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Engaging Tradition Based Resistance

This talk was given at a program hosted by Political Research Associates and the LGBT Institute for Social Science and Public Policy at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, CUNY on October 13, 2011

Bryan Fischer: I believe we need a president who understands that just as Islam represents the greatest long term threat to our liberty so the homosexual agenda represents the greatest immediate threat to every freedom and right that is enshrined in the First Amendment, it’s a particularly threat to religious liberty…. We need a president who understands that every advance of the homosexual agenda comes at the expense of religious liberty. We need a president who understands that we must choose as a nation between homosexuality and liberty, because we cannot have both. A president who understands that we must choose between homosexuality and liberty, and who will choose liberty every time. (October 8, 2011, FRC Values Voter Summit, DC)

Frank Kameny: Petitioner asserts, flatly, unequivocally, and absolutely uncompromisingly, that homosexuality, whether by mere inclination or by overt act, is not only not immoral, but that for those choosing voluntarily to engage in homosexual acts, such acts are moral in a real and positive sense, and are good, right and desirable, socially and personally….For the government to subscribe…to a particular definition of immoral acts is tantamount to its establishing certain religious beliefs and discarding or disowning others.” (January 1961, Petition for Writ of Certiorari of Frank Kameny to the US Supreme Court, available on Kindle as Petition Denied, Revolution Begun)

A key question for LGBT people in 2011 is — what does winning look like?

The question can be answered narrowly or broadly. A narrow view of the LGBT movement agenda frames it as a pursuit of equality – defined as non-discrimination in all aspects of life and family recognition to have the same rights as other families. A broad view of the LGBT movement agenda would frame it as the pursuit of liberty – as ironically both Bryan Fischer and the late-Frank Kameny do in the quoted remarks.

Liberty is the core element of social justice. Liberty includes the realization of equality and family protection, but it also includes the affirmation of the freedom to differ – politically, morally and in every way from the dominant order. Liberty encompasses opportunity for all people to achieve economic security and racial equity, and it specifically encompasses the freedom from tradition-bound notions of gender, sexual and reproductive order that contain and frustrate human creativity and expression.

If the LGBT coalition of movements chooses to answer the question of what winning looks like narrowly – and to limit itself to the very pragmatic goals that the current political order will grant to us– it risks two dangerous scenarios.
First, LGBT activists risk splintering as a community. We risk abandoning significant segments of LGBT communities that experience profound levels of inequality to multiple systems of exclusions that they encounter. This is an unappealing and ultimately immoral alternative. Equal rights once achieved are not equally accessed nor equally distributed. There is much basic work to be done before LGBT rights are won in this country – even in the Northeast and West, not to mention the South, the Midwest and the South West.

The people who are more vulnerable in our communities (economically, sexually, because of immigration status, because of their status as ex-offenders, as young people, as homeless folks, as trans people, or for whatever other aspect of their status) will need more than equal rights, they need meaningful opportunities to exercise those rights and participate in economic and political life, as they choose. Vulnerabilities that LGBT people experience because of differences in our economic condition, racial backgrounds, sexualities, or other material element of our being, also reveal and help temper LGBT triumphalism about equality by placing it in its lace it in a proper perspective – as a first step towards the broader goal of winning the freedom for each variant kind of LGBT person to love and live as they wish, without government repression or cultural prejudice

Since the 1980’s trial by fire of HIV/AIDS, the LGBT community’s enormous unity and solidarity as a queer community has served us very well. Despite internal arguments and disagreements on goals, strategies and tactics, queer people have pulled together, and as a result, have moved forward. That same spirit of mutuality and of standing up for each other because it’s the right thing to do, even in situations where we ourselves are not directly affected — is what will be needed in 2011 and beyond. That confident inclusiveness is what a focus on liberty and social justice gives to the LGBT movement over a narrower and purely equal rights focused framework.

