When Dignity Is Assaulted

The front lines of the culture wars shifted to Cincinnati this fall, and as is so often the case in wars of all kinds, truth was the first casualty.

The battlefield this time was a citywide ballot initiative that sought to outlaw protection of gay and lesbian civil rights. The principal footsoldiers in this battle were Far Right conservatives, many of them rooted in fundamentalist churches, and the effort was funded in large part by the group that launched last year's anti-gay effort, "Colorado for Family Values."

The Cincinnati initiative organizers learned a valuable lesson from past efforts to remove civil rights protections from gays and lesbians. In Oregon last fall, voters soundly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have officially declared homosexuality "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse." In Colorado, the goal was the same: Stripping gays and lesbians of legal protection of their equal rights to housing, employment, and whatnot. But the strategy in the Rocky Mountain state was much more sophisticated. Claiming that equal protection of gay human rights amounted to "preferential treatment," Colorado's Amendment 2 sought to deny "protected" or "minority" status to gays and lesbians. It was approved by 54 percent of the voters (although it has been ruled unconstitutional by a Colorado district judge).

Proponents of Cincinnati's charter amendment, Issue 3, took the Colorado obfuscation a step further, calling their campaign organization "Equal Rights, Not Special Rights," and avoiding religious and moral rhetoric altogether. Instead, their television commercials said, "The Constitution gives homosexuals equal rights. Last year City Council gave them special rights. Shouldn't we stop this in Cincinnati?" The year-old city ordinance in question prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations on the basis of race, gender, age, religion, disability, marital status, Appalachian origin, or sexual orientation.

While some people undoubtedly got involved in the anti-rights initiative out of genuine moral opposition to homosexual behavior, the motives of others were not quite so guileless. Commercials during the Cincinnati campaign, for example, compared the average annual income of "homosexual households" ($55,000, according to The Wall Street Journal) with that of all families ($32,000). The coordinator of the anti-gay rights campaign told The Washington Post that "the income test plays well to white males. They're offended that homosexuals make that kind of money because they don't." It would seem that financial jealousy is insufficient reason to deny basic human rights.

Others have even more crassly sought to manipulate and exploit fear and loathing of gay and lesbian people. For example, Jerry Falwell (remember him?) recently launched a petition drive and fund-raising campaign decrying the "homosexual takeover of America" and promising a coordinated attack on "homosexual rights." Conservative activist David Noebel, in a speech this fall at Calvin College, urged Christians to "fight homosexuals."

But some church leaders have refused to yield to hate-mongering and homophobia, regardless of their own moral qualms about "homosexual behavior." Cincinnati's Catholic Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk condemned the anti-gay rights initiative, saying, "It is not right to mistreat persons or to be legally able to mistreat persons on the basis of their homosexual orientation." The Catholic bishops of Florida issued a statement in October saying that past discrimination against gays and lesbians justifies laws forbidding it, such as laws that include "sexual orientation as a category protected under the hate-crime statute[s]."

The Cincinnati initiative, which in November was blocked by a federal court ruling that it infringes on constitutionally protected rights, was a dry run for what this year promises to be virtually a national referendum on gay and lesbian rights. In 1994, "no special rights" will be on state and local ballots in 14 states, most of them modeled after the Colorado (and Cincinnati) campaigns.

Those seeking to deny basic human rights to a segment of the population have, at this point, successfully defined the terms of the debate. Most people will vote to deny "special rights" to any group or individual, if that's how the question is phrased.

But if the movement is clearly understood for what it is - an attempt to strip people of their God-given human rights and dignity because of who they are - then people of conscience everywhere will forcefully reject such efforts. Regardless of what moral or theological positions churches hold regarding gay and lesbian sexual behavior, all Christians can and should unite around a commitment to defend people's basic rights.

But the church cannot in good conscience take a passive approach to this question. It is, after all, other Christians who have taken the lead in this thinly disguised but mean-spirited assault on human dignity. Biblically based Christians who operate out of a more loving and compassionate framework must meet the challenge head-on and forcefully oppose this deceptive, homophobic campaign of the Far Right.

This is not merely a task for those operating out of a liberal theological and political framework. It is especially a challenge to those who have raised biblically based arguments against gay and lesbian involvement in sexual relationships - predominantly in the evangelical and Catholic branches of the church - but who stand for social action on behalf of human rights. In the context of this ongoing, coordinated campaign against human dignity, one cannot simply wax theoretical or try to be neutral. It's time to stand up and be counted.

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"When Dignity Is Assaulted"
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