The sentencing of Dharun Ravi for the hateful abuse that may have driven his gay roommate at Rutgers, Tyler Clementi, to commit suicide, or Barack Obama’s public acceptance of gay marriage, prevents many of us from seeing that life for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people is getting worse—much worse.
No one understands this better than the gay activist and pastor Mel White. White, along with his husband and partner of 30 years, Gary Nixon, founded Soulforce, an organization committed to using nonviolent resistance to end religion-based oppression. White and hundreds of Soulforce volunteers protest outside megachurches that preach hatred and bigotry in the name of religion. White travels to communities where young gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgender people have committed suicide. He holds memorial services for them in front of the church doors. He accuses the pastors of these churches of murder. His books “Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America” and “Holy Terror: Lies the Christian Right Tell Us to Deny Gay Equality,” are two of the most important works that examine the innate cruelty and proto-fascism of the Christian right. White, more than perhaps any other preacher in the country, has pulled young men and women back from the brink of despair, from succumbing to the tragic fate of Tyler Clementi. And White is scared.
“What kind of environment creates a Dharun Ravi who would carry out that kind of bullying, as well as a kid like Tyler who would become a victim of that kind of bullying?” White asked when I reached him by phone at his home in Long Beach, Calif. “It is society. At its heart it is the church. The churches should be convicted, not just Ravi. He’s just an extension of the hatred that people feel about this threat, this gay threat. Pope Benedict XVI should be on trial. Richard Land from the Southern Baptists should be on trial. Religious leaders, Protestant and Catholic, should be on trial. They made this happen, but too few Americans make the connection.”
White applauds President Obama for taking a personal stand for marriage equality. But he also notes that the president’s statement was accompanied by a reiteration that states have the right to determine their own policies toward marriage.
Despite gains by gays in the wider culture, especially in the entertainment industry, and despite the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the civil rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in most states are deteriorating, White said.
“Married gays in the military are miserable,” White said. “They can get married, but they can’t have any of the rights of other married military members, including housing or travel. They can give their lives but they get so little in return.”
“Class difference is at the heart of understanding sexism and homophobia,” White said. “Class difference is based on sexism. It is based on homophobia. It is based on men who want to stay in power. And men who want to stay in power go to church. They sit in the front pews. They are generous, loving and faithful. They give away a tiny little bit to keep these churches going. Which is why I stand with the Occupy movement. At least I know I’m with people who will be on my side.”
White and Nixon left Virginia for California a few weeks ago because the culture, he says, had become increasingly inhospitable to gay couples. In distressed communities across the country there is a correlating rise in intolerance, hate talk and homophobia.
“When I moved to Lynchburg it was a blue city, in spite of Liberty University being there,” White said. “We had an amazing progressive woman, Shannon Valentine, as our state representative. She visited our home. We had a progressive mayor and a progressive City Council. In 2008 everything went to hell. Our new attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, is crazy. He talks about putting cameras up vaginas [as part of a trans-vaginal ultrasound procedure that would be required by law of all women seeking abortions]. We had so many possibilities until 2008. Then it suddenly ended. Unfortunately, more and more this is reflected across the country. The reversal came with the collapse of our financial system. Suddenly everything blue was seen as costing too much money, including helping the poor. There was a revolt led by Fox News and its allies. It’s difficult to find a restaurant or bar in Lynchburg that isn’t playing Fox News. People quote Fox as though Fox is the arbiter of truth. In fact, Fox is the enemy.”
The long-term unemployment, the collapse of housing prices, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the draconian cuts in social spending have created a climate in which the vulnerable, the different, the marginal—from Muslims to undocumented workers to homosexuals—are blamed for the nation’s decline, White argues. This climate is fueling a culture of hate. Right-wing candidates, channeling the rage and frustration of a beleaguered working and middle class, use marginal and oppressed groups as scapegoats. And, White says, those who disseminate this culture of hate lie about the positions and records of liberal elected officials such as Shannon Valentine.
“The lies against her were heinous,” White said, “but the Christian right is convinced that if you have a call to save the nation you are allowed to lie, because the ends justify the means. Jerry Falwell lied on a regular basis. We lost Shannon Valentine. We lost so much that was good about our state after that election. And this is true almost everywhere.”
The culture of hate feeds off the frustrations and feelings of betrayal among the impoverished, the unemployed, the underemployed and the hopeless. And the longer the expanding underclass is ignored, the longer we refuse to define what is happening to us in our corporate state as a vicious class struggle, the more the culture of hate spreads. The dwindling culture of tolerance, confined now mostly to white, urban, college-educated members of the middle class, because that group refuses to engage in the struggle of class warfare, unwittingly abets the economic dislocation that is empowering the increasingly potent culture of hate.