A second reason that LGBT activists should consider a much broader definition of winning, comes from the study of right wing movements – in the US and around the world. Even though LGBT people represent many positive and productive possibilities for societies and communities, even though LGBT folks play the role of redeemers and of nurturers, of civic minded people who have rebuilt communities and created social capital where there was social animosity, who are so often the artists, the inventors and the healers – we are defamed as sinners, immoral, destroyers of family and all that is good by both Religious Fundamentalists, and by the political strategist and opportunists who exploit these right wing faithful.

Bryan Fischer’s viewpoint may seem extreme but is likely shared by many of the 40+% of Tea Party members who Pew research polling identifies as evangelical Christians. Even in places where LGBT human rights have been achieved, LGBT people are still just one or two election cycles, four or five votes, away from being criminalized and legally persecuted again.

The definition of winning has to broaden to insure that homosexuality, gender variance, sexual rights are seen as a “good, moral and desirable” experiences of being, as the late Frank Kameny so constantly insisted. With this additional objective in sight, broad themes like transforming tradition, insuring reproductive justice, gender and sexual autonomy come readily to the fore as integral parts of an LGBT (and progressive) movement agenda. If cultural transformation around sexuality and gender norms is properly sited as a movement goal, then opposition to state control by religious minorities, to government and political repression, to conformist thinking and domination, to irrational obedience to ancient hierarchies come to be as important to our freedom as they seemed in the early 1960’s to Frank Kameny, and his even more radical post-Stonewall progeny.

Recently, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) Initiative on Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalism produced a helpful series of reports based on extensive interviews and surveys with women’s rights advocates around the world. This research and the experience of LGBT people around the world reveals the connections between sexual and gender justice. The struggles of human kind for the freedom to control our bodies – rights that religious fundamentalisms and some governments would deny and limit — represent a challenge to patriarchal traditions of family structure, sexual self-determination, gender non-compliance and variance, the idea of women as property, among others. A 21st century LGBT movement must account for the challenge it presents.

The Political Research Associates’ research on the right wing in the US ( and the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) initiative on religious fundamentalisms ( offer three helpful insights to LGBT and feminist activists.

First, they attest to the fact that we cannot ignore the Right: the cultural and political influence of religious fundamentalists (the Christian Right in the US, the Islamic Right, the Hindu Right, and the evangelical and Catholic and Mormon right globally) is growing and that it has women and SOGI issues squarely in its crosshairs.

Second, the research suggests that diverse but traceable economic, political and social factors contribute to the Rise of Religious Fundamentalisms. Neo-liberal privatization, the corruption of political systems, and the failure of state institutions to provide economic opportunity and needed services, in particular, are linked in surprising ways to the emergence of religious movements. These movements at times set themselves up as alternatives to the abdication of states from social welfare; they become the entities that can deliver things people urgently need (the promise of hope, jobs, help for the poor, schools, social services, health care etc.). The complex reality of the political exploitation of religious movements by authoritarian regimes on one hand, and their mobilization against authoritarian regimes on the other, complicates the manifestation of religious fundamentalism around the world – it’s liberatory potential co-exists with its repressive tendencies.

A third insight of the two think tanks’ research is the need for the articulation of an alternative moral vision for the world. Without it, both the global feminist and LGBT movements risk long-term defeat even as they win short term rights skirmishes. The feminist and LGBT movements must offer visions of a future that are rooted in the values for which they stand — biodiversity, pluralism, and justice for all; visions that are promoted ceaselessly through liberation-based ideologies and theologies. Without such substantive ethical and creative encounters that refute, or at least reframe, the analysis offered by Religious Fundamentalists, we will not win culturally even if we win politically.

Both the PRA and AWID studies suggest that progressive activists can counter the influence and power of religious fundamentalism’s challenge to women’s and LGBT human rights.
• Through the promotion of a broad and complex agenda that reaches beyond the LGBT or feminist constituency alone.
• Through the expansion of the forms of family, gender and community to strengthen them as institutions of caring, creativity, and self-determination, rather than narrowing their forms and functions as instruments repression.
• Through ceaseless education and the articulation of values for which these movements stand.
• Through the engagement with and mobilization of youth.
• Through the willingness to reach out to and link up with people we consider not within our primary circles of concern precisely to foster understanding.

And through the refusal to concede any ground to erroneous notions of morality and tradition.

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