The Holy War on Gays
by Robert Dreyfuss
This article appeared in the Rolling Stones Magazine March 18, 1999
The Christian Right is on a new mission: To drive homosexuality back into the closet. Inside the war rooms of evangelical intolerance.
On a stormy day in mid-January 1996, about twenty leaders of the Christian right wing met in the basement of a Baptist church in Memphis. Representing a such large organizations as the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, the Mississippi-based American Family Association and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the activists had come together to launch an anti-homosexual network, which they called the National Pro-Family forum. What drove them the most that day was their alarm over a growing friendliness in America to the idea of gay and lesbian marriages.
Brainstorming during the course of a nine-hour discussion, they hammered out a national strategy to combat American’s increasing tolerance of homosexuality. And since then, meeting three or four times a year, the expanding group has coordinated a powerful counter offensive to the gay-right movement.
A few weeks after its initial meeting, the National Pro-Family Forum’s first action splashed onto the national scene during the February Iowa presidential caucus. Christian-right activists invited Republican presidential candidates to appear at an event held in a church in Des Moines, Iowa, where in front of more than 200 reporters, each candidate signed a pledge declaring his opposition to gay marriage. “No one was paying attention to the issue of same-sex marriages up to that point” says Phil Burress, a Cincinnati activist who organized the Memphis meeting. “And then all of sudden – BAM! This was an issue that was being debated nationwide!”
And the center of that debate was the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which defines marriage in the federal law as the union of a man and a woman. The bill was sketched out a the Memphis gathering; it was refined in the weeks afterward by Robert Knight, director of cultural studies at the Family Research Council, with help from Christian legal scholars, including the National Legal Foundation in Virginia, founded by Robertson.
Designed as a response to the consideration of gay marriages by Hawaiian courts, DOMA was an effort to prevent the legal authority of such unions from spreading to the continental United States; it also precludes same-sex couples from receiving federal spousal benefits. The bill sailed through Congress, spearheaded by Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., ironically twice divorced, thrice married himself. And, with apparent reluctance, President Bill Clinton went along. “The president signed it in the middle of the night, in the wee hours”, says Knight. “And only after [then-White house spokesman Mike] McCurry called it a hate-driven bill.” Since 1996, twenty-eight states have passed parallel legislation, ensuring that they would not have to recognize gay marriages approved by any other state.
The 1996 candidate pledges in Iowa and the passage of DOMA were the opening shouts in a nationwide campaign, fueled by the Christian right, to roll back gains won by gay activists since the 1980’s. Marshaling a political and religious force 30 million strong, who fervently believe that the Bible demands thy they condemn homosexuality, the network of Christian-right groups is trying to slam the door on America’s uncomfortable but increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians. Its leaders predict society’s collapse if the gay-rights agenda were to succeed. Sincere, passionate and implacable sometimes seemingly obsessed, the anti-gay movement sees gay rights as a pink dagger aimed at the heart of American family life.
In January 1998, the Christian right provided a convincing demonstration of its ability to inspire its voters to the polls. A wicked ice storm had coated Maine in a frozen blanked that felled trees, snapped power lines and paralyzed roads across the state. It was a storm-of-the-century event, trapping thousands in their homes and closing businesses and schools. But on February 10th, led by legions of motivated Christians, voters ignored the ice and tuned out for a election; they overturned Maine’s 1997 Human Rights Act by margin of four percent. That law, passed less than a year earlier, prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in jobs, housing, credit and public accommodations.
The vote was a stunning victory for the state chapters of the Christian Collation and the Christian Civic League, the two groups that had a petitioned for the referendum. Maine’s political establishment and gay-rights groups across the country were stunned. “The opposition did not realize the extent of our grass roots movement,” says Paul Volle, who heads the Christian Coalition of Maine.
Until last summer, however, the Christian rights anti-gay crusade operated largely out of view, bursting into the open windfall-scale political battles like Maine’s –and others in Colorado, Oregon, Ohio and elsewhere-flared up. Since the fall of 1997, when openly gay San Francisco philanthropist James Hormel was first nominated to be ambassador to Luxembourg, anti-gay forces have been protesting, warning darkly that he would be a spokesman for the “homosexual agenda”. Despite to their concerns, he was nominated.
