By Chris Hedges
On the morning of March 8 in Sioux Center, Iowa, two buses parked outside a hotel were found covered with anti-gay slurs, along with a hate-filled message on a piece of cardboard reading: “God does not love feary fags.”
The buses were transporting some 50 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, along with supporters, on the start of a two-month trip to 32 Christian colleges with policies that discriminate against those who are not heterosexuals. The Equality Ride, as it is known, organized by Soulforce, had first traveled to Sioux Center to visit Dordt College, a school that counts “sexual activity with someone of the same gender” as possible grounds for “an employee’s discharge or a student’s dismissal.”
The harassment is not new. During a similar series of protests last year, someone in Cleveland, Tenn., scrawled “fags-mobile” on the side of the bus. Members of the Equality Ride have been arrested for trespassing, at the West Point military academy and elsewhere, and greeted at many of their stops with active hostility. The night before the buses were spray-painted with hateful slogans, three vehicles circled the hotel where the activists were staying to harass those inside.
The website has more on the ride, including pictures of the bus graffiti. But what is important is not this specific incident, or any other recent examples of public intolerance, but the seismic shift in public mood in much of the United States, a shift largely engineered by the radical Christian right. The Christian right has begun to strip gays and lesbians of their constitutional rights and render them second-class citizens. The gay rights movement, which made many gains over the past couple of decades, is reeling backward. And the mounting persecution of gays and lesbians is ominous not only for them but for the rest of society.
I spent two years reporting and writing “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” At the numerous gatherings I attended around the country, one of the driving forces and most effective mobilizing agents was the issue of sexuality. This mass movement, led by figures such as James Dobson, claims that tolerance of “alternative lifestyles” is eroding the American family. They describe “same-sex attraction” as a disease that can be cured. And they condemn all sexual love that is not heterosexual as an abomination in the eyes of God.
Gays and lesbians still within the church, seeking desperately to deny their sexuality and remain in the Christian collective, often suffer severe depression and blows to their self-esteem. The U.S. surgeon general’s office has published data indicating that those who are young and gay are two to three times more likely to commit suicide. Those who conform, no matter what the personal cost, will find acceptance. Those who remain militant, who stand up for another way of being, must be silenced. The methods that will finally sever them and their supporters from a Christian America are often left unmentioned, but the rhetoric makes clear that there will not be a place for them. Gays and lesbians, like other enemies of Christ, are not fully human. They are “unnatural.” And preachers in the movement argue that if America does not act soon to eradicate homosexual behavior, God will punish the nation.
These attacks mask a sinister agenda that has nothing to do with sexuality. It has to do with power. The radical Christian right—the most dangerous mass movement in American history—has built a binary worldview of command and submission wherein male leaders, who cannot be questioned and claim to speak for God, are in control and all others must follow. Any lifestyle outside the traditional model of male and female is a threat to this hierarchical male power structure. Women who do not depend on men for their identity and their sexuality, who live outside a male power relationship, challenge this pervasive cult of masculinity, as do men who find tenderness and love with other men as equals. The lifestyle of gays and lesbians is intolerable to the Christian right because its existence is a threat to the movement’s chain of command, one they insist was ordained by God.
This hypermasculinity, which crushes the independence and self-expression of women, is a way for men in the movement to compensate for the curtailing of their own independence, their blind obedience to church authorities and the calls for sexual restraint. The images of Jesus often show him with thick muscles, clutching a sword. Christian men are portrayed as powerful warriors. Jesus’ stoic endurance of the brutal whippings in Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” presages the brutal, masculine world of this ideology, a world that knows little of tenderness, personal freedom, nurturing and even pleasure. Jerry Falwell, in a New Yorker interview, said Christ was not a gentle-looking, willowy man: “Christ was a man with muscles,” he insisted. Falwell and Gibson see real men, godly men, as powerful, able to endure physical pain and suffering without complaint. Jesus, like God, has to be a real man, a man who dominates through force. The language of the movement is filled with metaphors about the use of excessive force and violence against God’s enemies.
The unspoken truth is that Christian men are required to have a personal, loving relationship with a male deity and surrender their will to a male-dominated authoritarian church. The submission to church authority is a potent form of emasculation. It entails a surrendering of conscience and personal control and deadens emotions and feelings. Glorified acts of force and violence against outsiders, against nonbelievers, compensate for this unquestioning submission. The domination that men are encouraged to practice in the home over women and children becomes a reflection of the domination they are taught to endure outside the home.
This cult of masculinity keeps all ambiguity, especially sexual ambiguity, in check. It fosters this world of binary opposites: God and man, the saved and the unsaved, the church and the world, Christianity and secular humanism, and male and female. There runs through this radical belief system a dread of disorder and chaos. The belief in a binary universe helps believers avoid confronting the confusion of human existence. Reality, when it is defined in these absolutes, is made predictable and understandable. All configurations of human life that do not conform to the rigid Christian model, such as homosexuality, are forms of disorder and tools of Satan and must be abolished. A world that can be predicted and understood, a world that has clear markers, can be managed and controlled. This petrified world of fixed, immutable and established roles is a world where people, many of them damaged by bouts with failure and despair, can bury their chaotic and fragmented personalities. They can live with the illusion that they are strong, whole and protected. Those who do not fit into these rigid categories, who are not subservient to dominant Christian males, must be proselytized, converted and “cured” through quack therapy.
The Christian right believes the decline of male prowess has caused the decline of America, which has led to weakness and moral decay. This decline has resulted in a bewildering human and social complexity that, often seen as feminine, is the work of Satan. By submitting to the Christian leader, and to a powerful male God who will destroy those who misbehave, followers avoid dealing with life. The movement seeks, above all, to banish mystery, the very essence of faith. Not only is the binary world knowable and predictable, but finally God is knowable and predictable. This parallel reality creates a world where unconscious motives, lusts, passions, sexual yearnings, deep longings and fears are buried and denied. The capacity we all have for evil is no longer something that torments the human soul, something that must be confronted and acknowledged, but instead evil is transformed into a purely external force that can be eradicated. The cut-and-dry absolute truth, the division of the world into us and them, allows followers to surrender their consciences and moral responsibility to male demagogues. It also makes them very dangerous.
The Rev. Mel White, who founded Soulforce and is one of our country’s most important if unacknowledged civil rights leaders, has spent most of his life, since coming out as a gay man, mounting nonviolent protests against these “Christian” bigots. But he and most gays and lesbians who resist usually resist alone.
“They [the Christian right] want to end homosexuality in America,” White told me, “and by doing that one step at a time, first the federal marriage amendment and then comes no adoption, no service in the military, the restatement of the sodomy laws and driving us back into our closets, or worse. They do not want to compromise, but they begin with compromise, after compromise, after compromise.”
The advance, White says, is demoralizing the gay community, which he warns “is losing the will to fight.”
“It’s safer back in the closet anyway, and since we can pass, or the gay leaders can pass, the ones who wear suits and have good jobs and have plenty of money, they will go underground,” he said. “It is the gay people out there in the hinterlands who have no options. They are being rejected by their families, discarded by their parents, kicked out of their jobs, harassed, ‘outed’ and killed. The gay leaders don’t have a clue about this suffering.”
“There are no fountains or cafeterias or bus stations we can integrate,” White continued. “There are no symbols that we can attack. Marriage, the one great act of defiance, in San Francisco and Massachusetts showed to the country gay couples lined up to get married. This is something they [right-wing Christians] didn’t like. The faces looked normal. They had children. These pictures were killing the caricatures. That for me is one of the great things we’ve done, just go to get married no matter what.”
“What frightens me most are gay people who don’t understand what’s happening and who are unwilling to take a stand,” he said. “Once they take away our rights they’re going to start wanting to register us because we’re the ones who have the most sexually transmitted diseases. They’re going to say ‘we want to register you so we can give you special medical attention.’ Quarantine comes next, along with taking away our children, the children we’ve adopted. They will take away the partnership rights the corporations put in place, because they can put pressure on the corporations. My bleakest description is that we’ll not only be driven back into our closets, but we’ll have to leave the country. Right now, we have to leave the state of Virginia, because of the law that says we can’t have any agreements, or any contracts, or any powers of attorney that represent marriage. So every gay person who has a business here lives in fear.”
My ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. James Luther Adams, told us to watch closely what the Christian right did to homosexuals. He had seen the same tactic in Nazi Germany, where he spent 1935 and 1936 working with the underground anti-Nazi church known as the Confessing Church. The Nazis also used “values” to launch state repression of opponents. Hitler, days after he took power in 1933, imposed a ban on all homosexual organizations. He ordered raids on places where homosexuals gathered, culminating in the ransacking of the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin and the permanent exile of its director, Magnus Hirschfeld. Thousands of volumes from the institute’s library were tossed into a bonfire. The stripping of these Germans’ civil rights was largely cheered by the public and the German churches. But it legitimated tactics, outside the law, that would soon be employed against others. Adams said homosexuals would also be the first “social deviants” singled out and disempowered by the Christian right, but not the last.
Should another catastrophic attack such as 9/11 occur, should we enter into a period of prolonged instability and fear, what will prevent these preachers from calling for the punishment, detention and quarantining of gays and lesbians, as well as abortionists and Muslims and other nonbelievers to safeguard the nation? What will staunch hate crimes and physical attacks against those deemed immoral by fearful and angry Christians, against those whom these preachers have condemned as responsible for the nation’s abandonment by God? How will the nation function rationally if homeland security depends on an elusive piety as it is interpreted by the Christian right? And most ominously, the fringe groups of the Christian right believe “Bible-believing Christians” have been mandated by God to carry out Christian terrorism, to murder doctors who perform abortions and godless Muslims. In a time of anxiety and chaos, of overwhelming fear and uncertainty, how many more will be prodded by this talk of terror and divine vengeance to join the ranks of these Christian extremists?
Correction: Only one (the Eastbound bus) of the two buses went to Sioux Center, Iowa. The bus was spray painted with “God does not love gay feary fucks.” A piece of cardboad contained other anti-gay remarks. The Eastbound bus only had 26 riders, the others were on the Westbound bus.
Thanks to reader Brandon Greeson for the catch!
Military police arrest an Equality Rider at West Point.