Monday, November 30, 2009

Atheism and Diversity: Is It Wrong For Atheists To Convert Believers?

By Greta Christina, AlterNet

Do atheists hate diversity?

Is the very act of atheist activism (trying to persuade people that atheism is correct and working to change the world into one without religion) an act of attempted conformity? Are atheists trying to create a drab, gray, uniform world, where everyone else is just like them?

It's probably pretty obvious that I think the answer is a big fat "No!" (Probably said in the Ted Stevens voice.) But it certainly is the case that many atheist activists, myself among them, are working very hard to persuade religious believers out of their beliefs. Not all atheists do this, of course; many have the more modest goals of separation of church and state and religious tolerance, including tolerance of atheists and recognition of us as equal citizens. But a good number of atheists are, in fact, trying to convince religious believers to become atheists. I'm one of them.

And since many believers see this as an intolerant attempt to enforce conformity -- particularly believers of the progressive, ecumenical, "all religions perceive God in their own way and we have to respect them all" stripe -- I want to take a moment to address it.

The Intolerant Bigotry of the Germ Theory

If there's one single idea I'd most like to get across to religious believers, it would not be, "There is no God." Or even, "There is probably no God." I want believers to reach that conclusion on their own. Preferably upon being awestruck by my brilliant arguments, of course, but ultimately on their own, after thinking it through, after looking at the reasons for belief and the reasons for atheism, and concluding that atheism makes more sense and is more consistent with what we know about the world. I don't want people to stop believing in God just because I say so.

If there's one single idea I'd most like to get across to religious believers, it would be this:

Religion is a hypothesis.

Religion is a hypothesis about how the world works, and why it is the way it is. Religion is the hypothesis that the world is the way it is, at least in part, because of immaterial beings or forces that act on the material world.

Religion is many other things, of course. It's communities, cultural traditions, political ideologies and philosophies. But those things aren't what make religion unique. What makes religion unique, among all other communities/philosophies, etc., is this hypothesis of an immaterial world acting on the material one. It's thousands of different hypotheses, really, positing thousands of immaterial beings and/or forces, with thousands upon thousands of different qualities and temperaments. But all these diverse beliefs have this one hypothesis in common: The hypothesis that there is a supernatural world, and that the natural world is the way it is because of the supernatural one.

Religion is not a subjective opinion, an ethical axiom or a personal perspective. (These things can be connected with religion, of course, but they're not what make its unique core.) Opinions, axioms and personal perspectives can be debated, but ultimately, they're up to each person to decide for themselves. Religion is none of these things. Religion is a hypothesis. It says, "Things are the way they are because of the effects of the immaterial world on the material one." Things are the way they are because God made them that way. Because the Devil is making them that way. Because the World-Soul is evolving that way. Because we have spiritual energy animating our consciousness. Because guardian angels are watching us. Because witches are casting spells. Because we are the reincarnated souls of dead people. Whatever.

Seeing religion as a hypothesis is important for a lot of reasons. But the reason that's most relevant to today's topic:

If religion is a hypothesis, it is not hostile to diversity for atheists to oppose it.

It is no more hostile to diversity to oppose the religion hypothesis than it is to oppose the hypothesis that global warming is a hoax; that an unrestricted free market will cause the economy to flourish for everyone; that illness is caused by an imbalance in the four bodily humors; that the sun orbits the earth.

Arguing against hypotheses that aren't supported by the evidence is not anti-diversity. That's how we understand the world better. We understand the world by rigorously gathering and analyzing evidence... and by ruthlessly rejecting any hypothesis the evidence doesn't support. Was it hostile to diversity for Pasteur to argue against the theory of spontaneous generation? For Georges Lemaitre to argue against the steady-state universe? For Galileo to argue against geocentrism?

And if not, then why is it hostile to diversity for atheists to argue against the hypothesis of God and the supernatural world?

How is it any more anti-diversity for atheists to argue against religion, and to try to persuade other people to change their minds about it, than it is for anyone to argue their case against any other hypothesis, on any other topic?

Many believers will argue that religion doesn't fall into these categories. They'll argue that religion can't be proven true or false with 100-percent certainty, and therefore it's reasonable for people to believe in any religion that appeals to them. (And it's unreasonable for anyone to make an argument against it.)

But that's not entirely true. Many religions, from young-earth creationism to astrology, do make testable claims. And every single time those claims have been rigorously tested, they've folded like a house of cards in a hurricane. They can't be disproved with 100-percent certainty, but almost nothing can, and that isn't the standard of evidence we use for any other claim.

Much more to the point, though: When you start seeing religion as a hypothesis, the fact that it's unverifiable suddenly stops being a defense.

In fact, it's completely the opposite. The fact that religion is unverifiable becomes one of the most devastating arguments against it.

One of the most important things about a hypothesis is that it has to be falsifiable. If any possible evidence could be used to support a hypothesis -- if your hypothesis will be shown to be true whether the water in the beaker gets hotter or colder, stays the same temperature, boils away instantly or turns into a parrot and flies out the door -- it is an utterly useless hypothesis. If any event at all can be fitted into it, then it has no power whatsoever to explain past events or predict future outcomes. It is, as they say, not even wrong.

