pockets of the various organizations created to promote Bush’s reelection, the poor are increasingly treated as pariahs.” Since the people of the biblical town were guilty of just this kind of behavior, the article concludes, this makes Bush and his cronies the true Sodomites—not those who are trying to acquire licenses to marry their life partners.

No Place for Lovers  The so-called “red states” seem to be embarked upon a race to the bottom when it comes to passing laws and amending their constitutions to make absolutely sure that same-sex partners will never, ever be able to be married or domestically partnered or to derive the slightest benefit therefrom. And we have a winner: Virginia is the state with the most virulently anti-gay law to date. Described by The Washington Post as “jaw-dropping” in its breadth, Virginia’s new law effectively nullifies contractual rights between same-sex partners. Banned by the law is any “partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage.” The law targets such contracts as wills, leases, and child-custody arrangements between same-sex couples, but who knows what other types of contracts between “persons of the same sex” might be challenged? “Nothing so homophobic has ever been enacted into law in this nation’s history,” commented a law professor. Jonathan Rauch, a Virginia resident and author of Gay Marriage, likened it to the Jim Crow laws that established a separate legal caste for African-Americans in the American South. And while we’re straining for historical comparisons to capture just how bad this law truly is, be it remembered that one of the first anti-Semitic acts of the Nazis was the passage of laws limiting the right of Jews to enter into private contracts. This is scary stuff.

The End of Insult  Who’s hurt by extending the right to marry to same sex-couples? At least one person appears to be: Madonna’s former bodyguard and boyfriend, James Albright, who sued for defamation when a book (Madonna, 2001) and two periodicals published a photograph that misidentified him as a gay man. Citing the Massachusetts ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, a New York judge has ruled that calling someone gay may not be construed as defamatory. To rule otherwise, reasoned U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner, would be “to legitimize the prejudice and bigotry that for too long have plagued the homosexual community.” The Judge went on to point out that the suit was lame on other grounds—for example, the book devotes a chapter to Albright’s decidedly hetero affair with Madonna—and implied that the plaintiff was a gold-digger trying to use antigay prejudice to make a buck. And while this case might be trifling, the Judge’s ruling advances the larger argument that calling someone gay is no longer an insult and thus not subject to legal restraint. Let us hope that she’s right!

Calling Our Bluff  Springfield was the first community in Massachusetts to initiate a policy that would require same-sex couples to marry in order to qualify for domestic partner benefits. Other cities and companies in the Commonwealth can be expected to follow suit, meaning that gay couples will increasingly have to put their money where their mouths are if they want to keep their benefits. So far, GLBT organizations have taken a “not so fast” stance on this development, but Springfield’s logic appears unassailable. Gay rights organizations have always opposed the idea of extending domestic partner benefits to straight couples living together, so the handwriting would seem to be on the wedding invitation for similarly domiciled same-sex couples. But then, public policy has been coercing couples to get married, even when they would prefer not to, for centuries.