Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

Aug. 19 2014 4:00 PM

The FRC Abuses Robin Williams’ Death to Support Ex-Gay Therapy

When a figure as beloved and respected as Robin Williams passes away, it’s only natural that writers scramble and stretch to find distinctive means of marking the event. Praising certain performances, recounting personal encounters, or even using the opportunity to raise awareness about issues (like depression) that challenged the deceased are all good tacks. What’s clearly inappropriate, though, is using a man’s death as a launchpad for flights of bizarre associative logic concerning your own pet cause—which is exactly what Family Research Council Senior Fellow Peter Sprigg did yesterday when he used Williams’ attendance of substance-abuse-related rehab to defend, somehow, ex-gay therapy.

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Aug. 19 2014 8:30 AM

Could Overuse of Suicide Statistics Be Hurting Vulnerable Queers?

In the wake of actor Robin Williams' suicide, the Washington Post wrote about the phenomenon of social contagion and the need to take special care not to cover suicide in ways that romanticize it. Social science research, dating all the way back to the work of Emile Durkheim in the late 1800s, has shown that suicide, seemingly the most personal of choices, is influenced by cultural factors that contribute to its prevalence. One classic way this can work is through copycat suicides, where one highly publicized tragedy is followed by more deaths by those who identify with the original victim. A different sort of identification can be found when young, isolated gays and lesbians read about the increased risk of suicide for those in their exact position. In light of that, it's time to talk about the ways activists and writers casually employ suicide statistics in discussions of the LGBTQ community, and the potential harm this could be causing.

Gays, lesbians, and transgendered people (and, to a lesser extent, bisexuals), really are more likely to think about or attempt suicide than the average person. While hard data on actual suicides are difficult to come by (death certificates don't list sexual orientation), it's probable that they also commit suicide in greater numbers. Young people who are rejected by their parents or bombarded with anti-gay sentiments at home and those who are bullied at school are particularly vulnerable to depression and self-harming behaviors. The problem is real, and we have to discuss it and write about it if we want to fix it.

Too often, though, articles on all sorts of LGBTQ topics will include a line about suicides as a sort of emotional intensifier—a way to raise the stakes and make the topic feel more urgent. It's this practice—which comes from a sincere desire to communicate the urgent need for action on queer causes—that we need to take a harder look at. We need to weigh the potential good of increasing feelings of urgency in our audience against the potential harm that comes when young people read, over and over again, that they are at an elevated risk for suicide. Vulnerable people engage in copycat suicides when they identify too strongly with other suicide victims. Common sense says that this same principle would apply to vulnerable gay, lesbian, or trans youth who go looking for information about others like themselves only to find repeated mentions of how likely they are to try to end their lives.

Aug. 18 2014 12:33 PM

A Win for Gay Rights Over “Religious Liberty” in New York State

At the heart of the so-called religious liberty debate lies a very simple question: Do religious people, mainly Christians, hold a special right to defy anti-discrimination ordinances and refuse service to certain people based on their identity?

In a firm and momentous decision, the New York State Division of Human Rights has now answered that question with a resounding no. The division recently heard the case of Melisa Erwin and Jennifer McCarthy, a lesbian couple who hoped to marry at Liberty Ridge Farm, a wedding venue in Schaghticoke, New York. But Liberty Ridge’s owners, Cynthia and Robert Gifford, denied their request due to their sexual orientation.


The Giffords later claimed that it was their “right” to refuse service to Erwin and McCarthy. But in fact, their actions were plainly illegal. New York state law bars places of public accommodation from discriminating based on sexual orientation—and the Giffords were quite honest about their reasons for turning away Erwin and McCarthy. As a result, the Giffords must pay a $10,000 fine for violating the law, plus $1,500 to both Erwin and McCarthy for “mental pain and suffering.”

