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Right angle (continued)

A kinder, gentler bigotry

HERE IN MASSACHUSETTS, right-wing anti-gay groups like Focus on the Family (FOF), Concerned Women for America (CWA), and the Family Research Council (FRC) have been very careful with their public statements about homosexuality. They do not want to be perceived as hating homosexuals. And they hold their fire even when baited. Consider a morning press conference organized by the Coalition for Marriage on February 11, the first day of last week’s constitutional convention. Outside the office of Senate president Robert Travaglini, FRC spokesperson Genevieve Wood spoke to a crowd of reporters about the national implications of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruling granting same-sex couples a constitutional right to marry. As she did so, Bonnie Broder — a Lexington woman who later told reporters that she is raising two children, ages four and eight, with her same-sex partner of 14 years — moved behind her and shouted to the cameras, "This is a question of my civil rights!"

She continued her rowdy interjections as Wood gamely ignored her. Wood stuck to the script — claiming gay men and lesbians have "no right" to redefine marriage for the rest of society — until an anti-gay-marriage colleague of Wood’s approached Broder, explained she was at the "wrong press conference," and coaxed her away. But no one from the FRC tried to engage her directly.

Throughout the day, whenever the media spotlight gravitated toward Wood and FRC president Tony Perkins, they came across as reasonable and moderate. At a 9 p.m. press conference also organized by the Coalition for Marriage outside the House of Representatives, Perkins stood before a thicket of lights, cameras, and microphones. Calm, composed, his hands in his pockets, he avoided any talk of "the homosexuals," as the FRC likes to call gay people. Instead, he targeted "activist judges" on the SJC. Because of them, he told reporters, the legislature must define marriage as one man and one woman. "If legislators take a pass on that," he added, "then they’re abdicating their responsibility."

Perkins’s message sounds innocuous enough; after all, he’s singling out "unelected judges" as the problem, not gay men and lesbians. This sort of careful wording also characterized the remarks of Sandy Rios, the president of CWA, when she addressed a massive anti-gay-marriage rally on Boston Common three days prior to the convention.

Only occasionally, in smaller public settings, away from the media spotlight, have Rios and others revealed their true colors. Consider the rant against homosexuality on display at the CWA Protect Marriage Day, held at the State House on February 4. As many as 70 of CWA’s most active Massachusetts members from across the state flocked to a basement hearing room on Beacon Hill to listen to Rios and Robert Knight, of the group’s Culture and Family Institute, discuss how to push for the anti-gay constitutional amendment. The event was meant to galvanize CWA activists — who later fanned out through the State House, two by two, to lobby legislators — but it soon devolved into an diatribe against homosexuality.

Well-groomed, wearing a sharp suit, Rios began her tutorial by saying she was "here to help" the audience articulate a stance against same-sex marriage. But then, she launched into some of the CWA’s oft-repeated claims: that gay men and lesbians — or "the radical homosexual advocates," as Rios put it — want to dismantle society; that gay marriage will deal a fatal blow to the family. Gay rights, she said, has chipped away at "our culture." In Hollywood, there are "homosexuals" on TV. In schools, there are "teachings on homosexuality." She ticked off one offense after another, listing affronts in a staccato, rapid-fire stream. Mentioning what she termed "bisexual chic" — an alleged current trend among teens — she cried out, "Oh! I cannot even speak of these things! There are children in the room."

Clearly, Rios was fear-mongering. But even at this politically safe event, covered by just a handful of reporters, she distanced herself from blatantly anti-gay bigotry. During a question-and-answer session with Protect Marriage Day participants, a young man stood up and identified himself as Jewish. "I don’t believe in Jesus," he commented, "and I don’t believe in the devil. So when you say gays are disease-carrying sinners ..."

"Who said that?" Rios interrupted. "Tell me who said that."

After Rios dressed him down — "We can have a good debate without you twisting our words." — he quickly retreated. "I only meant I felt misrepresented," he said sheepishly, referring to CWA’s constant invocation of Jesus Christ. No one mentioned a homophobic phrase again.

— Kristen Lombardi

NATIONAL RIGHT-WING groups like the Family Research Council (FRC), Concerned Women for America (CWA), and Focus on the Family (FOF) are major players in the lobbying effort to shut out same-sex couples from civil marriage. Since last November’s historic ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, these groups have sent teams of full-time staffers to the Bay State and poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into radio and newspaper ads in the Boston Globe, the Lowell Sun, and the Quincy Patriot Ledger. Over just five days last week, the FRC alone spent approximately $120,000 on ads — an amount equal to almost half the current outreach budget of MassEquality, a coalition of groups fighting for gay couples’ marriage rights in Massachusetts. Below are the latest figures available for the annual budgets of the FRC, CWA, and FOF, as compared to the outreach funds available to MassEquality. As Marty Rouse, MassEquality’s only paid coordinator, puts it, "We’re really a hand-to-mouth operation."

• Focus on the Family: $126 million budget, according to IRS 2002 tax returns.

• Concerned Women for America: $12 million budget, according to IRS 2002 tax returns.

• Family Research Council: $10 million budget, according to IRS 2002 tax returns.

• MassEquality: approximately $300,000 for voter outreach and ads, according to Rouse.

— KL

ALL THAT SAID, even the FRC, CWA, and FOF know they have to walk a fine line in Massachusetts. For one thing, the public sentiment on same-sex marriage is practically evenly split. Over the past year, one poll after another has shown that Bay State voters support granting same-sex couples civil-marriage rights by a very narrow margin. For another, many gay-marriage opponents in this state, including Senate president Robert Travaglini, are loath to strip gay couples of the gains made through the historic Supreme Judicial Court decision of last November. So they back civil unions for same-sex relationships, which directly contradict the Christian right’s anti-gay agenda.

But putting a more pleasing face on homophobia (see "A Kinder, Gentler Bigotry," previous page) seems to be working among residents opposed to same-sex marriage. The love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin façade put on by the FRC, CWA, and FOF has allowed these groups to tap into a more formidable base of local supporters than ever before. The PRA’s Aziz explains that the same national groups active here today tried to mobilize residents in this state in the late 1980s, when they targeted the provocative photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. "They raised a lot of noise," he recalls, "but no one paid much attention to them." Today, the national groups, with their newly moderate tone, have also found a more receptive audience because the gay-marriage debate is far more controversial than Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit and nude photographs. Notes Aziz, "It has to do with our legislature and our constitution. It’s not just an art exhibit."

I interviewed a number of the anti-gay-marriage demonstrators at last week’s events who spoke about the FRC, CWA, and FOF in favorable terms. At the February 8 Rally To Defend Marriage, as it was billed, Matt Collier, a 19-year-old sophomore at Boston College, told me he welcomes the national groups to the Bay State. "If they’re trying to help the nation and steer it in the right direction," he explained, "I’m all for it." The goatee-sporting student said he believes heterosexual marriage is "the only love out of which life can come," a belief he believes the Christian right shares. Likewise, Philip Gerard, 54, a retired medical technician from Newton, who attended both the Sunday rally and the Wednesday constitutional convention, said he’s been impressed by the rousing speeches of the FRC’s Perkins and CWA president Sandy Rios. He found both leaders "refreshingly honest about traditional values."

When pressed, however, Gerard and other gay-marriage opponents acknowledge that they don’t know much about the groups’ views on homosexuality. In articulating them, they often fall back on the organizations’ pro-family images. Dave Moniz, a fortysomething from Topsfield, who brought his school-age son to the February 8 demonstration, echoed the thinking of many protesters: "These groups stand for the American family." Asked what that means exactly, he replied, "They’re trying to save and preserve the family."

Yet residents like Moniz, who says he wants to "support an important institution," might be surprised to learn that the FRC, CWA, and FOF are more devoted to anti-gay activities than to pro-family initiatives. All of which explains why these groups are so careful in their public comments. If they get too ugly, they could turn off active opponents of same-sex marriage. People like Maria Perry, a 48-year-old mother of eight from Carver, who trekked to the State House last Wednesday to show support for the constitutional amendment barring same-sex couples from civil marriage. She stood in line for a seat in the House gallery while sporting a sign promoting a definition of marriage ascribed to Webster’s Dictionary (THE LEGAL UNION BY WHICH TWO PEOPLE OF THE OPPOSITE SEX BECOME HUSBAND AND WIFE, as it read). Perry opposes gay marriage but has "no objection" to granting gay couples civil unions. "If they want the benefits," she said, "I say, ‘Go for it.’ Just keep marriage between a man and a woman."

Clearly, the Christian right’s extremism is out of step with people like Perry. Even advocates with the national organizations acknowledge that their positions on homosexuality would be considered radical by Massachusetts standards. At last week’s convention, CWA state director Sandi Martinez told me that her group accurately reflects the half of the citizenry that wants to "protect traditional marriage" — i.e., that wants to vote on the issue. But she recognized that "the debate is out" on civil unions. "A lot of people in this state don’t want to come across as discriminating against homosexuals," she said.

Genevieve Wood, the FRC spokesperson, also expressed doubt that local residents take the same hard-line stance against recognition of same-sex relationships as the FRC does. "Massachusetts might not be opposed to civil unions," she admitted. Indeed, it was the strong support for civil unions among legislative backers of an anti-gay-marriage amendment that defeated all three attempts to pass a measure last week.

Last Thursday, this clear political support for some recognition of gay relationships forced the FRC and its Coalition for Marriage partners to back new wording — stating that "nothing in this article requires or prohibits civil unions in Massachusetts" — to the original anti-gay amendment. Now, after the subsequent defeat — sponsored by Representative Philip Travis, who’s leading the charge on the original anti-gay-marriage amendment as well — of this language, Coalition members seem even more willing to compromise in order to get something on the ballot.

Says Ron Crews, the president of Massachusetts Family Institute and a Coalition for Marriage spokesperson, "We will continue to work to find language that we can live with, and that can pass the legislature."

In the meantime, the right-wing blitz will continue at least until March 11, when the legislature will reconvene the constitutional convention. Over the next three weeks, Christian-right organizations will be inundating legislators with phone calls and e-mails. Crews says that Coalition members are even scouting for candidates to run against representatives and senators who vote against a constitutional amendment. It’s safe to say that the right-wingers will pour as much staffing and money into the Bay State as they can (see "Money-Wise, It’s David and Goliath," this page). As FRC’s Wood vowed last week, "This is far from over for us."

No matter how the vote goes, the presence of these organizations will surely have an effect here in Massachusetts. After all, even if voters end up rejecting their extremism, the FRC, CWA, and FOF will have managed to publicize their anti-gay ideas. In the words of NGLTF Policy Institute director Sean Cahill, who is writing a book about the Christian right’s gay-bashing agenda, "They’ve still succeeded in putting out all sorts of noxious ideas about gay people."

Kristen Lombardi can be reached at klombardi[a]phx.com

page 2 

Issue Date: February 20 - 26, 2004
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