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From Stonewall to Indiana: The Collision Between Religious Freedom and Gay Rights

By DR MICHAEL SHERMER, Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine

stonewall uprising handImagine for a moment that you are a Jewish baker who owns a small bakery. One day a couple enter your establishment and order a wedding cake to be adorned with swastikas and the likeness of Adolf Hitler. They explain that they are neo-Nazis inspired by the marriage of the Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, attended by the Führer himself. You are of course offended and decline the job. Is it your legal right to refuse service to a neo-Nazi couple? If you answer in the affirmative, would you apply the same reasoning to a gay couple who requested a wedding cake adorned with two men or two women? Are these not the same moral and legal issues?

I think not. Discrimination on the basis of what you believe versus who you are constitutes different moral categories. For example, I am the publisher of a science magazine called Skeptic, which analyzes controversial claims of various kinds, from creationism and climate change to vaccinations and diets. In the mid 1990s we published an issue of Skeptic that analyzed the claims of self-professed Holocaust “revisionists” – those who believe that six million Jews were not gassed or shot in concentration camps and that the Nazis never intended to exterminate European Jewry. Despite our thorough debunking of their claims, one of the organizations contacted our offices to place an advertisement in the magazine promoting their cause. We declined to accept their business. By contrast, I would not refuse the advertising business of a black or gay organization simply because of the nature of the people running it. The difference is between what someone believes and who someone is.

Historically, the arc of the moral universe has been bending toward justice because we have stopped treating people based on who they are by nature, such as gender, race, and most recently by sexual preference. The recent legal imbroglio over the right of businesses in Indiana and other states to refuse service to people based on their sexual preference (gay versus straight) illuminates how quickly this rights revolution is unfolding. Compared with the abolition of slavery and torture, the granting of the franchise to blacks and women, and the civil rights and women’s rights movements, the gay rights and same-sex marriage revolution is arguably the fastest in history. How did this come about, who supported it and who resisted it, and what more needs to be done to complete it?

As recently as 1960 all homosexual acts in the US were illegal, except in Illinois where the first gay rights organization was founded and where sodomy was decriminalized in 1961. At that time homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness and gay people were subjected to various forms of aversive therapy. If police caught a man engaged in “lewd” behavior, his name, age, and even home address could be published in the newspaper. Bars and clubs where gays and lesbians were known to hang out were frequently raided; the police would barge in, the music would stop, the lights would go up, IDs would be checked, and men who were suspected of masquerading as women could be taken into the washrooms by female officers and checked. New York’s penal code stated that people had to wear at least three pieces of clothing befitting their gender, or face arrest.

Then came the Stonewall riots, the legendary flashpoint that for many marks the true beginning of the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn was a grotty, Mafia-owned gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in New York City. On the night of June 28, 1969, several police officers descended on the inn to conduct a raid in the customary manner but, this time, the patrons fought back. They stood their ground and refused to cooperate, becoming increasingly rowdy and taunting the officers with openly affectionate behavior and a chorus line of drag queens. It wasn’t long before a sympathetic crowd joined Stonewall patrons and, as the story goes, after one woman was dragged out in handcuffs and struck over the head with a billy club, the gathering erupted in anger.

The Stonewall riots have come to be understood as the high noon of the gay civil rights movement, not only in the United States, but around the world. A year after the uprising, on June 28, 1970, participants marched in the first gay pride parade on a route that went from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park; they were joined by supporters marching in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Now every year, pride marches commemorating Stonewall are held in cities all over the world, in countries as unlikely as Uganda, Turkey, and Israel.

What’s become known simply as Stonewall happened almost 50 years ago – so what progress has been made since then? First, the good news: in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. Officially acknowledging that gays and lesbians aren’t actually insane was a necessary first step in changing attitudes toward them, and attitudes most certainly have changed. In many parts of the world, homophobia is coming to be regarded as offensive as racism.

Other arenas have also seen positive changes for LGBT citizens – including for personnel in the US military. Don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT) was the official policy of the US government from 1994 until 2011 that allowed closeted gay, lesbian, and bisexual personnel to serve, but only under the constant threat of immediate expulsion if they accidentally slipped up and revealed their true identities. President Obama signed legislation that repealed the policy on December 22, 2010. Professional gay athletes have been coming out of the closet, as have politicians, and in at least a handful of countries gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are allowed to marry, form families, and have children. There are now at least 15 countries that have legalized same-sex marriage, including Uruguay, Denmark, South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand, and in the US a majority of states and citizens agree that it is acceptable and legal for gays to marry.

