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Bill Lichtenstein

Bill Lichtenstein

Posted: August 18, 2010 12:51 PM

The US District Court decision on August 4, overturning California's Proposition 8 and its ban on same sex marriages was a watershed moment for proponents of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans.

Within hours of the landmark decision, pundits ranging from MSNBC's liberal Rachel Maddow to Fox's ultra-right wing Glenn Beck, began postulating that the ruling signaled a new "post-homophobic" era in America.

Maddow, who among news anchors may well be America's most trusted lesbian, led her show for the two nights after the decision with celebratory coverage of the ruling. She went so far as to taunt GOP leaders for being uncharacteristically quiet during the 24 hours after the US District Court decision.

Speaking presumably to Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and John Boehner, among others, Maddow asked at the top of her August 5 program, "Where were the outraged Republicans? Where are you? You guys used to be so good at this."

At the same time, Glenn Beck, who is to liberal causes what "Mikey" was to breakfast foods in the 1970s Life cereal ads ("he hates everything"), turned heads by telling Fox's Bill O'Reilly that "I don't think marriage, that the government actually has anything to do with . . . [what] is a religious right," and then added a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "If it neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket, what difference is it to me?"

In the wake of the decision, both sides held their breath as Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker gave opponents of the ruling six days to appeal it. On August 16, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals left in place Prop 8 and its same sex marriage ban in California, as the case winds its way through its appeal process toward the Supreme Court, where it may ultimately be decided. Depsite forcing Golden State gay and lesbian couples to put their nuptial plans on hold, this delay has one possible plus for same sex marriage proponents.

Loyola Law School professor Richard Hasen told the LA Times , that "If this case takes another year to get to the U.S. Supreme Court, there could be more states that adopt same-sex marriage and more judicial opinions that reach that conclusion."

In fact, despite the dramatic victory in the federal court, the battle over same sex marriages in the US continues to rage at the state and local levels.

Streak of "31 Straight Victories" Brought to an End

Over the past decade, gay marriage opponents have racked up an impressive winning streak of 31 straight victories against no defeats when the issue of same sex marriages has been on the ballot in state elections. Loss number 31 was in Maine, on November 3, 2009, when voters repealed a law that had allowed gay unions. The 31-0 streak was brought to an abrupt end by Judge Walker's Prop 8 decision.

As recent events have been developing in San Francisco, filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson have been traveling the country with their feature documentary film, Out in the Silence. The film captures the remarkable chain of events starting with the announcement of their wedding, which ignited a firestorm of controversy in the small Pennsylvania hometown Wilson left long ago.

The documentary tells the story of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights in rural America, and premiered at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, was broadcast on PBS stations across the country, and has been shown at over 400 community and school screenings accompanied by public discussions.

Currently, Dean, who has worked for the past three decades at the National Institutes of Health, and received international attention after the journal "Science" published his research in 1993 that he had identified a "gay gene," and Joe, a human rights activist and native of Oil City, Pennsylvania, where the documentary takes place, are traveling with the film through all 67 counties in Pennsylvania, a state that prohibits same sex marriage. The following is Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson's "dispatch from the front" regarding the latest battle in America's 2010 culture wars:


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Plaintiffs Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier at federal courthouse.

"The images of the plaintiffs in the Proposition 8 case standing on the steps of the Federal Courthouse in San Francisco during the trial, were typical of the now standard media portrayal of gay America: out, proud, comfortably middle class, living in a big city or suburb.

But there is another side to gay America that is rarely seen. It takes place in conservative, often deeply religious small towns and rural communities where those who are found, or even perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, strive to fit in rather than to stand out. For these people coming out means risking their families, friends, jobs and livelihoods, their safety and at times even their very lives.

Our documentary film, Out in the Silence focuses on the harrowing, ultimately successful battle waged by a 16 year-old gay student and his mother against recalcitrant school authorities when the teen was brutally gay bashed for courageously coming out at his rural high school.

