Special rights! Girls’ bathrooms! Every child needs a mother and a father! Pray the gay away! Many of us were involved in the successful campaign last year to pass a city-wide non-discrimination ordinance here in San Antonio that has protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. And during Citizens to Be Heard meetings and protests, we heard many of the same arguments about why the non-discrimination ordinance was purportedly perilous. While writing Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, I did a lot of research on the history of anti-gay messaging, or the messages developed by the anti-gay Religious Right to oppose LGBTQ rights laws, from the late 1970s to the present day. I learned a few things in this research about where these messages come from andhow some LGBTQ organizers have opposed them. Here are some of my favorite lessons:
- Gays Just Want Special Rights! This one puzzled me before I began my book research. What is special about a right? Is the right just for special people or are some rights just special? This argument relies on the misconception that civil rights give some minority groups “special” rights above and beyond what ordinary citizens can access. The Religious Right developed this argument in the later 1980s when they were moving away from explicitly religious explanations for anti-gay politics and trying to appeal to moderate voters and African Americans. They developed an argument about “special rights” that suggested that LGBTQ rights dilute the power of civil rights for African Americans. This messaging allowed individuals to be supportive of civil rights but not these pesky “special rights” that LGBTQ people were asking for. They argued that everyone has “equal rights” and only legitimate minorities should be asking for “special rights.” Many Religious Right campaigns in the 1990s and 2000s named themselves Equal Rights Not Special Rights and encouraged people to vote “Yes for Equal Rights.” This is very tricky messaging, and many LGBTQ organizers were initially puzzled over how to respond to this message, because it is challenging to undo misconceptions about civil rights and the civil-rights movement with a soundbite. Some organizers have asserted that it is a basic right to be able to get a job, eat at a restaurant, and be accommodated at a hotel. We all deserve to be able to go about our lives without being discriminated against. It’s helpful to avoid using the phrase “special rights” at all and instead talk about discrimination. When people say they are against “special rights,” it can be clarifying to ask them if they support discriminating against people. Because that’s what opposition to special rights is all about.
- There will be MEN in girls’ bathrooms! This messaging is much more recent, although many Religious Right campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s referenced concerns about transvestites or gay men in dresses teaching in public school. It relies on assumptions about trans women as inherently men who are inherently interested in cisgender women and girls (heterosexist and transphobic much?). It also assumes that bathrooms are a space where women and girls are vulnerable, and that they are incapable of taking care of themselves in the absence of male protectors (sexist much?). There is nothing quite like a sexual panic about children to stir up animosity toward LGBTQ people. The Religious Right used to use sexual panics about gay teachers and pedophilia; now they use trans women and girls’ bathrooms. The reality is that many cities and states have passed non-discrimination ordinances, and there has not been an outbreak of trans women peeping at cisgender girls and women in the bathroom. This is a panic about something that is not actually happening. Everyone deserves the right to use the bathroom in peace.
- This is about Religious Freedom! One of the claims that is being used more frequently is that these measures discriminate against religious individuals, who may not want to serve drinks, take photographs, or bake wedding cakes for same-sex individuals. The assumption here in many non-discrimination ordinance disputes is that businesses and employers should only have to serve or hire individuals who have a similar faith as them or who pass some kind of purity test. No sinners allowed in! Some of these arguments rely on the 2008 documentary Silencing the Christians produced by the American Family Association, which opposes things like children’s books that include same-sex families, pro-LGBTQ education in schools, and dress codes that don’t allow students to wear homophobic shirts to school. We all have the right to our faith and to live in accordance with our religious principles. That said, I’m not certain that I should be screened for my sinfulness every time I apply for a job or buy a cake. There are protections in all non-discrimination laws for churches. But if you bake wedding cakes for a living and do so in the open marketplace, I assume that you don’t have all your customers fill out a survey to ascertain whether they are worthy of being served.
Amy L. Stone, Ph. D., is associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University, and the author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box.