According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life the percentage of those who favor same-sex marriage is highest among the youth (Millennials) and religiously unaffiliated and lowest among older Americans and white evangelical Protestants. As the “religious freedom” laws indicate in their name, it is religion more than anything else that drives people to harden their hearts. Forty years after it was determined that homosexuality is not a mental illness, many Christian preachers, writers, and theologians still think nothing of tormenting the LGBT community by telling them that their desire to love another person of the same sex is an abomination and a disease that can be “cured” through “treatment” known as reparative therapy. The religious extremists who continue to press for such therapies fail to understand that being gay is like being left-handed – it’s not something that requires an intervention. Many Christians actually believe they are being charitable by proclaiming that they “hate the sin, not the sinner,” which is not dissimilar to what Christians declared just before torching women as witches in order to save their souls, or when Christians called for pogroms against Jews for being Christ-killers.

Mark my words: I predict that within a few years, a decade at most, Christians will come around to treating gay men and lesbians no differently from how they now treat other groups whom they previously persecuted – women, Jews, blacks. This change will not occur because of some new interpretation of a biblical passage or because of a new revelation from God. These changes will come about the same way that they always do: by the oppressed minority fighting for the right to be treated equally, and by enlightened members of the oppressing majority supporting their cause. Then Christian churches will take credit for the civil liberation of the gay community, rummage through the historical record and find those preachers who had the courage and the character to stand up for gay rights when their fellow Christians would not, and then cite those as evidence that, were it not for Christianity, gay people would still be in the closet.

Whoever gets the credit, however, the gay rights revolution is nearing completion. When the US Supreme Court takes up the case in a few months they could establish precedence for all states to follow with the recognition of full rights for the LGBT citizens of this nation. The time has come.

• This article first appeared on Dr Shermer’s Moral Progress blog, and is reproduced with his permission.

From the archives

WARREN ALLEN SMITH profiles the US painter Paul Cadmus, who died in 1999 at the age of 94 (from the Spring 2000 edition of The Gay and Lesbian Humanist)

If there were a past life (for who would foolishly choose to hope for a future life) and I could become anyone of my choosing, I would choose to be Sergei Diaghilev or Paul Cadmus. As Diaghilev I could have been loved by Nijinsky and revered by such as Picasso, Stravinsky, and Cocteau. But as Cadmus, I could have been loved by photographer Jared French and model-musician Jon Andersson and revered by such as W H Auden, Christopher Isherwood, George Balanchine, George Platt Lynes, George Tooker, Lincoln Kirstein (New York City Ballet Director, the husband of Paul’s sister Fidelma), and E M Forster (who, while posing for a portrait, passed the time reading aloud passages from Maurice). As a journalist some years ago at the annual ceremonial of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, I commenced a friendship with Cadmus when he inquired and learned that I write for Free Inquiry and other humanist publications. Asked by this controversial and eminent painter of The Fleet’s In! and The Seven Deadly Sins what I meant by “humanist”, I responded in such a way that he replied, “Oh, then I’m a secular humanist also!” From then on, whenever we were together, he jovially introduced us as “two secular humanists”. He told me, however, that he had never been much of a student of philosophy. From my description of “naturalistic humanism”, however, he agreed that he fit in to its non-supernaturalistic outlook and its emphasis upon the humanities. Later, we both came to prefer “humanistic naturalism” as a label, one that John Dewey also had once used and which emphasizes the non-supernaturalism. A devout Catholic until he was seventeen, he then “shed it all”, he said. “I’ve always liked the story of the Albigensians who were besieged by the Pope at Beziers. His soldiers asked him: ‘How do we know the heretics from the Christians?’ The Pope replied: ‘Burn them all. God will know his own.’” A gentle man who seldom raised his voice against anything or anyone, he laughed almost as softly as he played his beloved grand piano, surrounded by books, sculpture, photographs, and different kinds of art. At one lunch he prepared for me at his Connecticut home, Cadmus said: “I think my ancestors sailed from Jutland around 1710. My father’s side may have been Dutch and, like Erasmus, Latinized the name. My mother, conceived in Spain, was born in New York. Her father was Basque, her mother Cuban. Maybe I was just a cad to begin with”, he joked, “and the name was Latinized.” His parents, both artists, encouraged their son and their daughter, Fidelma, to study art, and Cadmus began with an interest in antiques. One day at the National Academy of Design in uptown Manhattan and knowing that older art students had nude models to work with, he peered through a peephole and saw a naked female. “I had never seen a stranger in the nude. It was a revelation,” he confirmed telling others. While growing up in Manhattan, he said, “I was fascinated by the sailors around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. I was young and was propositioned many times. But I was afraid to go with them, and we just talked while sitting on the benches.” “The male nude has been a specialty of my own oeuvre”, Cadmus told several friends, “when I am not being concerned with the foibles of people in daily life: men, women, and children. We are made, we are told, ‘in God’s image’, and we assume that He was not clothed by Armani or Brooks Brothers or, if He is She, not attired by Balenciaga or Donna Karan.” Cadmus, who in 94 years completed over 120 paintings, delighted in such observation. “I do love Michelangelo’s male forms,” he has said, adding that “Michelangelo’s women often look like males with grapefruits attached.” “It seems that genitalia,” Cadmus lamented about the public taste, “equal pornography.” But not for him personally: “My penis is not the most important organ in my body. My eyes are.” Cadmus met Jon Andersson, 27, when he himself was 59 and “I never wanted to be with anyone else.” That included the time he was invited to a long-ago party by Truman Capote. Capote’s long-time companion Jack Dunphy told him he could not bring a male guest, that “Truman said he didn’t want to ask ‘a bunch of fags’ to his party.” This infuriated Andersson and was one of the few times the two did not appear together in public or private. On one occasion when it was said that he was the only artist to draw so many male nudes, the then 92-year-old Cadmus quipped, “Well, there was Michelangelo.” Biographer Charles Kaiser quotes Cadmus as having been interviewed by Alfred Charles Kinsey: “He took homosexuality just as calmly as he did his work with wasps. He interviewed me about my sex life – how many orgasms, how big it was, measure it before and after.” Kinsey even went to dinner at Cadmus’s house following the interview. Just before his 95th birthday on December 17th, friends were invited on December 1 to a birthday party at the D C Gallery. Painters Jack Levine and Chuck Close, sculptor Phylis Raskind, photographer Charles Henri Ford (once Tchelichew’s lover), and over one hundred other friends were on hand to toast Cadmus and celebrate his birthday. Cadmus walked spryly and greeted everyone joyfully. I was introduced as “a fellow secular humanist”, and he and Jon were elated to meet my new companion, who is a descendant of Maroons and who is four decades my junior. As always, Cadmus gazed with an artist’s eye. Eleven days later, and just five days before his actual birthday, Cadmus died peacefully while watching television with Jon at their suburban home in Connecticut.