And that's just as true of religion as any other hypothesis. If any outcome of, for instance, an illness -- recovering dramatically for no apparent reason, getting gradually better with medical intervention, getting worse, staying the same indefinitely, dying -- could be explained as God's work, then the God hypothesis is useless. It has no power to explain the world, to predict the future, or to tell us how our behavior will affect the outcomes of our lives. It serves no purpose. (Except, perhaps, a psychological one.)

The fact that religion is unfalsifiable doesn't mean we have to accept it as a reasonable possibility. It means the exact opposite. It means we should reject it wholesale.

It is not anti-diversity for atheists to point this out, any more than it's anti-diversity to point out how any other hypothesis is unfalsifiable, or unsupported by evidence, or directly contradicted by evidence, or in any other way mistaken and flawed.

A New Model for Diversity

I know that a lot of people will still have problems with atheist activism. Even if they acknowledge that atheist activism is fair and reasonable, they still have a strong, instinctive reaction against it. A lot of people think it seems like religious intolerance to say, "Your religion is wrong, and I think you should change your mind about it."

And I think the problem comes from how we think of diversity.

Historically, we pretty much have two models of dealing with religious beliefs that are different from ours. We have (a) intolerant evangelism and theocracy -- forcing religious beliefs down other people's throats, through social pressure at best, and legal strictures and even violence at worst. And we have (b) uncritical ecumenicalism: The idea that all religions are part of a rich, beautiful spiritual tapestry and they're all at least a little bit true -- and that even if they're not, it's religious bigotry to criticize them or try to persuade people out of them. It's a model created largely in response to intolerant evangelism and theocracy... and therefore, it's a model in which any criticism of any religion automatically gets slotted into that ugly category.

Atheism is offering a third option.

We're offering the option of respecting the important freedom of religious belief, while retaining the right to criticize those beliefs, and to treat them just like we'd treat any other idea we think is mistaken.

The atheist movement is passionate about the right to religious freedom. (With the notable exception of a few assholes on the Internet. Name me one movement that doesn't have its share of assholes on the Internet.) We fully support people's right to believe whatever the hell they want, as long as they keep it out of government and don't shove it down other people's throats. We see the right to think what we like as a basic foundation of human ethics, one of the most fundamental rights we have -- and we have no desire whatsoever to overturn that.

Yet at the same time, we see the right to free thought and free expression as including the right to criticize other people's thoughts and forms of expression. We passionately defend people's right to believe what they want... but we defend with equal passion our right to think what we want about those beliefs, and to say so in the public square. We express our disagreement in a variety of ways -- some more polite and respectful, some more insulting and mocking -- but we damn sure think we have the right to express it.

And we see no reason to treat religion with any more deference than any other idea. We see religion as -- yes, you guessed it -- a hypothesis about the world. We see it as a hypothesis that has never once in all of human history been shown to be correct. We see it as a hypothesis that at the very least has been falsified numerous times, and at worst is unfalsifiable and should therefore be rejected on that basis alone. And we see no reason to treat it any differently from any other deeply flawed, completely unsupported hypothesis. We see no reason not to criticize it, to ask hard questions about it, to make fun of it, to point out flaws in it, to point out the good evidence contradicting it and the utter lack of good evidence supporting it... and to do our damndest to persuade people out of believing in it.

Most atheists would probably be okay with a world that included religion, as long as it was tolerant of other beliefs and stayed the hell out of government. (Some of us are skeptical about whether this is possible... but we'd be okay with it.) Many of us even enjoy some of the rituals and traditions of religion, as long as they don't involve actual religious belief (a la secular Judaism). But yes, many atheist activists would like humanity to eventually give up on religion. We think religion is a mistaken idea about the world. We think we can make a good case for that position. We think it's entirely reasonable to try to persuade people that we're right.

And this is not an attack on diversity.

It is a defense of reality.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Penna. City Torn By Racial Strife Elects Black Mayor

By Marc Levy for The Associated Press:

YORK, Pa. -- A little girl who trembled in her house as a National Guard tank rumbled past during York's chaotic 1969 race riots has grown up to become the first black mayor of the central Pennsylvania city.

Kim Bracey, 45, an energetic veteran of the struggling manufacturing city's improvement efforts will take office in January, to the delight of many African-Americans who thought they would never see a black mayor.

"President Obama was one thing, but here in York where few people vote ... I really didn't think I would live to see this take place," Bracey said in a recent interview at her transition office.

Racial harmony or becoming York's first black mayor was not part of Bracey's platform. In fact, she hadn't even thought about it until a reporter brought it up after she won the "White Rose" city's four-way Democratic primary in May.

Rather, Bracey will inherit a city of 40,000 that is barely able to pay its bills as it loses the manufacturing jobs that helped build it up. Poverty is becoming as entrenched as the racial animosity that led to York's deadly riots 40 years ago.

U.S. census statistics show a city in which average family income is half of Pennsylvania's, while the poverty rate for children is three times as high, at 48 percent.