“Progressives ought to move out of New York immediately,” White went on. “Gay people should evacuate the major cities to see what life is like for gays in rural areas. The urban centers of the gay community are too isolated from wider reality. Many in these [urban] communities do not seem to care about reality. Gay people can survive, unfortunately, without paying attention to reality, especially if we’re white and male. If you’re white and male you often can pass.”
“You see Ellen DeGeneres, the most popular talk show, or you see Queen Latifah leading this week’s gay pride parade [May 20] in Long Beach, and you think all is well,” White said. “But you have to remember that in the local Baptist church, or among any of the 15 million Southern Baptist congregants, people see Ellen and Queen Latifah as a threat to family values. What we count as a forward step, they count as evil. They see it as more gay people getting power. We may watch the same television programs. But while we cheer the presence of an openly gay woman or man on television there are large numbers of people in Virginia and other states who see these public affirmations as another step towards the country’s oblivion.”
White fears that the vast sums of money available to the Christian right and groups such as the tea party (which he sees as an extension of the Christian right) are solidifying institutions from universities to media outlets in the propagation of this culture of hate. White, before he accepted his homosexuality as a gift from God, ghost-wrote autobiographies for Christian-right leaders including Falwell. White and Nixon, knowing that White’s old clients were the primary sources of anti-gay rhetoric, moved to Lynchburg. They set up house across the street from Falwell’s megachurch. They attended services and stood together in silent protest as Falwell delivered anti-gay rants from the pulpit. White watched as Liberty University rose to dominate Lynchburg.
“Liberty University is funded by fundamentalist billionaires, like the man who owns Hobby Lobby, like Chick-fil-A and the fundamentalist author who wrote these terrible books, the ‘Left Behind’ series, Tim LaHaye,” White said. “These guys are giving tens of millions of dollars to institutions such as Liberty. They see the Liberty Universities of the world as the Koch brothers do, as the bastions of training for the new Americans. They are brainwashing young people whom they hope will guide us away from the precipice of liberalism.”
Liberty is one of the fastest-growing universities in America. It has 50,000 students, on campus or taking degrees through online courses. The university built a 24-hour, all-seasons ski resort, the first in the nation. It has an Olympic-size pool and an Olympic-style ice rink. It has an accredited law school. Its debate team often beats major Ivy League teams. It is putting in a medical school. This is also a university that teaches that the oldest fossils date from only 6,000 years ago. It produces Ph.D.s who believe exclusively in creationism, reject evolution and deny that global warming exists. And it is a university that is openly hostile to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those who are transgender.
“By the time Gary and I moved away from Lynchburg a majority of Virginians seemed to be turning against gay people,” White said. “They passed a constitutional amendment against marriage equality and new laws saying we cannot adopt [children] or provide foster care. More than half the people of Virginia seem to see us as the enemy.”
As the economy unravels, as hundreds of millions of Americans confront the fact that things will not get better, life for those targeted by this culture of hate will become increasingly difficult. Rational debate will prove useless. “Fundamentalists aren’t interested in data,” White said. “They are not influenced by truth, including scientific, psychological, psychiatric or historic truth. They are not influenced by a personal experience with truth. The Bible is more important. Verses are taken out of context to condemn even sons and daughters. How do you oppose that?”
“We have 29 states that do not outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” White said. “Transgender Americans are invariably the worst victims of discrimination and violence. And yet there are 44 states that do not outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender identity. There are 44 states that have laws or constitutional amendments denying us the rights of marriage, claiming our relationships are unholy, that we’re sick and icky,” White said. “And Mr. Obama has just said marriage equality is up to the [individual] states. A majority of the states have already decided against us. If you ask a gay person in New York ‘Can we adopt?’ he will respond of course we can adopt. Can we provide foster care? Of course we can provide foster care. Can we get jobs equally? Of course we can, especially if we are white and male. But with all the progress we have made, 44 states still see us as the enemy. Add a few more states to this list and it is over. How awful it will be if these restrictions make their way to states such as Connecticut, New York and California. Remember, California is going down the tubes financially. And the fear about the nation’s financial future is the engine that drives all of this.”
“Too many of my sisters and brothers in the gay community don’t seem to understand the power of religion,” White lamented. “They have been rejected by religion. They hate the idea of religion. Therefore, they’re not going to deal with religion, which is fatal, because religion is the heart of homophobia. Without religion there would be no homophobia. What other source of homophobia is there but six verses in the Bible? When Bible literalists preach that LGBT people are going to hell they become Christian terrorists. They use fear as their weapon, like all terrorists. They are seeking to deny our religious and civil rights. They threaten to turn our democracy into a fundamentalist theocracy. And if we don’t reverse the trend there is the very real possibility that in the end we will all be governed according to their perverted version of biblical law.”