Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Immoral Minority

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.


Elizabeth McClung said...

Falwell to me was always the reminder that there really was no limit of the stupidity of people to follow (I remember one quote of his where he felt "immigrants should all be deported" and when questioned that he meant "illegal immigrants" didn't he, he was genuinely confused by the question).

I think there will always be a Falwell, and a Bryant - but the most puzzling thing is when so many people follow them, when simply calling an organization "save our children" can make it seem credible to hundreds of thousands to millions (in the same way no one seems to question why every press release and quote from the religious right group Concerned Women of America is quoting a male?).

But then of course, came Bush......and the reelection (which stunned Europe...following the piper over a cliff once...maybe, but twice?). Yes it pained me every time I heard some church member quote Falwell as if he was God's cousin. And that no matter what horrific thing Falwell said about gays he was still on TV, still getting the money, still invited to speak here and there.

Will there be another Falwell, certainly as sure as there will be another religious organization whose aim is based on putting gays in prison camps but call themselves something like Outreaching Jesus's Love or Coming Together for the Future. Ack!

Arthur Schenck said...

Thank you for making the link to Bryant, GayProf, because so few people realise that she began the Cavalcade of Hate, and Jerry just perfected it and made more money out of it. I'm far more willing to dance on his grave than you, however, because when I was a gay activist he was the embodiment of everything we were fighting against and losing to. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Unknown said...

You said it brother. Amen.

pacalaga said...

You mean there was ANOTHER media whore between she of Babylon and our current media darling, Ann Coulter?
Sheesh. The only thing I ever knew of Anita Bryant was that she favored cellophane and Jimmy Buffett doesn't like her.
Can we co-opt the movement and change it to Save The Children From Anita And Jerry (and Pat, don't forget Pat)?

Antonio said...

Great post. I wasn't very familiar with Anita Bryant's story and you really nailed Falwell.

Steve said...

Excellent post, GayProf. Antonio and I are in opposite corners. I knew all about Anita Bryant - what with being from FLA originally - but I had no idea hate-monger in chief, Jerry Falwell, also got on board with her. Thanks for the history lesson.

evilganome said...

Ah, dear Anita! I remember when I was a young ganome, around 1978 I was working in as a waiter in a fairly swanky restaurant in Cambridge. Ms Bryant was on one of her spread the hate tours. Her people tried to book a table at the restaurant.

Our manager was a woman who had a policy of maintaining a parity of gay/straight-male/female employees. She told everyone about the reservation and said she would not insist on anyone waiting on the party. Needless to say, she had to call them back and "regretfully" tell the hate squad that none of the staff were willing to wait on them.

I doubt if anyone could get away with that these days. Much less have the balls.

Antonio said...

After reading this blog and Joe.My.God I looked up who Tinky Winky. LOL.

Anonymous said...

You know what they say. Mysterious deaths they come in threes. Anna Nicole, Falwell, who's next?

dykewife said...

while i've never wished neither fallwell nor bryant harm, i frequently hoped that they would fall off the edge of the earth they lived on.

having harper in government is scary, but at least the supreme court here doesn't seem as content to allow him to wittle away gay/lesbian rights as canadians.

Marius said...

I will never understand how Falwell was able to spread so much hate without ever being questioned by his so-called Christian followers. It's possible that some people did question him, but their voices were never really heard. He made some really CRAZY comments, and, as you mentioned, the media gave him plenty of opportunities to spread his hateful messages.

There is a clear double standard in this country. Falwell's followers demand prayer in school, funding of faith-based initiatives, teaching of "intelligent" design in the classroom, and so much more. They seem to think that they have a right to demand all these things. Actually, I kind of agree to some extent; I think they deserve to be heard. And in many states, their wishes are becoming reality. Unfortunately, they don't seem to believe in fairness. To them, gays, women, and other "sinners" don't deserve to be heard or respected. Maybe that's what Christianity is all about to these people. And it's a shame. It really is.

Frank said...

I, for one, object to you comparing the not-terribly-missed Mr. Falwell to Jabba the Hutt! Jabba not only ruled over an empire of organized scum and villainy the likes of which Falwell could only dream of, but I'm really weird in that I actually always thought Jabba was kind of adorable, in a slimy slug-puppet, evil galactic crimelord involved in slavery, murder, and extortion sort of way.