One unemployed city resident, Butch Maxfield, said race is less important to Yorkers than poverty, crime and how to help the city's aimless young people.

"Everybody's poor. There's no jobs," said the 58-year-old Maxfield, who is black. "Now it's about 'what can you do for me?'"

Still, Maxfield and many others view Bracey's election as an achievement in a city that has a legacy of racial strife.

The 1960s saw a buildup of black resentment against a city administration that they said systematically ignored their community's needs and a police force that used dogs and other tough tactics to antagonize blacks.

In 1968, the year the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. plunged the nation into deepening racial turmoil, a state human rights commission admonished York for its polarized racial atmosphere and warned of the potential for violence.

In July 1969, York exploded.

Violence between white and black youths unleashed more than a week of mayhem. Buildings were set afire, police barricaded black neighborhoods and enforced curfews and the National Guard rolled in on tanks to try to restore order.

Amid the chaos, a white police officer, Henry Schaad, suffered a fatal gunshot wound while riding in an armored vehicle that came under fire. Four days later, Lillie Belle Allen, a young black mother of two visiting from Aiken, S.C., died in a hail of gunfire when her car stalled while she was trying to steer away from white gang members.

The slayings went unpunished and questions unanswered for three decades until prosecutors, acting on new information dug up by reporters, began asking questions.

Eventually, they charged 12 people, including Charlie Robertson, the mayor at the time, in an extraordinary investigation that grabbed national headlines. Two white men were convicted of second-degree murder in Allen's slaying, while seven others pleaded guilty or no contest to lesser charges. Two black men were convicted of second-degree murder in Schaad's death.

Robertson, a police officer during the riots who was accused of stirring up white gang members and inciting violence against blacks, was acquitted.

The trials proved to be cathartic, if uncomfortable, for many in the city. More than six years after the last person went to jail, some blacks say they don't feel as though the city is entirely integrated.

"I'm 36. I've never been in trouble with the law and I'm still a suspect," said Shawn Ford, who runs a general contracting business in York and is black.

Many other cities that were scarred by race riots - Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles and Cleveland - elected their first black mayors many years ago. But analysts say York's black population has always been a minority - it is about 26 percent, according to census records - and it is only recently that new Hispanic residents have diluted the voting power of whites.

Bracey, who went to college and served a decade in the Air Force, had the city's teenagers and young adults on her mind when she decided to return to York to work in youth and civic programs.

"The sense of apathy and loss ... was so prevalent in the eyes of the young people. I knew when I came back I had to help that," she said.

After nearly a decade working for nonprofit organizations, she became the city's director of community development in 2003 and a top adviser to outgoing Mayor John Brenner. She quit in January to run for office, soundly beating three opponents - including a white city councilwoman - in the Democratic primary.

Bracey's victory in the general election was a breeze, with her Republican opponent never mounting a serious candidacy.

On the Nov. 3 election day, Bracey was out greeting voters at a polling place when a woman rolled up in a van. Inside was her young daughter, probably 10 or 11, who had wanted to meet Bracey and get her autograph.

"We started talking - 'Well what do you want to be when you grow up?' - and she wants to be a lawyer," Bracey said. "I'll never forget it. It was really humbling to think I came home for this purpose. And here it is, it's happening. I'm making a little difference here in this little girl's life."

Friday, November 27, 2009

Soul-Searching In Turkey After A Gay Man Is Killed By His Father

By Dan Bilefsky for the NY Times:

ISTANBUL — For Ahmet Yildiz, a stocky and affable 26-year-old, the choice to live openly as a gay man proved deadly. Prosecutors say his own father hunted him down, traveling more than 600 miles from his hometown to shoot his son in an old neighborhood of Istanbul.

Mr. Yildiz was killed 16 months ago, the victim of what sociologists say is the first gay honor killing in Turkey to surface publicly. He was shot five times as he left his apartment to buy ice cream. A witness said dozens of neighbors watched the killing from their windows, but refused to come forward. His body remained unclaimed by his family, a grievous fate under Muslim custom.

His father, Yahya Yildiz, whose trial in absentia began in September, is on the run and believed to be hiding in northern Iraq.

The case, which has caused a bout of national soul-searching, has underlined the tensions between the secular modern Turkey of cross-dressing pop stars and a more traditionalist Turkey, in which conservative Islam increasingly holds sway.

Ahmet Kaya, Ahmet Yildiz’s cousin, said Mr. Yildiz was the only son of a deeply religious and wealthy Kurdish family from Sanliurfa, in the predominantly Kurdish southeast.

Mr. Kaya said Mr. Yildiz, a straight-A physics student who had hoped to become a teacher, was tutoring fellow students so he could make extra money to live independently. But by coming out as gay in a patriarchal tribal family, he had become the ultimate affront to both religious and filial honor, even with parents who adored him.

“Ahmet’s father had warned him to return to their village and to see a doctor and imam in order to cure him of his homosexuality and get married, but Ahmet refused,” Mr. Kaya said. “Ahmet loved his family more than anything else and he was tortured about disappointing them. But in the end, he decided to be who he was.”

