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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Despite advances, religion still threatens the rights of lesbian and gay people in America

By Adrian Tippetts

Isolation, intimidation and violent abuse are a fact of life for a large proportion of young LGBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) people in Americatoday. Statistics show that, compared to their straight counterparts, gay adolescents are much more likely to experience bullying, commit suicide or suffer homelessness as a result of rejection by their families. Determined to tackle this, the State ofCalifornia passed a law last week, requiring all public schools to teach about the accomplishments of gays and lesbians in history.

Before the signature on the bill dried, an entirely predictable chorus of self-pity erupted from well-connected religious demagogues who see any recognition and protection of LGBT people as an act of persecution against Christians and an attack on family values. ‘Reverend’ Lou Sheldon, whose Traditional Values Coalition represents over 43,000 churches in America, rages about the ‘molesting the minds of young, impressionable youth’, while Randy Thomasson, head of Save California warns that ‘we are heading for civil war’.

It’s no surprise to hear this from Dominionists for whom such legislation makes a Talibanised American theocracy a little harder to achieve. What is disturbing, though, is that numerous journalists in the UK, (usually blogging at the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator and the Daily Mail) fall for this trick, while remaining incapable of the slightest empathy for those who really are at the receiving end of bigotry.

One such dupe is Dr. Tim Stanley, who opines that the ‘liberal left’ are the real ‘authoritarians’ rather than the conservatives, who are “fighting a rear-guard action to defend their right to raise their kids the way they want to,” and that “by passing this bill promoting it, liberals are directly challenging their moral conscience.”

Well, religious families in the States have every right — bestowed upon them by the First Amendment — to tell their kids that homosexuality is sinful. Thankfully, that same amendment, and the Virginia Statute, prevents any privilege being accorded to any religious belief — not just Christianity — by the state, which is required to make no law in respect of religion, to protect inalienable rights of citizens from the very changeable beliefs of others.

And what about the reality? Science accepts that homosexuality as a natural, neutral, mostly fixed and harmless state of a small minority of the population. This is not authoritarian dogma: it is fact, based on overwhelming evidence, both from everyday experience of well-adjusted gay people and scientific study.

In spite of all the evidence, Dr. Stanley argues against teaching about gay people in a positive light in schools because it is ‘controversial’, as many today believe homosexuality — unlike civil rights for non-whites — to be ‘immoral’. The school syllabus, he says, should reflect the values of the local communities they serve.

In effect, Stanleyis arguing for truth to be decided by geography and mob rule. By such logic, desegregation of schools would have been delayed by decades, and one could imagine, today, enclaves of apartheid persisting in Deep Southheartlands. Furthermore, it would sanction the indoctrination of children with Creationist junk science, as four in ten believe the Earth to be under 10,000 years old. These views do not become closer to the truth or more deserving of respect simply because lots of people might believe them.

The federally-funded school cannot play a neutral role. The state has a moral duty to equip the next generation with the latest knowledge about the world around them, and the critical faculties to confront and question their presuppositions, so they can best contribute to a diverse society.

In the case of talking about homosexuality, it is important some rational counterweight is made to the mass of propaganda by the Christian Right. Hardline organisations, like the Family Research Council which openly calls for the re-criminalisation of homosexuality, have made a business out of demonising gay people as disease-ridden, dangerous paedophiles and belittling their relationships. It’s not hard to imagine such rhetoric helps fuel hate-crime statistics in which LGBT people are also over-represented. Tellingly,Stanley expresses revulsion, not at the authors for such hate-fuelled nonsense, but at those who work hard to challenge them.

There is hope: surveys show growing support for same-sex marriage, especially among the young. No doubt this has been helped by gay people increasingly coming out to friends and family. In spite of the personal risk, such everyday acts of courage do wonders to dispel these myths. Exposing beliefs that are incoherent, irrespective of whether these are a matter of ‘conscience’ or not is a civilised, tolerant society’s best defence against a public sphere overrun by fanatics and sociopaths. Such exposure is not ‘bigotry’ as, unlike in the case of sex, race or sexual orientation, the proponents can, with a dose of reason, easily change their minds.

Published Fri, 29 Jul 2011