Jerry Falwell is dead. One can’t turn on a television or a computer without seeing his rotund face. I personally take no satisfaction in his death, though I can understand why many queer people might do so. My personal (though largely undeveloped) belief in karma makes me inclined not to wish harm on anybody. Of course, I also suspect that at about this time Falwell is awakening to find that God is really a Latina Lesbian and that she’s kinda pissed with him.
Falwell’s death, I am sure, is hard for his three children and the friends who will miss him. I can’t fathom that anybody thought that he had more sex appeal than Jabba the Hut, but he apparently also had a wife. They all cared for him and they are probably mourning now.
That was the problem with Falwell, though. While I recognize that he had value to those who surrounded him, he never recognized the same in me as a gay man. I (and other people like me) existed as merely an abstraction to him. Apparently it did not occur to him that I also had a life, people who cared for and loved me, and my own ambition in life. Instead of that, he saw all queer people as an indistinguishable group that was responsible for bringing God’s punishment to this nation on September 11 (along with feminists, anybody who had an abortion, and “Pagans”).
Though I wished him no harm, I also don't want it to be forgotten that Falwell created a tremendous amount of pain and misery for queer people in this nation. His rise in power came from tapping into people's worst homophobia. Because of his status, many people listened intently to his rambling. His religious message likely resulted in some casting out their own sons, daughters, or other loved ones.
Jerry Falwell and his cronies provided a critical lesson in why we need to be vigilant in guarding our civil rights. Not only did he prevent our attaining basic civil protections, he and his friends actually worked to rollback already established laws.
During the middle of the 1970s, many communities started to listen to gay activists' concerns for their safety and security. Indeed, by 1977 more than three dozen states or local governments had added sexual orientation to civil rights statutes that protected citizens against discrimination. Many people expressed optimism that queer people might actually be treated like humans in the United States. The Religious Right, however, would put an end to all of that.
Unexpectedly, Dade County, Florida became a battleground. Why do so many bad things happen in that county? Is it cursed? Was the whole county built on a cemetery? Did they only move the tombstones and not the bodies?
In 1977, Dade County passed an ordinance making it illegal to discriminate against an individual based on their sexual orientation. Suddenly a woman appeared on the national scene who would make Darth Vader seem like my Aunt Molly. Anita Bryant created a massive campaign to take away civil rights that had already been protected by law. While many people credit Falwell with launching an era of extremist-religious driven political organizing, it was really Bryant who taught him some critically important tricks.
Bryant, who had been a beauty contestant (for the scholarship money, I am sure) and also the pitchwoman for Florida Orange Juice, proved immensely shrewd at manipulating the media. Bryant told eager reporters, "I will lead such a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before." Man, she wasn’t foolin’.
The Dade County ordinance seemed innocuous enough. More or less, it said that treating queer people unfairly was bad and would be illegal. Stop the bus, cried Bryant. She authoritatively stated that the civil rights measure was just an elaborate trick to launch a more sinister agenda. Bryant claimed that “hidden behind obscure legal phrases, is the legal right to propose to our children that there is an acceptable alternate way of life.” Yes, Bryant suggested that evil gay folk had the audacity to say that it might be okay to not live your life like your parents lived theirs. Wouldn’t somebody think of the children?
Well, Bryant thought of the children – She thought they made a great centerpiece for her campaign as she organized a massive grassroots organization. Bryant knew the importance of the soundbite and quickly steered the debate away from civil rights. Instead, she created a distinction between people whom she personally saw as “normal” and her opponents, whom she dubbed “those people.” According to Bryant, the very fabric of society hinged on being sure that queer people could be fired from their jobs or deprived of housing (She would later ensure that queer people in Florida would not be able to adopt children).
Bryant milked homophobic stereotypes for every drop of attention she could squeeze out. Incendiary statements became her forte, especially as she exploited (unsubstantiated) claims about child abuse. The former Miss Oklahoma argued that queer people, allegedly cursed by not being able to have their own children, wanted everybody else’s. Once safely in our clutches, we would make short work of turning those children gay (I am guessing through a daily regiment of disco music, decorating courses, and fern gardening). The general public ate it up. When Bryant said things like “Some of the stories I could tell you of child recruitment and child abuse by homosexuals would turn your stomach,” nobody ever asked her to prove it.
She ultimately named her campaign “Save Our Children.” I guess calling her organization, “Treat Queer People Like Garbage” didn’t test well (though she did often refer to us as “human garbage.” Wasn’t she a delight?).
In the midst of all that circus, who should appear on the scene but Jerry Falwell? Already a well-know Baptist preacher, Falwell flew to Florida to add religious authority to Bryant’s histrionics. The press dutifully quoted everything that Falwell said about queer men and women. “So called gay folks,” Falwell warned, would “just as soon kill you as look at you.”
Isn’t that the truth? All that anal sex just drives us to kill, kill, KILL!
More importantly, though, Falwell took a look at Bryant’s success at building a massive grassroots political organization (not to mention raising a handsome amount of cash) based on the hatred of others. He figured he could do likewise. In 1979, he founded the Moral Majority (which was neither). Using his Old Time Gospel Hour television show, Falwell eventually enlisted seventy-two thousand ministers and four million lay members. He claimed that he and his loyal followers battled “secular humanists and amoralists [who] are running this country and taking it straight to hell.”
Who were these people who fastracked the nation to sulfur and brimstone? Falwell frequently named the true culprits as gays, feminists, and (sometimes) Jews. He said that he was fighting a “holy war” and never shied away from talking about his hatred of people like me. In 1981, he also learned that he could literally raise a quick million dollars by asking his followers “Do you approve of known practicing homosexuals teaching in public schools?” Practicing homosexuals? Silly, Jerry – If we don’t practice, how will we ever be any good at it?
Some twenty years later, Falwell continued to make the same types of statements and usually found success. “If we do not act now,” Falwell told his frantic audiences in the late nineties, “homosexuals will 'own' America!” Yeah, gays owning America would have been a real travesty given the great shape that heterosexual people have left it. We would have gotten away with it, too, if he hadn’t uncovered our secret operative, Tinky-Winky.
Of course, I don’t at all begrudge Falwell his religious beliefs. If he wanted to imagine me burning in hell for all eternity, so be it. My vision for his afterlife might be comparable. What I did mind terribly, though, was that he confused his personal religious beliefs with civil government. I also really, really, really minded that the mainstream media often gave him a free pass and rarely bothered finding counter voices to his message.
It is interesting to me that Falwell and his kindred spirits like to claim that being queer is a matter of “choice.” From my perspective, it is they who have a choice. They are actively choosing to believe in a hateful form of their religion. Clearly Falwell made conscious decisions about which elements from Christian texts that he wanted to believe and the others that he disregarded. Given his appearance, for instance, I am guessing that the sin of gluttony hit the cutting room floor.
To me, Falwell represented the worst elements of this nation. He used religion to tell people that it was okay to hate. In doing so, he made a fortune.