That clash of values permeates Turkish society. While Turkey’s aspiration to join the European Union is pushing the Muslim-inspired government to accept and even promote civil liberties for women and homosexuals, some traditionalists remain ill at ease with a permissive attitude toward sexuality and gender roles.

Until recently, so-called honor killings have been largely confined to women, who face being killed by male relatives for perceived grievances ranging from consensual sex outside of marriage to stealing a glance at a boy. A recent government survey estimated that one person dies every week in Istanbul as a result of honor killings, while the United Nations estimates the practice globally claims as many as 5,000 lives a year. In Turkey, relatives convicted in such killings are subject to life sentences.

A sociologist who studies honor killings, Mazhar Bagli, at Dicle University in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast, noted that tribal Kurdish families that kill daughters perceived to have dishonored them publicize the murders to help cleanse their shame.

But he said gay honor killings remained underground because a homosexual not only brought shame to his family, but also tainted the concept of male identity upon which the community’s social structure depended.

“Until now, gay honor killings have been invisible because homosexuality is taboo,” he said.

Gay rights groups argue that there is an increasingly open homophobia in Turkey. The military, which is the guardian of Turkey’s secular state, regards homosexuality as a disorder.

Last year, a local Istanbul court ruled in favor of disbanding the offices of Lambda, the country’s leading gay rights group, after a complaint that it offended public morality. (The decision was later overturned by a higher court.)

Firat Soyle, a human rights lawyer for Lambda, who was advising Mr. Yildiz before his death, said that three months before the murder, Mr. Yildiz had filed a complaint at the local prosecutor’s office that he was receiving death threats from his family. Mr. Soyle said the prosecutor’s office had refused to investigate or provide Mr. Yildiz with protection. The local police and prosecutors declined to comment on the allegation because the case was continuing.

The murder has divided Mr. Yildiz’s neighbors in Uskudar, an old Ottoman district on the Bosporus in Istanbul where secular and religious Turks live side by side.

Ummuhan Darama, a neighbor of Mr. Yildiz, was shot in the ankle during the attack and has filed criminal charges against his father. She said that the police had visited her in the hospital after the episode, urging her to drop the charges and to avoid becoming involved in what they called a “dirty crime.”

Ms. Darama, a religious Muslim who wears a gold satin head scarf, said she was the only one among her neighbors willing to testify.

“The police and local religious officials are trying to protect the killer because they think homosexuality is a sin,” she said. “But in Islam killing is an even bigger sin, and no one but Allah has the right to decide between life and death. Ahmet was a nice, gentle boy and he didn’t deserve to die.”

But Kemal, 55, a Kurdish man newly arrived to the district from the southeast who declined to give his last name, said he would disown his son if he found out he was gay. “I would kick him out of the house and he would no longer be my son,” he said, fingering his prayer beads.

Even as some gay groups have sought to blame encroaching Islamic conservatism for Mr. Yildiz’s death, others argue that Turkish society is actually becoming more sexually liberated. Nilufer Narli, a sociologist who has studied gender issues, noted that gay clubs and gay bars have proliferated in big cities like Istanbul. She said homosexuality in Turkey had been tolerated since Ottoman times.

One of Turkey’s most celebrated singers is Bulent Ersoy, a transsexual, who was banned by the military government in the 1980s but has since become more popular as a woman than she was as a man.

“It is a cliché that Turkey is homophobic,” Ms. Narli said. “There has been a rise in religious conservatism, but at the same time, because of globalization, people are more accepting now of different values than they have ever been.”

That acceptance, however, has not always filtered down to Turkey’s religious heartland, with sometimes deadly consequences.

Didar Erdal, a 23-year-old gay man from Mr. Yildiz’s hometown, recently fled Istanbul for the Netherlands out of fear that his own family was hunting him.

Mr. Erdal said his family had learned he was gay last month after he applied for an exemption from military service on the grounds of his sexuality. He said his father had gone “crazy” and ordered him home, where the tribe’s elders would decide his fate.

“I know all too well,” Mr. Erdal said, “what the tradition demands must happen to me.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The New GLBT Pope Problem

from Truth Wins Out:

It is time to admit that the gay community has a gigantic Pope problem. Under the leadership of Benedict XVI, the Vatican has become an implacable foe of liberalism, modernity and basic rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Rome has eagerly jumped with both feet into America's culture wars and is working on a global scale to punish or purge ideological dissenters within the church. This aggressive activism presents a formidable new front in the fight for parity - one with considerable political clout and financial resources.

Last week, a coalition of totalitarian religious activists and radical clerics joined forces to unveil the "Manhattan Declaration" at Washington's National Press Club. This rambling manifesto, written by former Watergate felon Chuck Colson, called for "Christians" to disobey laws they didn't fancy and to ignore civil rights laws that protected GLBT people from discrimination. It was a dishonest document filled with historical revisionism that promoted theocracy, encouraged anarchy and supported the dissolution of the rule of law. It falsely portrayed right wing Christians as victims, even as they pledged to work tirelessly to deny equality to those who would not adhere to their sectarian church rules.

