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
News
A Brazilian wandering spider
news

World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Wonnacott dancing the pasadoble
TVStrictly Come Dancing The Result
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
BBC's Antiques Roadshow uncovers a TIE fighter pilot helmet from the 1977 Star Wars film, valuing it at £50,000
TV

TV presenter Fiona Bruce seemed a bit startled by the find during the filming of Antiques Roadshow

News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Sport
Steven Caulker of QPR scores an own goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool
football
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 6 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

Year 6 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

Year 4 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 4 Primary Teachers needed Randst...

KS2 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Ofsted said "A good larger...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past