By People for the American Way Foundation
The recent highly publicized ad campaign by a coalition of fifteen Religious Right organizations is the latest tactical ploy in a long-term political strategy of vilification and political marginalization of gay and lesbian Americans.
Far from the campaign of compassion that Religious Right leaders have portrayed, the recent ads further an explicit political agenda that seeks to criminalize gay relationships and deny basic rights to gays and lesbians in a range of critical areas: employment, housing, and families.
Anti-gay politics have long been at the core of Religious Right fundraising and organizing efforts. As the Religious Right becomes an increasingly powerful element of the GOP base, anti-gay rhetoric and policies have become more prominent in party platforms, legislative fights, and public policy at local, state, and national levels.
Republican Party leaders risk being caught between public support for equal rights for gays and lesbians and the unremitting hostility toward gay rights from Religious Right groups that form the party's core activist base.
Congressional leaders' willingness to embrace anti-gay rhetoric and legislation may be part of a strategy to energize Religious Right voters for the fall congressional elections, and it may reflect the longer term impact of the Religious Right's growing strength within the party. Nevertheless, some GOP leaders are concerned that the party's close identification with anti-gay bigotry may cost it support among the general public in the year 2000.
This memo briefly analyzes elements of the Religious Right's broader anti-gay political strategy; our staff can provide in-depth information on any of these topics. People For the American Way Foundation has monitored the Religious Right political movement and its attacks on gays and lesbians for nearly two decades.
The Andrew Heiskell National Resource Library, which is open to researchers and journalists, has catalogued a wealth of original source material, including Religious Right groups' direct mail and television and radio broadcasts. In addition, People For the American Way Foundation publishes an annual report called Hostile Climate, which extensively documents incidents of institutionalized anti-gay bigotry and discrimination from around the country.
Ex-Gay Ads Treat Homosexuality as a Disease
Reparative therapy as practiced by a variety of "ex-gay ministries" includes a large dose of gender stereotyping: men are encouraged to play football or learn auto mechanics, women to wear dresses and makeup. Scientifically, the benefits of so-called "reparative therapy" are dubious at best: the American Psychological Association has denounced the practice as ineffective and potentially harmful, while groups claiming to "cure" gays provide no evidence to back their claims, carefully neglecting to conduct follow-up studies of their former patients.
John Paulk and his wife Anne are the current "poster children" of the "ex-gay" movement, appearing on the cover of Newsweek; in 1993 John Paulk told the Wall Street Journal that "To say that we've arrived at this place of total heterosexuality - that we're totally healed - is misleading."
Politically, Religious Right groups use the disease or addiction model to assert that civil rights protections should not be afforded to gays and lesbians.
According to this "logic," public policy that treats gays with equality and dignity actually inhibits individuals from seeking to be "cured." In Maine earlier this year, "ex-gays" were featured in one of the television commercials run by Religious Right groups during the successful campaign to overturn a statewide anti-discrimination law.
The recent ads also attempt to equate homosexuality with AIDS and other diseases; one of the recent ads was titled, From Innocence to AIDS, cleverly alluding to Religious Right myths about gay recruitment of children and promoting Religious Right efforts to portray homosexuality as a "death-style."
Dr. Robert Garofalo, a Boston pediatrician who authored a health study of gay teens last spring, complained to the Boston Globe that the recent ad campaign, was "a complete misrepresentation" of his research on substance abuse and other high-risk behavior.
Garofalo told the Globe he believes the disproportionate risk of gay youth for substance abuse and suicide are the result of alienation gay teenagers face in a "culture that is often unaccepting." Religious Right groups attributed the problems to homosexuality itself, which Garofalo calls "the complete opposite conclusion of what the paper actually concluded."
Misrepresenting ideology as science is a favored tactic. Paul Cameron is a virulently anti-gay "researcher" whose methods led to his being ousted from the American Psychological Association. Although Cameron has been thoroughly discredited, his "research" continues to be a favored source of ammunition for the Religious Right.
William Bennett, Chuck Colson, and others continue to repeat Cameron's conclusion that the life expectancy for gay men is 43 years, a statistic based on his reading of obituaries in gay newspapers. (Cameron's statistic was effectively demolished in online magazine Slate - see www.slate.com/HeyWait2/97-12-18/HeyWait2.asp)
Bennett's trumpeting of this statistic last year on ABC's This Week and in the Weekly Standard was picked up by National Review and continues to circulate as the kind of "truth" that the Religious Right wants to tell America.
The ad campaign was a reflection of Religious Right organizations' increasing sophistication on this issue, having learned that overt hostility toward gay people does not play well among the American public. Earlier this year, Religious Right strategist and former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed spelled out a public relations strategy for Religious Right activists dealing with gay issues:
"You've got to make it clear that your purpose is not to hurt or punish someone else. It's not a negative-based movement or a fear-based movement or an anger or hate-based movement but instead the movement is about love and honor and respect and about modeling for our children a healthy lifestyle. That's what the issue ought to be about. I think if we can define it in that way, we can't lose."
(Jay Sekulow Live radio show, February 20, 1998)
Reed's advice reflects the reality that most Americans take a live-and-let-live approach to their gay and lesbian neighbors. Polls show that strong majorities favor protections from discrimination in employment and housing.
Religious Right groups seek to re-shape public attitudes, and thus influence public policy, by denigrating gays. It's far easier to convince voters to support discrimination if you have previously convinced them that gays and lesbians are out to molest their children or destroy their churches.
But harsh gay-bashing rhetoric, which motivates core supporters, has proven less successful with the general public. So now even the most virulent anti-gay organizations, such as Gary Bauer's Family Research Council, adopt the language of compassion when it suits their public relations needs.
This change is purely tactical. The language of love and compassion is an effort to soften the sounds of an agenda that remains unchanged.
The Christian Coalition's Randy Tate recently provided an excellent example of how seamlessly Religious Right leaders move from a declaration of compassion to support for discriminatory public policy:
"I think that as Americans, and particularly as a person of faith, that we need to extend Christian charity to all individuals. That doesn't mean in the public policy realm that we need to extend special privileges to individuals based on their private sexual behavior."
Hardball with Chris Matthews, August 11, 1998
The above has been reprinted from a 10-page PFAWF report titled Anti-Gay Politics and the Religious Right. The report is available online at: http://www.pfaw.org/issues/right/rtvw.antigay.shtml.