‘Holy Sexuality Conference’ cancelled

A CHURCH in London was forced to cancel a “gay cure” event in April following a petition signed by almost 40,000 people. The five-day “Holy Sexuality Conference”, organised by the Seventh-day Adventist Church was to feature a number of “ex-gay” activists. In a statement the organisers said: “Seventh-day Adventists are a people of peace who believe in hope and dialogue. However, it appeared that rather than drawing people together the conference had the potential to divide. The Adventist Church recognises that the individuals invited to speak at the Holy Sexuality Conference have compelling life stories to share but equally appreciate that there are those who take a different point of view. “We are disappointed that in a society that values freedom of speech and divergence of opinion that there are those whose wish it is to silence individuals who hold a different point of view to their own. We do not believe that the potential disruptions that were being planned for this event would have been beneficial either to the participants or to our friends in the LGBT community. “As such, a decision has been made to cancel the event which had been locally organised by a group of members in the South London area.” Nick Clegg, the then Deputy Prime Minister, had condemned “gay cure” therapy, describing it “dangerous nonsense”. Responding to a question from Telegraph boss Lord Guy Black of Brentwood, Mr Clegg said: “It is grossly offensive to me that anyone could think gay people need to be ‘cured’. If anything needs curing, it is the outdated belief that being gay is wrong or something to be ashamed of. Sexuality is not an illness but an inherent part of who you are. “Most people now recognise conversion therapy as dangerous nonsense, but we do need to challenge any remaining counsellors who believe they can ‘treat’ homosexuality. “Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat Health Minister, helped bring together leading organisations across the NHS, medical and psychological professions to sign up to a new Memorandum of Understanding.This made clear that conversion therapy is unethical, potentially harmful and cannot be provided within the NHS. I wouldn’t rule out further action if necessary.”

Poland rejects same-sex unions

POLISH lawmakers last December voted against putting a gender-neutral civil unions bill on the agenda of the then parliamentary session. MPs voted down the bill proposed by the Your Movement party by 235 votes to 185, with 18 abstentions. This was the third time the Sejm had rejected the legislation, which was first introduced in 2012. In January 2013, a draft bill for same-sex civil partnerships was thrown out by just 17 votes. The bill included a range of benefits that currently are granted only to married heterosexual couples, including protections and responsibilities, inheritance, pension funds, notary, and medical rights. Joint tax benefits and adoption rights are not included in the bill. Currently there is no legal recognition of same-sex couples in Poland. Article 18 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland (1997) defines “marriage” as a union of a man and a woman. According to Wikipedia, a majority of Poles oppose LGBT Pride parades. A 2008 study revealed that 66 percent of Poles believe that gay people should not have the right to organise public demonstrations, while 69 percent of the population believe that gay people should not have the right to display their way of life. Thirty-seven percent of Poles believe that gay people should have the right to engage in sexual activity, but the same number think they should not. In 2011, according to a poll by TNS Polska, 54 percent of Poles supported same-sex partnerships while 27 percent supported same-sex marriage. In a 2013 opinion poll conducted by CBOS, 68 percent of Poles were against gays and lesbians publicly displaying their way of life, 65 percent of Poles were against same-sex civil unions, 72 percent were against same-sex marriage and 88 percent were against adoption by same-sex couples.