Last July, things became very public when fifteen organizations belonging to the National Pro-Family Form launched the truth in love campaign, a $ 500, 000 advertising blitz in national newspapers proclaiming that homosexuals to ”can change”, featuring “ex- gays” who have “walked out of homosexuality into sexual celebrity or even marriage.”
A who’s who of anti gay groups sponsored the ad campaign—from the Christian Coalition, the AFA, the FRC and American for Truth About Homosexuality – as well as large media-savvy Christian churches like Coral Ridge Ministries, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The ads through withering fire from gay—rights activists, who called them hate-filled and homophobic, which the sponsors bitterly denied. And the media, drawn to conflict, gave wide exposure to the ads, from Newsweek (a cover story), to People, and ABC’s Nightline.
Then, at the height of the controversy last October, a gay college student named Matthew Shepherd was savagely battered in Wyoming and left to bleed to death, tied scarecrow like to a fence along a deserted roadside. Shepherds death shocked the country and gave to renewed calls for federal hate-crime legislation. Christian right activists, too, denounced Shepherds murder. But because they’d spread the gospel of anti-homosexuality, they were criticized on the premise that their declarations can foment violent gay bashing.
“Words have consequences,” says Wayne Besen, a spokesman before the Human Rights campaign, a gay rights group in Washington D C. “You can see it in any school yard in America.”
And all of a sudden, the National Battle over gay rights was once again front and center. Abortion and homosexuality are the top preoccupations for much of the Christian right. Indeed, the gay rights issue has become an important source of cash through direct mail appeals to carefully cultivated list of supporters. “It’s a very lucrative target for them,” says Deanna Derby, former director of education policy at People for the American Way, a civil rights group. “It brings in a lot of money.”
Not only that, but the message to the broader audience—honed in response to advances in gay rights—has become more sophisticated and, and a perverse way, politically correct. The meaning of the Truth in Love ads is couched in terms are Christian “love” for the homosexual sinner. Another strategy has proved very successful and electoral battles in Maine, Oregon, Colorado, and Ohio; ignoring evidence of hate crimes and discrimination against gays, the Christian right portrays efforts to secure equal rights for gays as a bid for “special rights” that give them privileges other Americans don’t have. “We haven’t found an defective way of countering that,” says Rebecca Isaacs, political director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
If the army of Christian soldiers in the homosexuality wars has a general it FRC’s Robert Knight. In 1996, as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, Knight concluded a long, gradual process of thought and medication; at that point, he says, “I gave my life to Jesus Christ.” Though he spent three more years at the Times, Knight was a changed man, having descended to commit himself to Christianity. After stints at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the Heritage Foundation, Washington’s premiere conservative think tank, he moved to the F R C. “Just look at the human body!” Says Knight. “You can’t fool nature. The rectum was not made for sexual activity.” Then, impishly, he adds, “it is an exit ramp, not an entry ramp.” Boyish and almost baby-faced, Knight, 47, is urgently sincere. “I’ve let Jesus Christ come into my life,” he says. “When you meet God face to face, you understand how far short you have fallen of God’s standards.” He hands me a pamphlet, “The Bible and Homosexuality,” which cites the passages from Genesis, Leviticus, Judges, Samuel 1 and 2, Romans, Timothy 1 and Corinthians I in which conservative Christians believe homosexuality is condemned. By far the most famous is the story of Lot in Sodom (Genesis 19:1-29), where an unruly crowd of men demand that Lot hand over some men, or angels, “So that we may know them” (in FRC’s translation: “So that we can have sex with them”) At that point, God destroyed Sodom.
Those passages and numerous others are nothing less than God’s law for many Christians, though many others theologians dispute the exact meaning and relevance of each and every passage. Knight’s blue eyes are unblinking as he warns that America’s “man-based culture” could shudder and fall with the advent of a sexual revolution brought about by gays. “As man is reduced in stature, all hell will break loose,” he says. “We’ll see a breakdown in social organizations, with more drug use, more disease, more unwanted pregnancies. You’re mainstreaming dysfunction.”
As the war room for the Christian right’s anti-gay campaign, the Family Research Council is a formidable force. House in a luxurious modern building in downtown Washington, D.C., FRC (slogan: “Family, Faith and Freedom”) is a $14 million-a-year operation that lobbies Congress and state legislatures, and churns out a steady stream of books, pamphlets and monographs on homosexuality; pornography, school prayer and abortion. FRC’s monthly Washington Watch reaches more than 400,000 homes, and its radio broadcasts are heard daily on 400 stations across the country.
