Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"Family Values" Groups Out of Touch With American Families

This week, the Family Equality Council was kind enough to contact me to write a guest post on the group's blog. Take a gander at this group's website and blog. As an organization working to ensure equality for LGBT families, this group serves an important role in validating "non-traditional" families and countering the idea that heterosexual nuclear families are automatically superior than every other family form. Here is my post:

What if 1.1 million Americans could be mobilized to support initiatives that actually benefited families? Instead, what we get from groups who claim to exist to protect families are initiatives that, with their vague and abstract goal of defending an institution that heterosexuals have already redefined, do nothing but further divide our nation and distract from solutions that could help families in real ways.

The title of this post, at first glance, seems like a no-brainer to many in the gay rights movement. We have known for a long time that some groups have co-opted the phrase "family values," imbued the phrase with their own conservative and anti-gay values, and repackaged these values as though they are universal "family values." The effect of this repackaging, of course, is that those who do not agree with these values are, by definition, anti-family.

But, do family values groups speak on behalf of most families?

Nuclear families, consisting of a heterosexual married couple and their biological offspring, at 24% of families are far from a universal model of family. In fact, it must be asked how relevant "family values" groups are who idealize this family model and how adequate such a universal model of family is in our diverse world.

In fact, "family values" groups are losing their ability to monopolize the word "family." For instance, a recent headlining poll of over one thousand registered voters in California found that a slight majority (51%) favored allowing gay couples to marry. These numbers are probably quite shocking to those who get their anti-gay news solely from "family values" sites. While these numbers may not predict the outcome of a future contest to amend the constitution, they do indicate that the recent California ruling was not the action of "rogue" justices acting contrary to most people's current opinions. While anti-gay forces like to paint an extremely lopsided opposition to marriage equality, the reality is much different. This so-called culture war is not a matter of a few "rogue" justices versus millions of people. It's millions of people versus millions of people.

For anyone paying attention to the trend in public opinion over the years, the increasing support for marriage equality is not too surprising. I find it incredible and encouraging that so many heterosexuals are willing to support equality, see through the propaganda that is constantly telling them that gay marriage will be the downfall of society, and support the rights of a previously largely-vilified minority group. The only surprising feature about constitutional amendments banning same-sex couples from marriage is not that these bans have passed, but that they have not passed by much greater margins. After all, gay people only constitute 1-2% of the entire population, as some "family values" groups claim!

In this article, I argue that "family values" groups are becoming increasingly out of touch with what American families are and what they want for our nation. The ideal of equality is not just some elitist notion perpetuated by academics and radicals, it is a concept that speaks to what America strives to be. That "family values" groups force us as a nation to dedicate time, resources, and money that could be much better spent addressing actual threats to families is, perhaps, a testament to how these groups do not actually benefit families.

Personally, I think many anti-gay "family values" groups are possible hate groups, although this is not true of all such groups. When I use the phrase "hate group" I use it in full acknowledgment that the group in question likely objects to being called a "hate group." Not only is there no standard definition of "hate group," groups that have been labeled "hate groups" have turned around and called the labeling group a "hate group." Humorously (and sadly), however, it is interesting to note that even the KKK objects to being called a hate group.

I like the Southern Poverty Law Center's definition of "hate group" because it makes an important distinction. Specifically, hate groups "have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people. And, "anti-gay groups are organizations that go beyond mere disagreement with homosexuality by subjecting gays and lesbians to campaigns of personal vilification." This qualifier is important and likely one that anti-gay groups labeled as hate groups overlook. Anti-gay groups that "merely" disagree with and object to homosexuality are not necessarily hate groups. Let's keep that in mind for the duration of this article.

1. Most Americans Support Benefits

A particularly virulent anti-gay group that deigns to protect "family values" is Americans for Truth [sic] About Homosexuality.
Rather than merely disagreeing with homosexuality, it misrepresents gay men, lesbians, our families, and our goals. For instance, a recent article coming from this group is this inaccurate statement ironically made in defense of a college baseball player accused of committing a hate crime against a gay man: "few on the Left hate like the homosexual activists (with radical pro-abortion-on-demand feminists a close second)." This statement is part of AFT[sic]AH's ongoing series documenting "homosexual hate" a series that paints some gay people as hateful and encourages the generalization that all gay people are, therefore, hateful.

In my view, and this is a trait AFT[sic]AH shares with several "family values" groups, there really seems to be no other purpose to AFT[sic]AH than trying to ensure that gay people win no battle, however large or small, in the struggle for equal rights. In doing so, this group doesn't merely disagree with homosexuality, it vilifies gay men and lesbians. AFT[sic]AH founder Peter LaBarbera, for instance, has written that "organized homosexuality is a force for evil in our society" and that he "believes that homosexual practice is always wrong but that people can leave the homosexual lifestyle." Unfortunately, LaBarbera also hyperbolically characterizes criticism of his articles and thinking as "fanatical attacks" and has vilified those who disagree with him, such as Pam Spaulding, as a "radical lesbian" and a "vicious anti-Christian lesbian activist."

I would be surprised, in fact, if he did not attempt to discredit me in the same manner.