What’s so important about the division’s decision, aside from the central holding, which is fair-minded and correct, is that it neatly peels away the myriad rationalizations and pretexts behind the “religious liberty” to discriminate. In an area of the law that can get soggy with abstract theories, facts matter a great deal—and the division finds plenty of them. During legal proceedings, Liberty Ridge tried to rebrand itself as a “distinctly private” establishment, a kind of members-only club open only to a select few. Not so, held the division:

[Liberty Ridge Farms] is a for profit business and directs its publicity to the general public. … LRF engages in widespread marketing to the general public through advertising at a bridal show and on the internet … LRF is encouraging members of the public to lease the use of its facilities and purchase its services. Thus, there is no exclusivity and LRF is not “distinctly private.”

This somewhat dry legalese masks a vital point. Under anti-discrimination law, when you open your business to the public, you open your business to all of the public. You don’t get to pick out certain classes of people and treat them differently, as the Giffords attempted to do. The Giffords don’t operate a church; they run a business—an LLC, in fact—and they are out to make a profit. If they don’t like following the laws that govern LLCs, they can simply forfeit their profit and establish a house of worship, or close their business to the general public.

If you think refusing to serve gay clients is merely an act of dissent, then you’ll probably be outraged by the division’s decision. If you don’t believe religious people carry some free-floating right to flout laws they dislike, however, you should cheer this ruling as a pivotal precedent. Christian business owners like the Giffords have every right to disapprove of gay people and same-sex relationships. But their religion does not entitle them to turn away gay people at the door. 

Aug. 18 2014 8:30 AM

Is Kink a Sexual Orientation?

It’s summertime, so of course the anti-sex crowd has decided to cool down with a fresh wave of sexual hysteria. The latest panic is that kinky people will lure vanilla children into our sexual hellscape through trendy pop cultural depictions of BDSM, such as Fifty Shades of Grey. This nonsense is annoying, but it’s also nothing new.

It does, however, raise a question that is often discussed in sexual subcultures but rarely mentioned in the mainstream: Is kink a sexual orientation? I think it is—and if I’m right, the pearl-clutching mobs’ concern that fictional depictions of BDSM will lure sexually normative people into our lifestyle are as absurd as the fear that Brokeback Mountain would tempt straight people into the subversive fringe lifestyle it portrays. (Shepherding, of course. What did you think I meant?)

Aug. 15 2014 11:12 AM

Dead Teen’s Organ Donation Rejected Because He Was Gay

It’s a sad fact of life that some of the greatest injustices sparked by anti-gay animus arise after death. The government seizes money that belongs to your widow. The state tries to keep your spouse off your death certificate. A pastor cancels your funeral because of your “blasphemous” lifestyle.

Here’s a new inequity to add to the list: The FDA rejects your organ donation—simply because you’re gay.

That’s what happened to A.J. Betts, a 16-year-old Iowan who committed suicide after a year and a half of ceaseless bullying on account of his orientation. Betts had always hoped to donate his organs after he died, and though some were successfully transplanted, his eyes were turned away and tossed out. Why? According to the Food and Drug Administration, a male donor who has had sex with men in the last five years “should … be ineligible” to donate some tissues, including eyes. (This policy is especially perplexing given that donors are screened for HIV before any organs are harvested.) Because Moore’s mother couldn’t prove whether Betts had had sex, his eyes were discarded.

Aug. 15 2014 8:30 AM

Do Married Gay Couples Have a Constitutional Right to Get Divorced?

So long as gay couples are able to get married, some of them are going to want to get divorced. The legal underpinnings of gay divorce might seem obvious: Anywhere gay marriage is legal, gay divorce should be, too. But what about gay couples who get married in Massachusetts but want to get divorced in Texas? If Texas won’t recognize their marriage, does it at least have a constitutional duty to recognize their divorce?

There are three legal routes to legalizing gay divorce in states like Texas. The first route is to use the divorce question as a vehicle through which to achieve marriage equality. In order to recognize our divorce, gay couples tell judges, you first have to recognize our marriage—and you can only recognize our marriage by striking down the state’s anti-gay marriage ban.

Aug. 14 2014 12:10 PM

What’s It Like for a Straight Actor to Play a Gay Scene?