On a serious note, I totally agree with everything you said, GayProf. I don't feel the visceral glee that others do at his death, and feel sorry for those who loved him, but I'm not sorry he's gone or about to switch on the "they're dead now, so they were the most wonderful person ever" fakeness people put on when people die. I call a spade a spade, and this spade was a hate-filled slug of a man who caused a lot of people a lot of pain.

Roger Owen Green said...

Hadn't thought about Anita Bryant for a long time, pretty much since I finally started drinking orange juice after boycotting it for years because she was the OJ spokesperson.

As I wrote in my MySpace post about Jerry Falwell: "My mother said, if one has nothing good to say, say nothing." So, I have.

Earl Cootie said...

Falwell was only one of so many. I felt no pleasure when I heard that he'd died. I did get a little pissed when it became evident that we'd be hearing about it on the news for days to come. Hearing mucky-mucks in our government heap praise on him. Hearing the corporate media talking heads whitewash his hatred as "controversial" or "divisive". It has amused me though to see and hear a few reports where his vileness is laid bare.

gwoertendyke said...

how did you find that hilarious picture of him?? thank you--

Anonymous said...

Many may not remember that not only did Mr. Falwell support Anita, but he supported Reagan's policy of "Constructive Engagement" in South Africa. This 'christian' did everything in his power to prop up the apartheid regime at a time when divestment was gaining popularity.

Anonymous said...

Very good. I'm very impressed by your ability to approach the subject critically without being hateful.

Anonymous said...

I still believe Falwell was the ultimate dada humorist.

Unknown said...

The day Falwell died, my friend Jen called and greeted me with a hearty "Happy Dead Jerry Day!" To which I could only respond, "And a Happy Dead Jerry Day to you too!"

As native Lynchburgians, though, I think we were both entitled.

Will said...

Thank you--I think--for bringing up Bryant's despicable campaign. I lived through it; it was amazing how much credibility being the huckster for an iconic American food product and a former beauty pagaent bimbo gave her.

As you state, very few people ever demanded proof of the atrocities done by gays that she claimed were commonplace. Since the orange juice she promoted was "pure" people seem to have felt she was, too.

Also, as I learned early from some of my old Italian great-aunts and others, many, many people in the U.S. at that time firmly believed that if it was on television, it was true--the government, they "knew," would never let anything be said on television that wasn't gospel. Where thgat one came from I have no idea but Bryant surely knew how to exploit TV.

She eventually fell from grace and was discredited but the harm she did wass massive and her putrid influence remains to this day. Great post--many thanks.

Anonymous said...

Something I think you'll appreciate: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24604702@N00/433601139/in/photostream/

Laura Elizabeth said...

Brilliant summation as usual, GayProf. It illustrates why these people are evil and deserve to be vilified. No one should ever forget what "those people" did. They've done far more damage to the United States than any terrorist ever has or will. It's because of their more than 30 years of hatemongering we've got the government, the country, we currently have.

Mike said...

Jerry Falwell was a case study on the power of television. Since he, and several other "televangelists" were involved in the media since the Fifties and Sixties, they learned you could get people to send money just by asking for it.

One of the biggest sins was how the Internal Revenue Service allowed these enterprises to amass millions, tax free on airwaves owned by the public.

As for Anita Bryant, she got in back in karma. She joyously sang "Come to the Florida sunshine tree..." for years but lost that contract with the Florida orange growers as they realized she became a political and polarizing figure. Later, she got divorced. Her entertainment career ended in bankruptcies. The Wikipedia article makes a good read on this.

The scariest thing about Falwell, Bryant, and others like them is that they were listened to. They were marginal television personalities that had enough of a platform to terrorize a rather weak, disorganized minority.

For Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign, by comparison, imagine someone as insignifacant as Paris Hliton or an American Idol contestant launching a nationwide "campaign" against gays. She had success too. It is still illegal in Florida for gays to adopt thirty years later.

Anonymous said...

This is the best essay on the Falwell demise that I have read. Not hatred, but disgust and ridicule. I knew hardly anything about Anita Bryant, so thanks for the education. Your voice is sorely needed.

Paul said...

Extremely well said.

People choose to hate.

r said...

As always, a great piece of writing. Thank you.

Along with his hate-mongering, Jerry perpetuated the idea that all Christians are like him.

Just like that funny video the other day, "If you're liberal, you must be gay," it's become "If you're Christian, you must be a close-minded bigot."

I take no pleasure in anyone's death; I just wish he'd spent his time here being less destructive.

Ah... wishes...