Too bad for Peter's life mission, AFT[sic]AH doesn't speak to, for, or on behalf of most Americans. Despite the fact that most Americans favor granting some sort of legal recognition to same-sex couples, AFT[sic]AH has opposed legislation that would grant same-sex couples the dignity of even entering into civil unions. In the obsessively anti-gay mindset, civil unions are too close to marriage, and we simply cannot have that. It's all a slippery slope, you know. If one-half of a gay couple can be on his/her partner's health insurance plan, marriage will be "deconstructed." And we all know where that leads. (Or do we?)

At the same time, these man-on-dog-end-of-the-world scare tactics don't work on most people anymore. Perhaps Americans find it difficult to trust the accuracy and objectivity of the articles written by a man who, for one recent example, figuratively embraced Sally Kern and called it a "privilege" to share an anti-gay platform with her. Most Americans are willing to concede that gay couples deserve at least some of the protections, benefits, and rights of marriage even if they aren't ready to call same-sex unions "marriage."
For instance, 77% of registered voters in California surveyed support either civil unions or marriage. A much smaller 19% believe that same-sex couples deserve no legal recognition. Nationwide, other polls indicate that 54-56% of Americans believe that same-sex couples deserve at least civil unions.

While substantial numbers of Americans still unfortunately want to deny same-sex couples at least some legal recognition, the trend leans toward greater tolerance over time. Polls from 8 years ago, for instance, indicate that only 41-43% of Americans supported civil unions. What this trend means is that hate groups, perhaps because of their amusing exaggerated predictions of future harm and their unwillingness to concede anything to the other side, are becoming more out of touch with most Americans. As anti-gay hate groups grow more desperate, their rhetoric gets more exaggerated, dishonest, and mean-spirited. Americans know that that sort of speech isn't indicative of "family values," even though groups are free to utter it. Further, this hyperbolic desperation fails to speak to the real problems that American families are facing.

2. Most Americans Realize that Other Issues are More Important

There are several explanations as to why heterosexual Americans are becoming more tolerant of homosexuality than in the past. For some straight people, coming to know real life gay people has made them realize that they had, thanks to anti-gay propaganda, been seriously misinformed. For others, they became disgusted by the ferocious anti-gay backlash and apparent obsessive zeal with which their fellow Americans sought to deny equal rights to others.

Another likely explanation is that people are tiring of the issue. In light of the very real problems and myriad other social issues our nation is facing, it is difficult for many Americans to justify a continued obsession with countering the "gay agenda." While anti-gay groups treat opposing the gay agenda as though it is the most important issue we are facing, the vast majority of Americans do not believe that it is.

First off, the efforts to "defend" marriage in California will cost upwards of $30 million, according to recent estimates. Many families, something that "family values" groups are supposed to be protecting, could benefit from that money. But are they? Defending marriage, of course, means changing state constitutions to prohibit two people of the same-sex from marrying. Okay. But once marriage has been "saved," then what? Surely, marriage would have to perpetually be defended against a gay invasion. At what point would groups that pride themselves on their family values begin to address the myriad of other problems affecting American families with a fraction of as much zeal as they devote to opposing homosexuality?

Why we should be concerned with "family values" groups that obsessively focus on homosexuality is that they are largely responsible, via their endless Action Alerts and anti-gay ballot initiatives, for distracting voters from real issues.

See, Americans are beginning to realize that even if they pass anti-gay amendments, the problems that actually affect them, their families, and society are still inconveniently lingering. These other "family" issues are sort of an 800-pound gorilla, ignored by "family values" groups, that stubbornly refuses to go away just because we have "defended marriage."

What are these other issues that affect families in real ways? While Peter LaBarbera believes that opposing homosexuality is a "titanic struggle for the soul of our nation," back on Earth 70% of Americans in a recent open-ended poll listed either the economy, jobs, war, health care, terrorism, or ethics in government as their single most important issue in choosing the next president. Other polls indicate that much larger percentages of Americans are more concerned with non-gay-related issues than they are with opposing everything gay.

In 2004, voters passed 11 of 11 constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, with a total of 26 bans in effect. Now that that's all settled in Alaska, Hawaii, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, Missouri, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Virginia and Kansas, I wonder how the families in these states are faring. Are their lives better? Are they "safer" now? How are all of those children about whom we are so concerned?

By many indicators, families in these (mostly) red states are faring worse than they were since our president, and the anti-gay "family values" chorus, opportunistically declared war on non-nucular families. Record numbers of American families are on food stamps, 47 million Americans lack health insurance, unemployment continues to hover at around 5% (compared to 4% 8 years ago), and the percentage of Americans losing their homes in foreclosures are much higher than they were last year. Disturbingly, I see little or no concern from "family values" groups about these indicators. The one constant is these groups' obsessive opposition to same-sex marriage. Don't have a job? Lost your house? It's clear that we should ban gay marriage!

Give me a break.

If our nation is indeed being ruined, it's not gay people who are doing the destroying. It's anti-gay hate groups and "family values" are because they insist on making an issue out of what is a non-issue. By obsessively blaming the gays and proposing simple-minded solutions to complex problems these groups are woefully out of touch with the realities most families are facing. But worse than that, they lack the ability to conceive of real solutions to real problems. In due time, I predict that these groups will be as irrelevant as Fred whatshisname's anti-gay hate church.

It's time that we, as Americans, stop falling for the lie that two legitimate sides to this alleged culture war exist. When it comes to tolerance versus hate, hate is not a viable alternative. And to say that opposing gay rights is the most important battle of our time is a sadly privileged and out-of-touch statement in a world brimming with very real human suffering.

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