Hate speech can stir up hateful acts Some claim rhetoric of gay-bashers led to man's death in Wyo.

October 18, 1998|By Steve Sanders

MAYBE TRENT Lott didn't mean it.

When the Senate majority leader went on a conservative radio show last summer and compared gay people to alcoholics and kleptomaniacs, gay and lesbian leaders took it not so much as a personal insult but as a sop to the Republican Party's restive right-wing base.

As if on cue, full-page ads appeared in major newspapers, touting the ability of "ex-gay ministries" to convert gays to heterosexuality. And the religious right's top echelon, led by Gary Bauer, director of the Family Research Council, fanned out on the TV circuit, calmly explaining how homosexuality is immoral, a danger to children and a threat to the nation's values.

Last week, as talk radio and the Internet exploded with questions and outrage over the killing of a gay college student in Wyoming, Lott, Bauer and the ex-gay charlatans found themselves accused by some as accessories to a hate crime. Thousands of homosexuals suffer harassment and violence each year. But in a season of extraordinary anti-gay acrimony and backlash, Matthew Shepard - pistol-whipped, lashed to a fence and left to die - became, for many, the first martyr.

At a candlelight vigil on the campus of Eastern Michigan University Wednesday night, Paul Heaton, a gay leader from Ypsilanti, Mich., said, "Matthew Shepard's death means, despite our phenomenal progress in educating and enlightening people, our work is really just beginning.

"We have to tell our friends and neighbors what the true message is behind all of the anti-gay rhetoric: These people would just as soon have us go away. Some, obviously, would prefer us dead."

Like all martyrdoms, Shepard's death has taken on profound significance. But reactions from the White House to the Christian Coalition seemed to underscore how deeply conflicted our society and our political culture remain over gay rights.

Messages of sympathy from President Clinton and Vice President Gore skirted the fact that Shepard was gay. Christian Coalition leader Randy Tate issued a statement deploring the "barbaric attack" but denied it had anything to do with the young man's sexual orientation. "All murder," Tate said, "is a hate crime."

Though it seems ironic to say so in the wake of the Shepard tragedy, America has seen a gradual but undeniable shift in attitudes - reflected in public opinion, popular culture and the law - toward more acceptance of, and support for, gay people and issues. But the progress is rarely without setbacks.

Ellen DeGeneres made history as TV's first lesbian lead and got yanked a year later amid gripes she was "too gay."

The Supreme Court in 1996 swept away an anti-gay Colorado ballot initiative, finding it motivated by little more than dislike of an unpopular minority; yet this week the court let stand a similar measure in Cincinnati.

Polls show that two-thirds of Americans oppose civil marriage for gay couples, but three-quarters agree they're no less fit than straight people as parents. Fifty-six percent view sex between two same-gender adults as "always wrong" (down from 74 percent 10 years ago), but more than 80 percent agree gays should have equal job rights.

This fall, openly lesbian candidates are running for Congress in California, Washington and Wisconsin. Voters in Hawaii and Alaska will consider ballot initiatives that might determine the fate of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Also, the media are devoting greater (and less sensationalized) attention to issues such as employment discrimination and the mysteries behind sexual preference and behavior.

Escalating war on words

Such signs of progress help explain why right-wing leaders such as Bauer, televangelist Pat Robertson and Focus on the Family's James Dobson - whose political and media empires have been built significantly on anti-gay rhetoric - escalated the war of words this summer.

Whether in expensive ads in the New York Times or syndicated diatribes on low-watt radio stations, the well-worn assertions are mostly the same: Gays "choose" a "lifestyle," of which the Bible and most Americans disapprove. Society should never legally recognize a relationship between two men or two women, because to do so would undermine family and morality. Efforts to include gays in the same legal protections that cover racial and ethnic minorities, religious belief, women and the disabled are sneaky attempts by "militant homosexuals" to win unfair advantages.

Telling lies

More sophisticated leaders such as Bauer and Tate bristle at the charge that they're fomenting hate, and the ex-gay ads profess sympathy and "hope" for homosexuals. But farther from Washington, the rhetoric gets more crude. What's disturbing about these messages that are spread through church newsletters, campaign ads and letters-to-the-editor pages is their propensity to employ fabricated statistics, or simply to tell willful and knowing lies, and to do so as many times, and with as much conviction and tenacity, as possible.

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