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Filmmakers Hamer (L) and Wilson (R) in Oil City, Pennsylvania

We've reached half of our goal of screening the film in all 67 counties in Pennsylvania, and most of the events have been greeted with enthusiasm. But in Coudersport, a town of 2,650 people along the northern border of the state, we received an email from Keturah Cappadonia, a town librarian just two days before the scheduled screening informing us that the event would have to be canceled. The reason, as the Harrisburg Patriot-News, later reported, was that 'after several hours of people pointing their fingers in her face and telling her she was going to hell, Keturah Cappadonia cracked' and was reduced to tears by the experience.

The controversy resulted from, no surprise, an alliance between fundamentalist Christians and right-wing conservatives. Pastor Pete Tremblay of the Coudersport Free Methodist Church told a local news web site that the film was 'designed to get people to give up their convictions based on the word of God and accept these practices as equivalent to God's design for human sexuality. It is propaganda.'

Pastor Tremblay went on to request that people 'call the library...and in a Christian manner inform them that this event is not a benefit to our community, and ask that it be canceled.'

He was joined in his condemnation of the film by George Brown, president of the Potter County Tea Party, who said he was upset at having to be 'attacked for our beliefs at a public library we support with our tax money. This is wrong and cannot be tolerated.'

Brown also told the web site that $1.5 million of local taxes was used to support the library (the actual number is $42,000), and went on to say that 'Should this agenda be continued, we may need to ask if the library should be defunded.'

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Diane Gramley, head of the American Family Association of Pennsylvania

That appeared to be one threat over the line for the library board. Following a quick phone meeting, they unanimously decided that the screening would go ahead as originally planned and issued a public statement for the library patrons:

The mission of any public library is to serve a diverse community with varying opinions about what is and is not objectionable material . . . We believe the library would fail in its mission if it did not provide information about ideas or topics that each of us might find uncomfortable at some level . . . American libraries are the cornerstone of our democracy. Libraries are for everyone, everywhere.

And so two days later, on the evening of July 28, 2010, a standing room only crowd gathered in Coudersport's public library, made up of mainstream members of the community along with lesbian, gay, bisexual and heterosexual, transgender and cisgender, young, middle-aged and senior citizens, together with a goodly handful of reporters, all gathered together in a public place and ready to talk about a subject that had divided their community for far too long.

As soon as the film was over, one of the opponents in the room quickly rose and read from a long list of objections to the film, including that 'most homosexuals are very well off.' Another spoke at length of his belief that homosexuality is against 'God's word.'

But then, gradually, slowly and often in tears, the LGBT folks and their family members, friends and allies began to recount their personal experiences.

A teenager described how he had been harassed at school when his classmates discovered his father was gay. 'I didn't understand why my friends turned their backs on me,' he said. 'To accept everyone is the only way to go about living.'

Then the teen's father - a local business owner, Episcopal Vestry member and former Republican Party Chair - spoke of the acceptance he has quietly gained over his 30 years in the town.

Another young man, visibly nervous, publicly announced for the first time that he was proud to be both gay and Christian, even though his church had rejected him. That prompted a local minister to stand and announce that her church was supportive of LGBT people and would serve as a resource for those who wanted a welcoming spiritual home.

When a woman with a small child in her arms offered to make a financial donation to the library to offset any losses due to the screening, she was greeted by a solid burst of applause.

The topic of marriage equality was never even mentioned. But audience members did circulate a sign-up sheet for people who wanted to work with one another and Equality Partners of Western Pennsylvania to try and make Coudersport a more welcoming and tolerant place. By the time the event was over, the majority of the people in the room had signed up.

While it was painful, even frightening to observe the open hostility of the handful of individuals who attempted to stop the meeting from occurring, and then to disrupt the conversation with angry diatribes and personal attacks, people in the community have told us that it was actually useful that it all took place in full light of day because it revealed the seriousness of the problems that LGBT people face, often alone and without any networks of personal or legal support in such an environment.

The other screenings throughout Pennsylvania, which has a law on the books prohibiting same sex marriage, drew good crowds of local LGBT people and allies including educators, social workers and business owners, but only one minister showed up, in Emporium, PA. After watching the movie he took off his white collar and placed it in his shirt pocket. 'Sometimes I'm embarrassed to be associated with the clergy in this area,' he said. 'My religion is about faith, not about hate.'


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Visit the official "Out in The Silence" web site at Outinthesilence.com
"Out in the Silence" can be seen On iTunes or purchased on Amazon.

 
 
 

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