An extreme manifesto of such breathtaking cynicism and insincerity is no surprise coming from what passes for "leaders" in today's evangelical circles. It was striking, however, that more than 15 key American Catholic leaders signed on to the "Manhattan Declaration". Signatories included heavyweights such as Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York and Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, DC. This was clearly a call to arms and a powerful signal that the Roman Catholic Church is taking the gloves off to fight political battles in America.

This hands-on involvement from Rome has passed the "trend" stage and appears to be official policy. Consider the significant involvement the Catholic Church had in stripping marriage rights away from GLBT couples in a Maine referendum held earlier this month.

In the same manner, on June 11, the Washington, DC Archdiocese threatened to abandon the homeless and quit charity work in the District if it had to comply with anti-discrimination laws. Catholic Charities had the audacity to believe it was entitled to collect $8.2 million in tax dollars meant to serve all DC residents, and then still get to handpick whom it deems worthy of assistance.

Catholic involvement with arch-conservative politics is growing by the day. In May, Catholic groups tried to stop President Barack Obama from speaking at a Notre Dame commencement ceremony because of his pro-choice position.

Earlier this month, Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin put the clamp on Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), banning the lawmaker from communion because he is pro-choice. This was reminiscent of The St. Louis Archbishop refusing to give communion to Senator John Kerry during his presidential campaign.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has suddenly begun to steer GLBT Catholics to 12-step programs that promise to "cure" homosexuality or support them in a lifelong celibacy. The Catholic Diocese in Sioux Falls, South Dakota urged its 128-thousand members to oppose an attempt to bring legalizing embryonic stem cell research to a public referendum. (I guess the sacrosanct "people's right to vote" on controversial social issues only applies to same-sex marriage)

In fighting back, we must remember that the Vatican is launching these attacks from a position of weakness. It has yet to recover its moral authority from public exposure of rampant child sexual abuse scandals that cost the Church billions of dollars in legal settlements.

The Vatican appears to be acutely aware it is losing its worldwide market share. It is basically defunct in the Middle East, where the religion began, and on life-support in Western Europe, where it once prospered. In Africa, Rome competes with Islam and Anglicanism for a shrinking slice of the pie. (Who can forget that while in Africa the Pope said condoms could make the AIDS crisis worse.) South America, one of its few remaining strongholds, is losing Roman Catholics to evangelical faiths by the millions.

Instead of competing against the conservative evangelical brand, Pope Benedict has decided to embrace it, shaping a conspicuously political Catholicism that embraces extremism and drives out dissenters. The Vatican has become so doctrinaire that it recently launched an invasive probe into the lives of America's 60,000 nuns to enforce anachronistic rules. In January, Benedict welcomed back excommunicated Bishop Richard Williamson who denied that millions of Jews died in Nazi death camps.

Fortunately, Benedict is a cold, unsympathetic figure and the majority of American Catholics often ignore his edicts. The strategy for the GLBT community should be to stand up to Rome and help mobilize mainstream Catholics to fight back against an authoritarian Pontiff who is hell-bent on making the Catholic Church as unpopular and unappealing as His Holiness.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pennsylvania Progressive Summit - Early Registration Rate!

Only days left to get the Early Bird Rate for the Progressive Summit!

Join us in Harrisburg this January for the largest and most exciting gathering of progressives in Pennsylvania. The netroots and grassroots, activists and leaders will join together in our effort to create a permanent progressive majority in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Progressive Summit will be held on January 29-30 at the Sheraton Harrisburg Hershey.

Here's a sampling of the incredible workshops and round-tables we'll have:

* The Front Lines of the Energy and Climate War
* A Dialogue on Common Values Between Progressives and the Working Class
* PA's Climate Change Advisory Committee: What You Need to Know About the State's Proposal to Tackle Global Warming
* Getting Free Media Around Your Issues
* Mobilizing Through New Media: Building a New Media Program From the Ground Up
* Why Growing a Green Manufacturing Economy is Critical to Progressives
* Petitioning 101: How to Keep Your Candidate on the Ballot
* Using Government's Power of the Purse to Create Good Jobs
* Medical Marijuana: Mainstream Policies for the 2010's

We'll also have:

Great opportunities for networking with progressives from across PA and elsewhere, including netroots and grassroots activists, stakeholders, decision makers, policy makers, and providers;

A gubernatorial debate featuring Chris Doherty, Joe Hoeffel, Tom Knox, Dan Onorato and Jack Wagner;

Inspirational speakers, including Leo Gerard (International President of the United Steelworkers) and Wendell Potter (former health insurance exec turned whistleblower);

...and more to be announced in the coming weeks.

Register today. The Early Bird registration (Before November 30) is only $75 for all workshops, both debates, keynote speeches, meals, snacks and beverages. Click here to register: The regular registration fee is $100, and space is limited, so sign up soon.

More Anti-Gay, Religious-Motivated Crimes Reported

By Devlin Barrett for The Associated Press:

WASHINGTON -- Reports of hate crimes against gays and religious groups increased sharply in 2008, according to FBI data released Monday.

