This week, I attended the Commercial Closet's Images In Advertising Awards in Manhattan, which honored corporations that produced gay affirming ads. The pro-gay plugs showed genuine progress and highlighted that many leading companies "get it." The work of Commercial Closet is vital because images matter and repeated exposure to messages shape our views and create positive change in society. The cleverness and creativity in these ads imparts to millions of people that homosexuality is nothing to be feared and that GLBT people are part of the human family.
The awards ceremony was a welcome respite from reality, where there is no shortage of reminders that the world is still a very dangerous place. In Knoxville, Tennessee, a homophobic loser burst into a Unitarian Church where a children's play was being performed and unleashed a fusillade of gunfire, killing two people and injuring six. According to police, Jim D. Adkisson, "had targeted the church because of its liberal leanings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country."
The New York Times reports that the killer was raised in strict a Christian home and was openly anti-gay. He may have targeted this particular church because his former wife -- who he had threatened to shoot and then commit suicide -- had occasionally attended. He may also have been agitated by the church's affirming stand on GLBT equality.
The far right's dirty little secret is that they depend on the threat of violence to retard the advancement of the GLBT movement. Without the fear of physical attack, the number of people who are out of the closet would quickly multiply. Gay couples would hold hands in every city in the nation. On each block, from San Francisco to San Antonio, gay and lesbian people would be visibly present.
Each day, all but the bravest GLBT people make subtle or even significant adjustments to remain safe. Some dress a little blander in order to blend in. A number of gay men talk a bit deeper so they won't arouse suspicion. Some lesbians apply make up so they won't get beaten up. And, most loving couples act like buddies so they won't get bashed.
We tell ourselves comforting lies, such as "we don't like public displays of affection," to justify pushing a partner's hand away at a romantic moment. But, the reality is, even the most confident and brave among us have something to fear.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of people are not violent and a significant minority of Americans fervently supports GLBT people. What the right wing realizes, however, is it only takes a small number of twisted fanatics to keep GLBT people in check. We rarely know who these lunatics are, as they often keep their hate closeted. But, each gay person knows these hidden ticking time bombs exist and could go off at any moment -- shattering our lives.
When Focus on the Family's James Dobson says that giving gay people the freedom to marry will "destroy the earth" he is encouraging hate crimes. When Oklahoma state legislator Sally Kern says that homosexuality is the "death knell of this country," she is promoting gay bashing. When Elaine Donnelly told a congressional committee that lifting Don't Ask/Don't Tell would let lesbians take pictures of people in the shower she was setting the stage for violence. When Ann Coulter authors, How to Talk To a Liberal (If You Must), people like Jim Adkisson may be influenced.
What I find hypocritical is that the Religious Right will take any image it deems gay and claim it "promotes homosexuality." This even extends to fictional characters such as Tinky Winky and Sponge Bob Square Pants. Yet, these same oversensitive preachers refuse to acknowledge that their mean-spirited sermons might lead to violence.
The extreme right fuels anti-gay ugliness, but it is pervasive all around us. As we applauded the winners of the Commercial Closet awards, two ads that subtract from the dignity of gay people were on the minds of those in attendance. The first was a Nike ad where a basketball star leapt over a defender who had the dunker's scrotum in his face. The headline was "That Ain't Right."
In a second ad for Snickers, a swishy speed walker is attacked by a machine gun wielding Mr. T in a truck who demands the walker "run like a real man." He fires on the guy until he "corrects" his running style. Thanks to The Human Rights Campaign and the willingness of these companies, both ads were pulled.
We live in a society filled with violently homophobic messages and images, yet the perpetrators -- both religious and secular -- feign innocence and say they can't imagine how anti-gay hate crimes occur.