Previously, FRC was part of Focus on the Family, James Dobson’s sprawling empire based in Colorado Springs, nestled against the Rockies. Dobson, a child psychologist and the author of Dare to Discipline, a book advocating corporal punishment for children, founded Focus on the Family in 1977, working out of a tiny office in Arcadia, California. Since moving to Colorado, Focus has grown astonishingly, into a $109 million-a-year ministry employing 1,300 people, who produce a dozen different radio and television broadcasts, fourteen publications (including its flagship monthly magazine, Focus on the Family, with a circulation of 2.5 million) and a wide rage of films and videos. Though virtually unknown to the general population, Dobson is wildly popular among his millions of followers, who listen daily to the Focus on the Family broadcasts on more than 1,900 radio outlets.
In 1992, as the FRC shifted its emphasis to lobbying Congress, Focus spun off FRC as a freestanding operation, though they have retained close ties.
Like many of his allies, Bob Knight believes that gays die younger, take more drugs, take more risks and engage in a wide range of anti-social conduct. Treading on highly controversial ground, Knight warns that the “gay agenda” targets children. “They are luring kids into a homosexual behavior,” says Knight. In a 1993 speech, he said, “There is a strong undercurrent of pedophilia in the homosexual subculture.”
If Knight is the movement’s general, his lieutenant is Pete LaBarbera of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality. Energetic and fast-talking, LaBarbera, 36, was a liberal and an activist with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now in the early 1980’s. Spurred by anti-communism and support of President Reagan’s 1983 invasion of Grenada, LaBarbera gravitated toward the right while a student at the University of Michigan. His personal “Damascus road” moment came thirteen years ago, when he met a woman- “ a missionary” he says – who helped him develop a “personal relationship with God.” With his intensified religious fervor came a growing revulsion toward homosexuality. Since 1993, LaBarbera has put out The Lambda Report, which is devoted exclusively to news about the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender world as seen through Christian-activist eyes. Though its circulation is just 3,000, the publication is notorious for it exposes of what LaBarbera sees as the unseemly and often lurid activities associated with the “gay lifestyle”. He regularly goes under cover to gay-rights meetings, gay bars and other locales, then recounts in near pornographic detail episode of fellatio, masturbation and sadomasochistic sex that he claims to observe. (Warning: Contains graphic descriptions” reads the subhead for one recent Lambda Report “exclusive” on a Washington D.C., “dungeon dance.”)
The Christian Right succeeds by tapping into American’s deep ambivalence toward homosexuality. Polls show a kind of schizophrenia: People seem to strongly favor anti-discrimination measures and other civil rights protections for gays and lesbians, while at the same time they view homosexuality negatively- a sort of distasteful tolerance. A national survey conducted in the Washington Post found that fifty-seven percent of Americans questioned considered homosexuality unacceptable; when asked about gay sex, seventy-two percent called it unacceptable. Yet an overwhelming eight-seven percent believe that homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities.
Americans’ growing tolerance frustrates the Christian right, but its
leaders counter balance this trend with considerable political clout. In
Congress, a substantial bloc of senators and congressmen owe their allegiance,
if not their election, to the Christian Coalition and it allies. They have a
powerful grass foots apparatus along with a widespread network of radio and
television outlets that millions of Christians turn to for alternative sources
for news and opinion.
Indeed, the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, was credited to the power of the Christian right, and many of the freshman elected to Congress that year reinforced a loosely organized “God squad” on issues like homosexuality, abortion and school prayer. One member of that class, former Rep. Randy Tate, R-Wash, lost his bid for reelection in 1996, and now heads the Christian Coalition.
Especially, for Bible Belt Republicans in Congress, the Christian right has a make-or-break power. In Republican primaries where turnout is relatively low, groups like the Christian Coalition and focus on the Family can mobilize militant, committed voters at the polls. This edge in the primaries gives the groups access to the highest levels of the Republican party in Washington, including senate Majority Leader Trent Lott; last year, Lott won their praise when he compared homosexuality to disorders like alcoholism and kleptomania. Many other highly visible politicians, including Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla; Sen. James Inhofe, F-Okla; Sen. Jesse Helms, R-NC; Rep. Bob Inglis, R-SC, and Rep Henry Hyde, R-Ill, have publicly disparaged gays.