Overall, the number of reported hate crimes increased about 2 percent. These same figures show a nearly 11 percent increase in hate crimes based on sexual orientation, and a nearly 9 percent increase in hate crimes based on religion.

The largest category, racially motivated hate crimes, fell less than 1 percent.

Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay civil rights group, called the numbers unacceptable and said they showed the need for the expanded federal hate crimes law signed last month by President Barack Obama.

Among all categories of hate crimes, roughly a third are vandalism or property damage. About 30 percent involve intimidation of some kind, and another 30 percent were physical attacks.

The FBI does not compare year-to-year trends in hate crimes, saying the number of agencies reporting changes too much. In fact, the bureau cautioned that the increase reported Monday might well be due to more agencies tracking such incidents.

Brian Levin, director for the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino, warned that the national numbers may be misleading because some states - like California, New Jersey, and Ohio - are good at reporting hate crimes while others - Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi and Pennsylvania - are not.

"The quality of the data is so variable and in some instances so bad that it makes trend analysis extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible," said Levin. "Generally, states that have effective data collection also have effective training and procedures to address these crimes."

In 2008, 2,145 different agencies reported hate crimes incidents, while the year before 2,025 agencies did this reporting.

In total, there were 7,783 hate crimes reported to the FBI last year, and seven murders were categorized as hate crimes.

The FBI data is based on information law enforcement agencies voluntarily report to the bureau.

Half of all hate crimes are motivated by race, according to the FBI. One out of every five is driven by religious bias, and one out of every six is based on sexual orientation bias.

The Anti-Defamation League said Monday's figures - the highest total for hate crimes since 2001 - show a need for a new national initiative to combat bias crimes.

Less than a month ago, Obama signed a bill expanding those covered by the federal law against hate crimes. Previously, the law had protected those attacked on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin.

The law signed by Obama now covers crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It also removes the restriction that federal authorities can launch investigations of victims who were engaged in federally protected activities like voting or free speech.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"They Want You Dead"

from Truth Wins Out:

In March, American anti-gay activists traveled to Uganda for a conference that pledged to “wipe out” homosexuality. Seven months later, a draconian bill has been introduced that pledges to make good on this threat. The “Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009” is so severe that it is designed to shred the spirit and suffocate the soul of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Ugandans. If it passes, Uganda will become a predator state that actively hunts down GLBT people to destroy them.

Uganda already punished gay intimacy with life in prison. But, apparently that was not harsh enough, with this bill penalizing anyone who “attempts to commit the offence” with up to seven years in jail. Additionally, a person charged will be forced to undergo an invasive medical examination to determine their HIV status. If the detainees are found to be HIV+, they may be executed.

This barbaric legislation stifles free speech by threatening anyone who is accused of “promoting” homosexuality with five to seven year prison sentences. Snitching on gay friends and family members is strongly encouraged because “failure to disclose the ‘offence’ within 24 hours of knowledge makes somebody liable to a fine or imprisonment of up to three years.”

Sadly, this witch-hunt has the blood stained fingerprints of leading American evangelicals. The Fellowship, (aka The Family) one of America’s most powerful and secretive fundamentalist organization’s, converted Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni (pictured top) to its anti-gay brand of Christianity, which is the “intellectual” impetus behind the anti-gay crackdown. The clandestine organization’s leader, Doug Coe, calls Museveni The Fellowship’s “key man” in Africa. Jeff Sharlet, author of “The Family”, writes of the African strongman’s conversion:

“So,” Doug Coe told us, “my friend said to the president, ‘why don’t you come and pray with me in America? I have a good group of friends—senators, congressmen—who I like to pray with, and they’d like to pray with you.’ And that president came to the Cedars (a religious retreat), and he met Jesus. And his name is Yoweri Museveni…And he is a good friend of the Family.”

The Family, of course, recently made headlines because one of its key members, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) had sex with his best friends wife, while they were working together. Another member, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), used one of the Family’s Washington properties to try to broker a deal to buy off the furious husband, who has since gone public with the Ensign scandal.

It is important for people to understand that The Fellowship and other anti-gay groups have long viewed Uganda as a laboratory to experiment with Christian theocracy. For example, fundamentalist organizations recently undermined successful HIV programs in Uganda by demanding abstinence only education, over condom use, which had been working to reduce infection rates.

This year’s notorious Kampala conference was the opening salvo in a campaign to crush GLBT lives. The seminar featured Scott Lively, author of The Pink Swastika, who blames the holocaust on gay people.

The hate forum also featured Don Schmierer, a board member of the “ex-gay” organization Exodus International, and Caleb Lee Brundidge, who works with discredited ex-gay “reorientation coach” Richard Cohen. These American “ex-gay” activists clearly left their stamp on this evil legislation, giving Ugandan officials a way to justify the abuse because they can claim that “sinful” gays can choose to change.

“This legislation further recognizes the fact that same sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic and that people who experience this mental disorder can and have changed to a heterosexual orientation,” the bill said. “It also recognizes that because homosexuals are not born that way, but develop this disorder based on experiences and environmental conditions, it is preventable, especially among young people who are most vulnerable to recruitment into the homosexual lifestyle.”