Graceland, the USA Network procedural, is all about deception. In the show, six undercover agents from a Scrabble tile mixture of law enforcement organizations—the FBI, DEA, and ICE at last count—live together in a swank Southern California beach house. In the course of their complicated interagency operations, the agents lie to their targets, their bosses, and each other.

One of the many plot threads being teased out in the second season is FBI agent Johnny Tuturro’s infiltration of the Solano cartel. The Solanos are connected to several of the investigations being run out of the Real World: Undercover house—from drugs to human-trafficking to poorly maintained cross-border buses. Earlier this season, Johnny had a showdown with Carlito Solano (Erik Valdez), the cartel boss’s son, which climaxed with Carlito kissing Johnny. In last night’s episode, this connection—and Johnny’s relationship with Carlito’s sister Lucia, which Carlito isn’t yet aware of—allowed him to get face time with Señor Solano Sr.

Aug. 14 2014 10:00 AM

Raising a Trans Child Is Not Child Abuse

Conservatives are rapidly redirecting their anti-LGBTQ animus. In North America and Western Europe at least, opposing gay rights has become an increasingly toxic political stance: In the last decade alone, support for marriage equality has increased by almost 50 percent; a record-high 59 percent of Americans support same-sex unions. It’s clear that on mainstream gay rights issues, conservatives have lost the battle of public opinion. Consequently, some have adopted a tactic that hard-liners caught in unwinnable battles often resort to: Retreat, review, and find a new, weaker target.

An increasing number of people who invested time and effort into fighting advances in gay rights have pivoted to more winnable fights. For many, this means taking aim at transgender rights, and as in the war against marriage equality, they often frame their arguments as an appeal to family cohesion and the best interests of children.

Aug. 14 2014 8:30 AM

Ban Divorce!

If you spend a lot of time reading conservative polemics against gay marriage, you’ll notice a certain pattern. In an effort to distance themselves from accusations of homophobia, anti-gay activists frame their quest as a broad one—not an attack on gay people’s rights, but a defense of “traditional” marriage. If this claim is really true, there’s a simple way to prove it: Don’t just fight to ban gay marriage; ban divorce, too.

Sound silly? It’s certainly no sillier then the argument against gay marriage. The Rosetta Stone of gay marriage opposition, Robert P. George’s creepy, coitus-obsessed What Is Marriage? casts both marriage equality and divorce as roughly equal threats to the institution. George identifies four components of traditional, “conjugal” marriage, which he considers to be real marriage: penile-vaginal intercourse, procreation, exclusivity, and permanence. If the state allows any of these components to be violated, George argues, the institution of marriage will become unstable and incoherent. The state, then, must assert its legal authority to protect all four factors.

Aug. 13 2014 12:49 PM

4th Circuit Clears the Way for Gay Marriages to Begin in Virginia—With One Big Caveat

On Wednesday, the 4th Circuit denied a request to stay its recent ruling invalidating Virginia’s gay marriage ban, clearing the way for marriages to begin soon. The decision comes as something of a surprise: Although the two justices who struck down the ban castigated it as unconstitutional “segregation,” many equally emphatic courts have put their rulings on hold, essentially sitting on their hands while the issue works its way back to the Supreme Court. For 4th Circuit judges Henry Franklin Floyd and Roger Gregory, however, the harms caused by Virginia’s gay marriage ban are apparently so obnoxious to equal protection principles that the law must be nullified immediately. 

If no further action is taken, gay couples in Virginia will be able to get married starting Aug. 20. There is, however, one remaining roadblock to marriage equality within the state. Advocates of the ban may well appeal the 4th Circuit’s recent order to the Supreme Court, begging the justices to halt same-sex marriages until the court settles the issue once and for all. Back in January, the court agreed to halt gay marriages in Utah while the issue was appealed; there’s a very good chance the justices will be take similar action here.


Even if, by a stroke of good fortune, the Supreme Court allows the 4th Circuit’s order to stand, gay marriage advocates have another reason to be worried. The 6th Circuit seems poised to rule against marriage equality in the coming months, and a conservative state judge in Tennessee recently ended the post-Windsor winning streak. The good news out of Virginia, then, may be the last ray of hope gay marriage advocates get for a while.