Still, many on the Christian right are angry that the GOP doesn’t pay more attention to their issues. Last year, Dobson threatened a complete break with the GOP when he believed that the Christian right was getting short shrift from the national Republican leadership. He and other like minded activists met in May with Republican House leaders, who promised to attend to the social conservative agenda. In July, House Republicans introduced a proposal to deny federal housing money to communities that provide benefits for unmarried domestic partners, another proposal seeks to block President Clinton’s efforts to prevent job discrimination against gay and lesbian federal employees.
I’m living proof that truth can set you free: The headline of a full-page ad appears below a photograph of an attractive, dark-haired woman, smiling and with her left hand held up to prominently display a wedding band. The caption reads: “Anne Paulk-wife, mother, former lesbian”. Also pictured are members of Exodus International, a worldwide network of Christian ministries devoted to helping gays and lesbians “confront the truth of their sexual sin.” The Truth in Love advertising campaign originated in the ten-acre Fort Lauderdale campus of Coral Ridge Ministries, whose awe-inspiring 300 foot spire looms over Federal Highway. Coral Ridge is the home of the dynamic Rev. D. James Kennedy, who has been preaching in Florida since the 1950’s. While Kennedy’s congregation of more than 9,000 members often swells with worshipers from around the country, it is through The Coral Ridge Hour that Kennedy reaches as estimated 3.5 million people weekly on 1,200 radio and television stations and two cable networks. Kennedy, who is dignified, articulate and fatherly, openly advocates that America should be transformed into the “Christian Republic”. Janet Folger, a former anti-abortion activist from Ohio, is director of the Center for Reclaiming America, the ministry’s political arm. Like many of her fellow Christian activists, Folger projects an aggrieved, set-upon mentality, arguing that Bible-Believing Christians are the true victims of discrimination, not gays. The FRC’s The Other Side of Tolerance: Victims of Homosexual Activism says that “many men and women of faith.. have lost their jobs or been disciplined for standing against the homosexual agenda.” It is a constant refrain. “We have been picketed” says Folger. “They say our whole side is extreme, that we are religious-political extremists.” That feeling contributed to how upset and angry Folger became over denunciations of Trent Lott for his comparison of gays to alcoholics. She proposed to members of the National Pro-Family Forum that they conduct an outreach campaign through advertising. “We wanted to express a message of hope,” says Folger. “We wanted to tell homosexuals that you can change.”
Folger’s proposal, which was enthusiastically accepted by Coral Ridge and eventually, sponsored by more than a dozen groups, was not Coral Ridge’s first foray into the anti-gay movement. The ministry pours money into anti-gay-rights ballot measures and the National Legal Foundations. Coral Ridge’s media sophistication allowed it to easily assemble the ad campaign. Soon afterward, Anne Paulk found herself staring from newspaper pages across the country. Paulk and her formerly gay husband, John Paulk, have become spokespeople for the “ex-gay” movement. She says that by surrendering to God she managed to abandon her lesbian life for heterosexuality: “I was able to finally give all my relations to God and begin a the real road to healing.” John paulk, who had been a drag queen and gay prostitute, now chairs Exodus International. Founded in Anaheim, California, in 1976, Exodus today includes ninety-seven affiliated ministries. It receives 400 to 600 inquires a month from homosexuals and their families, say Bob Davies, the group’s North American director. A large stable of therapists and counselors, many of them affiliated with the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals, often works with Exodus clients to help them shed their gay identity.
The ads generated considerable backlash. To most medical experts, including the American Psychiatric Association, therapists engaging in so-called “reparative therapy” aimed at changing the sexual orientation of gay patients borders on malpractice. On December 14th, the APA warned, “The potential risk of “reparative Therapy” are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior… The American Psychiatric Association opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as “reparative” or “conversion “ therapy, which is based on the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or … that the patient should change his/her sexual orientation”. Indeed, since the early 1970s, virtually the entire medical profession has undergone a sea change in favor of accepting homosexuality. But that hardly deterred the anti-gay movement, which claims that the APA, along with the American Psychological Association and other societies, has surrendered to pressure and intimidation tactics by gay-rights activists. A television ad campaign promoting the ex-gay philosophy is in the works.