Following the infamous conference, a Kampala newspaper named local gay people, placing their lives in immediate danger. Now, the government may soon declare it open season on GLBT individuals.

In 1994, I brought Rev. Mel White down to speak at an event in Fort Lauderdale. In his address, the former Christian right ghostwriter proclaimed of his previous employers, “They want you dead.”

The comment was at once riveting and alarmist to some in the crowd. Yet, the painful silence of anti-gay activists at home is making White appear downright prophetic. These Christian Colonialists invaded Uganda’s politics and culture, and the result is that they have ruined the lives of its GLBT citizens. The Fellowship, Exodus and other American fundamentalist organizations, appear quite unbothered by the poisonous fruits of their labor.

Uganda is a proxy in their culture war and we are witnessing exactly what these fanatics might do if they did not have the United States Constitution blocking their pious path to power. Let the record show that their “key man” controlled Uganda when a religious terror campaign was waged against an innocent minority – and these good Christians stood by and did not lift a finger to stop the horror.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Why Do We Hate?

Academics Seek Answer In New Field

By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS, Associated Press:

SPOKANE, Wash. – Why did the Nazis hate the Jews? Why did the Hutus hate the Tutsis?

Hate is everywhere, but the fundamental question of why one person can hate another has never been adequately studied, contends Jim Mohr of Gonzaga University, who is developing a new academic field of hate studies.

The goal is to explain a condition that has plagued humanity since one caveman looked askance at another.

"What makes hate tick?" Mohr, director of Gonzaga's Institute for Action Against Hate, wondered. "How can we stop it?"

Gonzaga founded the institute a decade ago after some black law students received threatening letters. It has since started a Journal of Hate Studies, hosted a conference and offered its first class on hatred last spring.

The hope is that other universities will follow suit, said Ken Stern of the American Jewish Committee in New York, who has been involved in the effort. "We wanted to approach hate more intelligently," he said.

Stern, who has spent 20 years battling anti-Semitism, said the need for hate studies became obvious when people started fighting groups like the Aryan Nations, which once flourished in this area. Opponents galvanized against the Aryans, but didn't really know how best to fight them, Stern said.

"We were flying by the seat of our pants," he said. "There was no testable theory."

There is not even a good definition of hate, Stern contends.

Philosophers have offered numerous definitions: Rene Descartes said hate was the urge to withdraw from something that is thought bad. Aristotle saw hate as the incurable desire to annihilate an object.

In psychology, Sigmund Freud defined hate as an ego state that wishes to destroy the source of its unhappiness.

Gonzaga, a Jesuit university best known for its basketball team, offered a class on the subject taught by five professors from different disciplines.

Student Kayla De Los Reyes was in that class, and said the information both horrified her and gave her hope.

"Hate is something that is part of the human emotional makeup," she said. "Everyone feels it at one point or another. You have to learn to control it."

The goal is to create an academic home where a variety of disciplines, including history, psychology, religious studies, anthropology and political science, can be brought together to focus on hate. It's the same sort of effort that led to the creation of disciplines like black studies or women's studies, Mohr said.

Such academic efforts are not without controversy. Some skeptics fear they are little more than attacks on the dominant power structure.

"This stuff tends to be one dimensional and presumes the guilt of an archetypal white male," said Glenn Ricketts, spokesman for the National Association of Scholars.

Indeed, De Los Reyes said one of the more interesting topics in the class involved white privilege. The most recent Journal of Hate Studies contained articles about oppression of gays, Nazi experiments on Jews, the local battle against Aryan Nations, and Muslim support for suicide bombings.

Heather Veeder, a graduate assistant for the institute, said the organization has an important mission.

"Hate thrives in areas not illuminated by education," she said.

But Stern said it is too easy to blame ignorance for hate. People can have plenty of knowledge about something and still hate it, he said. The problem is when one person or group can separate another person or group from their humanity, thinking of them as an "other," Stern said.

"We dehumanize them and justify violence against them," Stern said.

There is no simple answer to why people hate, Mohr said. Hate can be sparked by greed, or fear, or a tribe bonding together in opposition to another. People looking to belong will hate others to fit into a group, he said.

With all the political conflict in the United States, it can seem that hate is on the rise. Some people seem to hate President Obama. Some hate Muslims. Some hate homosexuals.

But Mohr said he wouldn't pursue a field of hate studies if he didn't think something positive could be achieved.

"We can change," Mohr said. "There has to be hope."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Junk-Science Film Being Promoted By Tea Bag Movement

Venango County Extremists Are Participating In Efforts To Attack Climate Change Efforts

By Stephanie Mencimer for Mother Jones:

The Tea Party movement earned its stripes at town hall protests this summer by claiming that Democratic health care reform efforts would result in defenseless grannies being hauled before "death panels." Now the tea partiers have a new target—the cap-and-trade legislation moving through Congress—and new, unlikely victims to protect—the poor.

