Bible and ballot enlisted in the war against gays: Progressive laws at mercy of US voters

IT SHOULD be a good time for gays in America. They have a White House that is sympathetic to their concerns. Opinion polls suggest public attitudes towards them continue to soften. Hollywood has even delivered a mainstream film, Philadelphia, that deals squarely with homophobia and Aids. But still they cannot celebrate.

In spite of - or perhaps more accurately, because of - the recent advances, the gay and lesbian community here is facing a fierce right-wing backlash. In November, voters in as many as nine states, from Florida and Maine in the east to Washington and Oregon in the west, are likely to be asked to vote on constitutional amendments that would annul all state laws (none exist on the federal level) protecting homosexuals against discrimination. They would also forbid the drawing-up of any new ones.

For gay activists, who are now gearing up to counter the threat, the outlook seems bleak. It was just such an amendment that won popular approval in Colorado in 1992, leading to a patchy but highly visible international boycott of the state. That provision has since been ruled unconstitutional by a state court. None the less, last year similar anti-gay initiatives were put to voters in 19 towns and cities around the country - and all were passed.

Philadelphia, which recently topped the US movie charts for three consecutive weeks and opens in Britain later this month, mirrors the conflicts surrounding gay rights. The fact that it has been made at all - and that its star is Tom Hanks - testifies to the progress already made. But its story, of a brilliant (gay) lawyer who is junked by his employers when they discover he has Aids, also serves as a moving primer on the ignorance and bigotry that remains.

'I admit it, I'm prejudiced, I don't like gays,' declares Denzel Washington, the (straight) attorney who represents Hanks when he sues his former employers. Recent opinion polls reflect a similar ambiguity towards the homosexual way of life. A survey for Newsweek last week suggested that 43 per cent of Americans had a gay friend or acquaintance. A majority said that the Aids epidemic had made them more, not less, sympathetic towards gays. And yet when asked whether same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt, 65 per cent said no.

Leading the anti-gay campaigns are several groups of the ultra-conservative Christian right. To get their initiatives on the state ballots, they must first gather a minimum number of signatures on public petitions. In most of the states they have targeted, this is unlikely to be a problem. They contend that gays are asking for special rights to help them advance the homosexual cause and, as they see it, subvert traditional values.

'As the level of awareness is raised in America about what the homosexual agenda is, it's important that people feel that it can be turned back by grass- roots involvement,' explains the Rev Lou Sheldon, chairman of the California-based Traditional Values Coalition. 'We know our people and the majority of the populace in America will not endorse homosexuality as a special lifestyle.'

The impression that they are seeking some special, protected status in society is exactly what leaders of the gay movement are hoping to dispel. They argue that gays have a legitimate need for legal protection against discrimination because of their sexuality. 'Discrimination against gays remains pervasive in the US,' argues Robert Bray of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. 'Under these initiatives, if you are a homosexual, you can legally be fired from your job for no other reason than that you are gay or perceived to be gay. You can be evicted from a restaurant, thrown out of your apartment or kicked off the metro and you have absolutely no legal recourse.'

Bray, who recently led a 15- state, 'Fight the Right' tour to train local gay activists on tactics for combating the ballot initiatives, is pessimistic about the future. 'What we have is the civil rights and equality of a minority, a loathed and certainly misunderstood minority, being held up for popular vote by the majority. No one in this country - black people, women, immigrants, certainly gays - have ever won recognition through a popular vote.'

That analysis in itself is an acknowledgement of the unease the majority still feel about homosexuals. 'It's what I call the 'ick' factor,' Bray says. 'Most people still have a negative, visceral reaction to homosexuality. They collapse all homosexuality into a certain sex act that they think all of us do, and that informs their awareness of gays.'

Bray believes it is this gut sentiment that the right intends to exploit. He points to one initiative, expected to appear on the ballot in Arizona, that, in one phrase, lumps homosexuals, lesbians and bisexuals together with paedophiles.

The battle is likely to be most intense in Florida, already identified by both sides as a bellwether state. Nadine Smith, of the Human Rights Task Force based in Tampa, is equally concerned. 'We're constantly on the defensive, constantly having to tell people, 'No, we don't eat Christian babies and we're not paedophiles.' '

But she has no difficulty understanding the attraction of the opposition's message. 'These are scary times, especially here in Florida. You know, tourists being killed and the most heinous crimes being committed. People like to be drawn into this very black and white world, where this is bad and this good and everything that is bad ought to be wiped off the face of the earth.'

The Christian right is a formidable foe. It is a growing force around the country, and its leaders have the benefit of extensive mailing lists, drawn often from church attendances, and access to considerable private financial support. The gay movement, on the other hand, remains more disparate and certainly less wealthy.

Recent efforts to adopt a single slogan with which to fight the ballot initiatives produced little consensus. Alternatives printed in a recent edition of the Washington Blade gay newspaper included, 'The Religious Right is Neither', 'No Religious Reichs, No Discrimination', and 'My Pride is Special. My Rights are Basic'.

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit