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equality insight

Research, information and critical insight for the LGBT equality movement

Michael Tew

Since the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, progress on LGBT civil rights has been remarkable. Then, fighting for the right to simply be to now, marking increasing levels of success in the freedom to marry, the struggle for inclusion and equality marches on. That progress has not been without significant, and continuing, costs.

On April 1, 2014, the Ann Arbor News, Detroit Free Press, and Huffington Post reported on a Michigan Woman who was reportedly assaulted for marrying her same sex partner in the brief window of time marriage equality existed in Michigan. Having been recognized from an appearance on television, three men verbally and physically attacked her. We should hope that the investigation into this apparent hate crime is conducted honestly and with dignity.

This entry though is not about the actual incident. It is about the online comments that followed these reports. Though I know we shouldn’t read the comments from the crazies, I made the mistake of doing so and it proved sadly revealing.

The post-Stonewall Gay Liberation movement achieved tremendous visibility in the early 1970’s. My students remark that it must have been a fantastic time to be in the movement. To some extent, they are right. But that visibility was swiftly followed by fierce backlash. And that has been the pattern that persists to the present day. Jeff Nishball wrote, in the May 2013 issue of The Good Man Project, “we still seem to be in a constant state of one step forward, two steps back. There have been 22 hate crime attacks in New York since January, compared to thirteen during the same period last year.” That rise in violence was immediately subsequent to New York’s affirmation of marriage equality.

Back to the internet crazies. I won’t replicate the comments made regarding the beating of the newly, happily married woman in Washtenaw County. You can easily find them yourself by looking up any of the reports. The following is a thematic summary: she’s lying to get people on the side of gay marriage; who cares gays should get out and go back in the closet; what did the gays expect; gays are destroying America; Fred Phelps was right. That captures the tone. Of course, not all of the posts took that bent but the high frequency of those that did use this kind of vitriol was jarring.

They are crazies, right? Can’t we move on and just let the haters hate? No.

J.L. Lemke wrote in a 1995 special issue of Columbia University’s 21stC, “A little violence goes a long way when it takes on a meaning, when people begin to predict what will be punished. That meaning enables violence to function as a means of control. No social order could maintain itself solely by the physical effects of violence. Violence is always also a warning, a threat of the possibility of more violence.” The observation was almost prophecy for what happened after President Obama refused to defend DOMA in court. In May of 2012, Think Progress reported on several right-wing pastors in different states advocating physical violence toward gay people and generally disparaging the LGBT community. ” –North Carolina Pastor argues for a gay concentration camp. – Kansas Pastor says gays should be put to death. – Maryland Pastor says his ‘flesh’ likes the idea of killing gays.” Jamie Hagen of the Rolling Stone quoted Michelle Bachmann, R-Minnesota (“Christians must engage in “spiritual warfare” to combat same-sex marriage”) and Trent Franks, R-Arizona (Marriage equality is “a threat to the nation’s survival in the long run”) as issuing calls to arms after the death of DOMA. (June 2013). Progress and backlash.

Why does this matter? All of these people are “outside” the mainstream trend toward LGBT Civil Rights. While that may be generally accepted, these public figures, like those private figures sharing poisonous bigotry in response to a Michigan hate crime, lay a breeding ground for physical violence and for LGBT loss of personal dignity.

“Defamation of a minority group, through hate speech, undermines a public good: the basic assurance of inclusion in society for all members . A social environment polluted by anti-gay leaflets, Nazi banners, and burning crosses sends an implicit message to the targets of such hatred: your security is uncertain and you can expect to face humiliation and discrimination when you leave your home.”(Jeremy Waldron, The Harm in Hate Speech, 2012)

When I read those comments in response to a crime that saddened and troubled me, I had the same physical and emotional reaction as I did when I was a young, newly out gay man. Anger, fear, humiliation. These were the feelings I faced 30 years ago when I came out to a world far less supportive and accepting than we believe it to be today. These were the feelings I had when I read what people in my own Michigan community wrote – the way they responded to another citizen’s victimization.

Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch asserts, “visibility breeds violence, and there is a pressing need for new support and protection.”(Human Rights Watch, 2009) “Winning” marriage is not an end game. It is tremendously important progress. It is a demonstration of value and inclusion. There is, however, much more work to do for human rights, equality, and social justice.

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Michael Tew

Gay and bisexual teen boys use illicit steroids at a significantly higher rate than do straight kids, a “dramatic disparity”, researchers say. (Sexual Orientation and Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids in US Adolescent Boys, Aaron J. Blashill, PhD and Steven A. Safren, PhD, Pediatrics, 2/2/14)

This study reports that 21 percent of gay or bisexual identified boys said they had ever used steroids, as compared to 4 percent of straight identified boys. The authors found similar differences among those who reported moderate use (taking steroid pills or injections up to 40 times): 8 percent of gay or bisexual boys reported that amount, compared to less than 2 percent of straight boys. Heavy use (40 or more times) was reported by 4 percent of gay or bisexual boys, compared with less than 1 percent of straight boys.

The authors indicate that “Given the dramatic disparity … it would seem that this is a population in which greater attention is needed.”

This is an important study, particularly since more health research on issues and needs of LGBT populations is needed. What is also needed is more investigation of underlying social factors that contribute to problems like the issue reported here. Without paying attention to the role of stigmatization of homosexuality, it would be too easy to pathologize issues like these as symptomatic of sexual orientation as opposed to symptomatic of social attitudes toward sexual minorities.

The authors of this study don’t do that. Reasons for difference in use rates were not part of this study. Blashill and Safren do speculate that gay and bisexual boys feel more pressure to achieve a bulked-up “ideal” male physique, or that they think muscle-building steroids will help them fend off bullies.
While plausible, these reasons may be superficial. Body image concerns have been previously documented amongst gay male populations. “Gay men report greater amounts of pressure from the media despite valuing physical attractiveness similarly as straight men. Apparently, both gay and straight men recognize the importance of appearance, yet straight men—relative to gay men—feel less pressure to achieve attractiveness.” (Marino Carper, Negy, and Tantleff-Dunn, Body Image, 2010) Numerous studies suggest media influence and social stigma may play a role.

“Growing up as a gay male is difficult in today’s society, as gay males face discrimination, harassment, and even the possibility of parental rejection. Oftentimes, young gay males look to the media for role models and see unrealistic images of the male body that they idealize and strive to resemble.” (Sex Info Online, 2/15/13). “Negative childhood social experiences related to gender nonconformity increase the internalization of media messages.” (Wiseman and Moradi,, Journal of Counseling Psychology, Apr 2010) In a previous study, one of this study’s authors reports that, “Gay men who report concern over lack of muscularity tend to be more likely to report general fear of receiving negative appraisals about themselves.” (Blashill, Eating Disorders, 2012)

The disparity in steroid abuse between straight identified boys and gay or bisexual identified boys may well reflect the disparity in the way society regards each group. Blashill and Safren’s study represents a call to action – for researchers to initiate more studies about health needs for LGBT people, especially young people; for media to examine their role in perpetuating images that objectify and regulate “ideal” types; for parents to take a role in affirming that their kids are valuable, lovable, and beautiful people however they look and whoever they are.

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Michael Tew

New research in the January, 2014 Journal of Homosexuality (see below for citation) indicates an increased need amongst the aging LGBT population for basic support, including housing, economic support, and help with entitlements. Researchers, found that “LGBT older adults face numerous challenges as they age, including high levels of physical and mental health morbidity, limited social networks that may be not be able to meet their needs, and continued barriers to service such as discrimination, heterosexist attitudes, and a lack of cultural competence on the part of providers. Many of these older adults will have a greater need to access formal community-based supports as they grow older.” According to the study, few older LGBT adults have access services that address their specific needs.

This research has important implications for public policy advocacy and service providers. While a few larger metropolitan areas may have agency support which focuses on the specific needs of LGBT populations as they grow older, availability of services that are sensitive to those needs is not wide spread and is severely limited (or completely absent) in rural areas. As a result, older LGBT persons must typically turn to mainstream service providers for assistance. However, as the study reveals, “Without a concerted effort to address the unique issues of LGBT aging and to intentionally create a safe and welcoming space for LGBT older adults, it remains likely that LGBT older adults may be reluctant to access mainstream services.”

Expanded work is needed in documenting the support needs of LGBT persons as they age and the service disparities they face. The study points out that, one out of six do not have enough resources for routine expenses; nearly one-half were just managing on their incomes (dispelling the myth of the “wealthy” gay demographic), and one out of five had severe levels of depressive symptoms.

The article indicates that public policy needs to be responsive to these needs and suggesting first that mainstream providers improve their LGBT cultural competency through training and capacity building efforts, and second the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity questions on national surveys to document community needs.

In Michigan, the LGBT Older Adult Coalition has been working to address the needs (specifically housing) of what it estimates to be a population of over 130,000 LGBT people over 65 by 2020. A January 23, 2014 article in Between the Lines (Kat Latosch), asserts, “Only two in ten LGBT elders can look forward to children taking care of them in old age.” Their assessment along with the findings of this new research, indicate a pressing need for continued focus on the needs of LGBT populations as they age. As the authors state, “the risk is that these older LGBT adults will fall through the cracks if we are unable to better address their social care needs.”

Brennan, Seidel, Larson, and Karpiak. (2014). Social care networks and older LGBT adults: Challenges for the future, Journal of Homosexuality, 61, 21-52.

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Michael A. Tew

Free expression is a tricky thing. Particularly when it comes to public figures articulating their personal or “professional” opinions about those who differ from them or don’t share their “values.” A increasing trend amongst folks who engage in negative, derogatory, or exclusionary discourse regarding LGBT people and communities is to suggest that criticism of their statements is somehow intolerant itself.

Media figures (Erick Erickson and Megyn Kelly of Fox News, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson), politicians (Michelle Bachmann), organizations (Chik-fil-A, Family Research Council, American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, Americans for Truth, Illinois) have condemned attacks on their anti-LGBT public discourse or policies as demonstrating liberal, specifically gay, intolerance.

Jim Bopp, formerly a notoriously conservative Indiana lawmaker, told attendees of a House Judiciary Committee hearing that those in favor of marriage equality who find the nature of the debate damaging are “intolerant.” (Huff Post Gay Voices, 1/14/2014)

Most recently, Juan Pablo Galavis, the 2014 star of ABC’s “The Bachelor,” when asked if there should be a gay bachelor, said “I don’t think it’s a good example for kids…they [gay men] are more pervert in a sense.” When criticized for his point of view, supporters say that such criticism is intolerant.

In each of these cases, speakers have sought and used a public platform to express their opinions. “Public officials, private citizens and talk show hosts (who fall somewhere in between these groups) set forth their views often quite freely. Does the first amendment protect free speech without any consideration of the consequences?” (Zach Dawes, 3/25/10). The accusation that the vigorous response of a group, targeted by discriminatory expression, is “intolerant” suggests that free speech should be afforded to one set of opinions and not to others. Public figures who complain about negative responses to their opinions imply that they should have unfettered access to public platforms while denying the same access to their respondents.

These speakers (and their supporters, found largely in online contexts) have increasingly responded to negative reactions to their comments by shielding the character of their own intolerance/exclusion and claiming intolerance on the part of their targets – Implying that LGBT people and communities should simply let heterosexist discourse stand. It should be no surprise that statements containing morally and politically charged implications (which do, in fact, invite social harm to a stigmatized group) will prompt disagreement. Trust me, LGBT people and communities have understood this for centuries.

Let’s put this plainly. Responding to intolerance, discrimination, and exclusion is not intolerance or suppression. It is reciprocal. To imply that intolerance grounded in heterosexism or religion should be tolerated is hypocrisy. James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s gay rights project, writes, “Being stigmatized for expressing unpopular views is part of being in a free society. There’s nothing wrong with that.” (Urban Christian News 6/12/2011). It seems the social tables have turned to some extent. This is a marketplace of ideas people. Don’t be surprised or offended when the market strenuously rejects the product you chose to put out there for consumption.

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Propaganda – n. chiefly derogatory information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view

dissent – v. [intrans.] hold or express opinions that are at variance with those previously, commonly, or officially held

discourse – n. a formal discussion of a topic in speech or writing or v. engage in conversation

Two contemporary news stories highlight the problem some elements of status quo have in distinguishing the difference between these three words. The Providence College withdrawal (and subsequent reinstatement with changes) of the speaking invitation to Dr. John Corvino, and the Russian prohibition of “non-traditional sexual orientation propaganda” have this confusion in common. In both cases, official reasoning equates the presentation of information, argumentation and expression of the self with propagandist communication.

In fact, it is the act of silencing discourse and/or dissent that are the more familiar tools of the propagandist. “Silencing … robs others of the ability to engage in speech acts, such as assertion. It is [also] possible to silence people by denying them access to the vocabulary to express their claims.” (Stanley, NYT Opinion, 6/25/2011)

The Russian public policy is under increased scrutiny due its potential impact on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The crackdown is one part of the continuous denial of freedom of association, the lack of protection from violence, the discriminatory and ambiguous bans on “propaganda” that are designed to limit free expression and to infringe on the constitutionally-protected rights of Russia’s LGBT persons. (Grekov, Policymic, September, 2013).

Despite his assertions that the Corvino lecture (The Meaning of (Gay) Marriage) was “postponed” to allow for the inclusion of an opposing point of view in a debate format, Hugh F. Lena, the provost and senior vice president of Providence College, “cited a document produced by the American bishops in 2004, “Catholics in Political Life,” to support the decision.” (New York Times, 9/24/13) Specifically the document bans “public officials from speaking at Catholic institutions if they oppose key church teachings on abortion and gay marriage.” (Detroit Free Press 9/26/13)

In his response to the cancellation, Corvino wrote in his blog (johncorvino.com), “The truth is that it’s difficult not to feel as if the Providence College administration regards me as a sort of virus, which might infect students if not blocked by some administration-approved surgical mask. This feeling is sadly familiar, to me and to any gay person. It is the malaise of the closet, the notion that some features of oneself are unspeakable.” (9/24/13). His sentiment could be applied to the feelings of thousands of LGBT Russians, silenced into their own closets.

During an interview with Corvino and Catholic priest, Paul Nicholson on Fox 2 Detroit, September 29, 2013, Father Nicholson defended Providence College’s decision. “The college has the right to say this is the parameters [sic] of what we stand for and we want to have a [sic] intellectual discussion [not] just a one sided propaganda.”
The bill President Putin signed “classifies “homosexual” propaganda as pornography with vague wording that could subject anyone arguing for tolerance or educating children about homosexuality to arrest and fines.” (New York Times, Opinion Page, July 27, 2013).

Interesting, in these troublingly similar cases, that a Russian President and agents of the Catholic enterprise have chosen the same tactic. Perhaps propaganda is best identified by the choice of the communicator.

Michael Tew, Director

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Michael Tew

Almost 44 years to the day after the Stonewall Uprising which brought the movement for LGBT equality into the public consciousness, the Supreme Court of the United States rendered two rulings that early LGBT activists could not have dreamed of. On June 26th, the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the “Defense of Marriage Act,” the section that defined marriage, for the purpose of federal benefits and recognitions, as between one man and one woman. The effect of this ruling is profound. The Federal Government will now be required to recognize all legal marriages as equal. There is no difference between a legal opposite sex marriage and a legal same sex marriage.

Additionally, the Court decision in the California Proposition 8 case, upholds the lower court injuction against it. In other words, once the Ninth Circut court lifts its stay, same sex couples in the nation’s most populous state can join the ranks of married couples recognized in both their state and, now, by the federal government.

Has marriage been redefined? Legally, in some places, yes. At its essence though it remains the same. It is becomming a bigger and more inclusive institution. It is becomming an even more potent symbol of the values of committment and family. It is becomming less “exclusive” and more socially empowering. The essential equality of marriage as a human relationship and community value has the capacity to reduce stigmatization. It has the capacity to create more common ground between groups whose experiences have long been characterized by their differences.

The Court’s rulings today began to undo the damage of DOMA. Not entirely, though. The right of states to determine what counts as a legal marriage and their right to recognize or, more importantly, not recognize marriages from other states is still there. Time will sort out the impacts, meaning, and availability of “federal benefits” for legally married couples who might live in non-equality states. The Court’s choice to base their judgement on the lack of “legal standing” for Prop 8 proponents avoided a SCOTUS opinion on a constitutional right for same sex couples to marry. Rest assured, fierce battles lie ahead.

Today’s rulings are a huge step forward for the American enterprise. Not just for LGBT people and advocates, but for all of our communities. Recognizing human equality and dignity is always progress.

Much work still needs to be done. We don’t live in a post racial society just because we elected an African American President. Rulings this same week about Affirmative Action and the Voting Rights Act demonstrate that. Similarly, we don’t live in a post heterosexist society as a result of today’s rulings. In many places, while a person’s marriage may now be recognized in California, he could still lose his job (in Michigan, for example) for putting his husband’s picture on his desk. Discrimination in schools, workplaces, community services, law enforcement, immigration, and health care still exist. Today is as powerful a launching pad for progress as was June 28, 1969 at a neighbood bar in New York.

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Michael Tew

Mounting evidence indicates that Michigan remains one of the most discriminatory states regarding LGBT people and communities where public policy is concerned. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights reported the results of a major study (published 1/28/13) of the impacts of Michigan public policy finding rampant discrimination in employment and public services. The MDCR report offers clear evidence that the lack of antidiscrimination policy in Michigan hurts LGBT people, communities, and the overall economy of the state. Three stories demonstrate those impacts in vivid terms.

As reported by Michigan Public Radio, “Brook Johnson was a teacher/advisor to the Diversity Club. In 2009 the club decided to put up a display in honor of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender History month. It featured photos of celebrities who had come out as gay or lesbian. It caused controversy and the school board ordered it removed. The ACLU challenged the decision. The Corunna Board of Education changed its position and allowed the display. A federal lawsuit filed on her behalf alleges the administration then turned on Johnson, ostracizing her and then forcing her out. There is no employment discrimination protection for LGBT people in Michigan.

On February 7th, the Washington Bladed reported on a University of Michigan study indicating that Michigan health officials are using the state’s HIV surveillance technologies (under a “health threat” law) to employ the state’s names-reporting database for law enforcement. The study asserts, “The evidence is mounting that these laws are bad public policy and certainly bad public health policy, yet Michigan health officials are helping to enforce them.” Again, no protection exists under these circumstances. In Michigan, being HIV positive can bring criminal consequences.

Kerry Hogan (Lawsonry, 3/10/13) reported on action in the Michigan Senate that could further ensconce discrimination into State policy. Senate Bill 975 would “protect” health care professionals who do not wish to provide services based on “religious beliefs, moral convictions, or ethical principles.” Further, the bill allows the exercise of “conscience” with no accountability for the consequences. Hogan writes, “Basically, there is no legal recourse for anyone harmed as a result of this bill. In fact, the bill also has protections in place that indicate that facilities that choose to discriminate based on “conscience” cannot be denied public funding or grants.”

Each of these stories reveals a State policy framework that seems interested in protecting discrimination rather than people. The Legislature’s direction in policy is sharply at odds with public opinion in Michigan. “In December of 2010, a statewide public opinion poll in Michigan found strong public support for adding anti-discrimination protections for LGBT individuals, with 65% percent of Michigan voters in support of a proposal to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression (Quinlan & Bauman, 2011 in MDCR report).”

Credible evidence and real experiences of people like Brook Johnson tell the story of two different Michigans. One in which the public supports equality and the other in which an out of touch Legislature ignores and, worse, protects discrimination.

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