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
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
arts + entsJK Rowling to publish new story set in wizard's world for Halloween
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

Life and Style
tech

Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
football

Striker's four-month ban for biting an opponent expires on Friday

News
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
News
George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin married in Venice yesterday
peopleAmal and George Clooney 'planning third celebration in England'
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

News
i100
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

Data Analyst/Planning and Performance – Surrey – Up to £35k

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

English Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The Job:Te...

French Teacher for new post starting November 2014

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: the job ? We are looking for...

English Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Secondary English Teacher Requir...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker