|Video still of me covering|
the first Human Dignity
debate, April 21, 1998
Watching the Minnesota House debate a constitutional amendment to declare marriage as between one man and one woman (a declaration that, given the modern definition of marriage as simply the legally recognized companionship of two people, has no secular rationale) took me back quite a bit, especially in the speeches favoring the amendment in the weeks that preceded the final vote. In those speeches, we heard a lot of religious justification for how we should define marriage legally, and plenty of regurgitated nonsense about the supposed health risks of being gay, the sinfulness and wrongfulness of it, and declarative statements about the End of Civilization As We Know It. These are boilerplate arguments that have been made for decades. I know, because as an impressionable and unfortunate youth, I made them myself. Having just moved to the Bible Belt in 1991, I was caught up in the conservative religious culture that in many ways permeates all life there. And as a member of the high school debate team, I routinely refined my arguments against the litany of social ills that good Christians should avoid, complete with accompanying Bible verses and anecdotes from “common sense” (a good indicator that someone doesn’t actually have an argument is their deferral to common sense, which is really just an effort to avoid thinking about a given issue).
People often ask me what happened – how did I go from a Bible-thumping radical to a strident liberal? Well, it didn’t just happen overnight. Indeed, such immediate and radical conversions are rightfully suspect. Several things happened that changed my mind on a variety of issues. My time as a wage-earner at a large corporation made me see the necessity of unions in some work environments to protect the interests of employees. Going to college and learning that some of the “facts” I had so readily regurgitated were not facts at all – that some narratives I had repeated with zeal were complicated by contradictory evidence – served to open my mind to other possibilities. But when I was 20 years old, in 1996, I was still identifying as a conservative Republican. In the 1996 election, I voted a straight GOP ticket, including for then-Sen. Bob Dole. By the 1998 election, I was voting a mixed ticket and had become much more socially liberal. What happened in the intervening years?
Some family members would probably like to blame it on my becoming a journalist. In 1996, I began taking journalism courses, and by 1997 I was working full-time at the local newspaper. The media is liberal, right? So naturally I must have become a liberal when I joined the media, like magic. Except that the media in Northwest Arkansas isn’t really all that liberal. Mostly the various newspapers that existed then (now there is only one left) reflected the communities they served, which made the one in Fayetteville, Ark., where I was working, more liberal than the rest, but not radically so. What really happened? In the spring of 1998, a liberal alderman on the Fayetteville City Council proposed a resolution calling for a nondiscrimination law that would prohibit discrimination against the usually protected classes (race, sex, religion), but also on the basis of sexual orientation. Initially, this resolution would have required contractors wanting city contracts to ensure they also had adopted this policy, but after some outcry from the public, the alderman revised it to merely change the city’s personnel policy to prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians. That’s it.
The reaction should have been predictable, but it was shocking nonetheless. The difference perhaps this time was that I was covering this issue as a reporter. I knew what this resolution would do, and more importantly, I knew what it would not do. Nonetheless, I was stunned to watch dozens of good Christian men and women (including some local celebrities) openly bear false witness about what this resolution would do. They claimed that it would “force businesses” to “accept homosexuality,” including, of course, churches. The resolution did not say that, but it didn’t matter. They claimed that gays and lesbians were by nature unhealthy, and therefore it would become a burden on the city’s health insurance (seriously). Of course, this is an absurd argument-by-statistic that, even if true, would mistake corollary for causation. But no matter – the goal was to demonize gays and lesbians, not to make a rational argument. One flier placed on people’s front doors even featured a man’s foot stepping through a threshold and suggested this would be a “foot in the door – do we really want to become San FranFayetteville?”
These were nonsensical arguments, and I knew it. Even though I had already begun to question the traditional condemnation of homosexuality, watching good pastors outright lie about their neighbors was a bit shocking to me. Shocking also were their attempts to take their own religious persuasion – that homosexuality was a sin – and codify that in city ordinance by essentially rubber-stamping discrimination against gays and lesbians. Like many others, I saw the pitfalls of allowing a specific religious interpretation to become the basis for city law, and I heard no other internally logical arguments to support this form of discrimination.
Below is a video of the first city council meeting where this was discussed. Warning: some of the remarks made here are horrifically offensive.
If you watched this (and God bless your soul if you did), you heard the remarks I’m talking about. Sitting there as a 21-year-old reporter (I was three weeks from turning 22 – the camera pans the front row reserved for the press at one point, and I’m sitting on the end near the aisle), these remarks shocked me. It sort of laid bare the fact that what we were dealing with here were not by and large sincere religious beliefs, but contempt rationalized using religious beliefs. Ultimately, the council voted 6-2 to approve the resolution. The Southern Baptist mayor vetoed the resolution, and the council met again two weeks later to consider overturning their veto. Though the public did not comment, many on the council gave impassioned speeches, including then-Alderman Kit Williams, who is now currently the Fayetteville city attorney. His speech stuck with me so much (it begins in the following video at 38:00) that I remembered it 13 years later when I requested these videos under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act:
The same six aldermen voted to overturn the veto, and then churches and citizens opposed to it gathered signatures on a petition to have it put on the ballot, where it ultimately failed the following November. I remember being disgusted at how easily led people could be about such a simple and obviously fair resolution.
I wanted to view these again because of the dramatic effect they had on me, but also because I consider them important artifacts of social archeology. I hope and expect that in 30 years’ time, the remarks here will seem as foreign to my daughter as the racist rhetoric from the segregation-era South sound now to most ears. Unfortunately, we are not there yet, as witnessed by the recent developments in the Minnesota state legislature. But however much some of the rhetoric has remained, 13 years ago the argument was over whether gays and lesbians had the right to exist and maintain employment, whereas now it is over their right to be married like the rest of us. That may seem like a small consolation, but I hope and pray it indicates the direction we’re headed.