CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN POLITICS features a phenomenon that would have baffled Anita Bryant in 1977: the stealthy homophobe. Bryant looked voters in the eye and said that gay people were a threat to society. Right-wing political figures in the 21st century often act on the same belief but lack Bryant’s candor.
Consider the secret campaign by the religious Right—including the shadowy network called “The Family”—to spread homophobia in Africa. They escaped detection until their Ugandan acolytes responded with a proposal for genocide. When an international furor erupted, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a “Family” insider, sought to distance himself from the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHB), even though he had been present in Uganda as it was being planned. Fundamentalist fakir Rick Warren adopted a posture of studied nonchalance, until his close ties to the Rev. Martin Sempa, organizer of the March 2009 Kampala hate conference that was the impetus for the AHB, were revealed. Warren promptly threw his friend of many years under the proverbial bus.
The new governor of Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell, has in the space of twenty years been both candid and disingenuous about his incontrovertible aversion to the GLBT community. In 1989, while a graduate student at Pat Robertson’s “Regent University,” McDonnell espoused with notable clarity the view that public policy should actively disfavor gay people so as to coerce heterosexual conformity in keeping with his sectarian beliefs. McDonnell went so far as to oppose freedom for GLBT Americans: “Man’s basic nature is inclined towards evil, and when the exercise of liberty takes the shape of pornography, drug abuse, or homosexuality, the government must restrain, punish, and deter.” In 2003, he argued that gays and lesbians who were not celibate should be disqualified from judicial office.
McDonnell had changed his tune by the time he was running for governor. Confronted with his own past statements, McDonnell described them as an “academic exercise” and said they were “irrelevant” to the gubernatorial campaign, which he succeeded in limiting to economic issues. He vaguely suggested that some of his views had changed, but never quite repudiated his ideological opposition to gay equality.
Unfortunately, McDonnell’s “irrelevant” statements at Pat Robertson University were a better predictor of his policy choices in office than his evasions on the campaign trail. McDonnell recently rescinded the executive order put in place by his predecessor, Democrat Tim Kaine, barring discrimination against gays and lesbians in state hiring. While asserting that sexual orientation should not be a barrier to hiring, he gave managers in the Executive Branch of Virginia government discretion to reject individuals for public employment for no better reason than that they were gay. He falsely claimed that executive branch hiring policies were the province of the legislature, not the chief executive.
Another politician who was able to skate away from an anti-gay record was Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. He consistently opposed GLBT equality in the Massachusetts legislature, but swept social issues off the table in his abbreviated run for office in January’s special election. Now a senator, Brown is temporizing on the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Answerable to the socially liberal Massachusetts electorate, Brown may well conclude that his continuation in office is more important than consistency of principle, but his record hints at a deep-seated feeling that gay people are unworthy of full equality.
Dodgy homophobia works only if the magician is able to divert attention from what’s really going on. The subterfuge can be foiled. Gay and lesbian activists successfully shone a spotlight on The Family’s promotion of genocidal legislation in Africa, casting a pall over the sectarian National Prayer Breakfast, the group’s only publicized annual event. (By the way, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s attempt to play both sides of the gay debate bombed spectacularly in his ill-fated presidential run in 2008.)
The GLBT civil rights movement must act decisively to ensure that anti-gay policies and programs cannot thrive unnoticed. Accountability can work like sunlight upon a vampire, bringing surreptitious hate under such withering scrutiny as to neutralize it.
Don Gorton is a longtime gay rights activist and the founder of the Anti-Violence Project in Boston.