While the conservative Christians who champion reparative therapy say they are motivated by sympathy for trouble gays, that is not true of everyone in the crusade against homosexuality. Extremists advocate the death penalty for gays, based on a radical interpretation of the Bible. The most notorious Anti-gay activist is the Rev Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro, Baptist church in Kansas, whose Web-site address is godhatesfags.com. To a man, the mainstream Christian-right groups have denounced Phelps, and he in turn has denounced the religious right as a “lukewarm cowards.” Phelps’ followers actually picket funeral of gay people. “ We display large, colorful signs containing bible words and sentiments,” says Phelps, including “GOD HATES FAGS, FAGS HATE GOD, AIDS CURES FAGS, THANK GOD FOR AIDS, FAGS BURN IN HELL, etc”. He cites “statistics’ such as, “The average fag fellates 106 men, swallows fifty seminal discharges, has seventy-two penile penetrations of the anus and ingests feces of twenty three different men every year.”
One thing that Phelps has in common with the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition and ex gay ministries like Exodus is that they all refer to the work of Dr. Paul Cameron, founder of the Family Research Institute and ISIS, the institute for the Scientific Investigation of Sexuality. Cameron, 59, a former psychologist based in Colorado Springs, issues a stream of data often used by anti-gay activists: that gays are far more likely than straights to molest children, that gays are more likely to commit crimes as mundane as tax evasion or shoplifting, and so on. “We’re kind of the wellspring of most of the statistics about the gay lifestyle.” Cameron says. Cameron, who in the 1980s called for quarantining gays to prevent the spread of AIDS, has been attacked not only by gay-rights groups but also by psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists, who have engaged in decades long war with Cameron. Like many of his allies, Cameron believes that, if left unchecked, homosexuality will destroy America like God did Sodom. “Untrammeled homosexuality can take over and destroy a social system,” says Cameron. “If you isolate sexuality as something solely for one’s own personal amusement, and all you want is the most satisfying orgasm you can get- and that is what homosexuality seems to be-then homosexuality seems too powerful to resist. The evidence is that men do a better job on men and women on women, if all you are looking for is orgasm.” So powerful is the allure of gays, Cameron believes, that if society approves that gay people, more and more heterosexuals will be inexorably drawn into homosexuality. “I’m convinced that lesbians are particularly good seducers,” says Cameron. “People in homosexuality are incredibly evangelical,” he adds, sounding evangelical himself. “It’s pure sexuality. It’s almost like pure heroin. It’s such a rush. They are committed in almost a religious way. And they’ll take enormous risks, do anything.” He says that for married men and women, gay sex would be irresistible. “Martial sex tends toward the boring end,” he points out. “Generally, it doesn’t deliver the kind of sheer sexual pleasure that homosexual sex does” So, Cameron believes, within a few generations homosexuality would be come the dominant form of sexual behavior.
Whether or not one agrees with Cameron’s views, his research has been used efficiently by the Christian right During the 1990s in the campaign to overturn advances by gays and lesbians, and, it can be argued, to darken the prospects for peaceful acceptance of homosexuality. Gay rights activist David Garrity says that the referendum in Maine has intensified anti homosexual feelings there. “We all noticed a huge increase in harassment—a great number of shouts from teenagers in cars while we were walking on the street,” he says. “I can think of five incidents like that myself.” Tracking violent incidents, either state wide or nationally, is difficult. But according to the FBI’s latest data, in 1997 therefore 1,102 recorded hate crimes linked to sexual orientation, mostly aimed at gay males. The National Coalition of Anti- Violence Programs gives a figure of 2,445. The coalition also tracked sharp increases of anti gay violence during ballot initiative debates in Colorado and Oregon.
Following the Maine vote, the Christian Coalition announced its intention to launch a campaign called Families 2000, seeking “repeal of legislation giving special rights based on sexual behavior” in other states and “defeat of state gay adoption laws.” As a result of the Maine initiative, the coalition noted, “we add 100,000 new names to our organization in Maine.” With its complementary strategies portraying sexual orientation as a simple choice and arguing that gays wants special rights, the anti gay movement is only growing stronger.