One of the key recruiting tools in conservative activists' push against the climate bill is a recent documentary called Not Evil, Just Wrong. The film styles itself as the latest conservative answer to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. It has no commercial distributor, but instead debuted on an October 18 webcast heavily promoted by social conservative organizations like Focus on the Family and the American Family Association, as well as local Tea Party groups. Organizers claimed the online premiere attracted some 400,000 viewers.

Now the tea partiers are calling for local chapters to host screenings on November 21. An Escondido, California, branch recently invited members to a "record-setting international Cinematic Tea Party," in terms reminiscent of a social justice rally: "Join the Resistance against the extreme environmentalism that threatens the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in the developed and developing world; this is the new road to poverty in America." (To facilitate these screenings, the filmmakers are selling a "Platinum Party Pack" on their online store, which for $99.95 gets you all the fixings for a rockin' party: invitations, T-shirts, posters, and even a small red carpet.)

Red carpet notwithstanding, Not Evil is unlikely to garner its creators, a pair of Irish former journalists, any Oscar nominations. The film is poorly organized and rehashes the familiar talking points of climate change deniers—global warming as bad science; climate concerns as hysteria akin to that over killer bees, etc. Pushing those views are the usual suspects, including Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace founder turned nuclear power lobbyist, and Thatcher-era British politician Sir Nigel Lawson.

Where Not Evil differs slightly from the standard denialist script is insistence that cutting carbon emissions will hurt the poor. "For too long, with environmentalists, it's not enough about people," says Ann McElhinney, one of the filmmakers, in an interview. "Is it warming? Is it cooling? Who knows? Is it caused by us? There's even more disagreement about that. All of these things should be about people. We should be fighting for the poor."

To that end, the film introduces 30-year-old Tiffany McElhany, a stay-at-home mom portrayed as a potential casualty of any environmental legislation that would shutter coal-fired power plants. The filmmakers met her in a hotel lounge in Vevay, Indiana, population 1,600. After they told her about the movie, she replied, "If Al Gore could walk a day in my shoes for a few days, he wouldn't be doing the things he's doing." McElhinney and her coproducer/director husband, Phelim McAleer, had found their star.

In the film, they send McElhany on a Michael Moore-inspired road trip to try to deliver a handwritten letter to Gore at his Tennessee mansion. Naturally, he's off on a private jet somewhere. The stunt isn't very funny—but McElheny's role isn't to provide satiric commentary. It's to embody the prosperity that coal and other dirty industries have brought to places like Vevay.

And by all appearances, the McElhanys enjoy an idyllic rural life. Thanks to Tiffany's husband's $16-an-hour job making mufflers for Toyota, the family has bought a new house in the country. The film lingers on shots of the family eating pancakes and their daughter playing the saxophone. At one point, McElhany waxes poetically about coal, which fires a power plant just across the river and therefore employs a number of Vevay residents. "Why would anyone want to take that away? It would mean less funding for schools, possibly less schools; it would mean an extreme cost-of-living rise. It would mean kids like my kids wouldn't be able to play in bands, wouldn't be able to do ballet class because there is just not going to be the extra money anymore in an everyday household to pay for these things," she says.

While the filmmakers may be sincere in their concern for low-income people, their film is populated by a cast of discredited characters, some of them familiar from recent corporate astroturf efforts. Case in point: Roy Innis, the head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), whose group participated in a "Stop the War on the Poor" campaign launched by a lobbying firm connected to Alaskan oil interests in order to push for more oil drilling in the US.

Not Evil presents Innis as the leader of a historic civil rights group fighting to reinstate use of the pesticide DDT, whose ban the film blames for the daily malaria deaths of more than 300 African children. But CORE is better known among real civil rights groups for renting out its historic name to any corporation in need of a black front person. The group has taken money from the payday-lending industry, chemical giant (and original DDT manufacturer) Monsanto, and ExxonMobil. Last year, Mother Jones reported that oil and gas interests recruited Innis to serve as the lead plaintiff in a legal challenge to listing the polar bear as a threatened species.

When I asked the filmmakers why they didn't acknowledge Innis' conflicts in the film, they claimed ignorance. "We didn't pay him anything!" McElhinney exclaimed. "Which industry is Al Gore getting money from?" demanded McAleer, who says that whether Innis received payments from Exxon is beside the point.

It turns out that McElhany's story, too, is more complicated than Not Evil would have you believe. She is by far the documentary's most compelling character, and seems poised to become a minor heroine to the Tea Party crowd. Yet for all her talk of the bounty that coal has brought to Vevay, when I contacted her for this story she disclosed that her husband was laid off in March and has been unemployed ever since. It appears that a lot of dirty industry jobs have disappeared with no help at all from environmentalists.

For Transgender People, Acceptance Is Hard To Find - Even In LGBT Community

from Chicago Now's REDEYE:

When Adrianna King was turned out of her home, she went north in search of acceptance.

A transsexual woman with a shy smile, King, 21, moved to Lakeview earlier this year in hopes that gay-friendly Boystown would offer a haven safe from the harassment and abuse she suffered in her South Side neighborhood.

But Boystown wasn't always safe, and it wasn't always friendly.

King, born a male and in transition to becoming a woman, said she was turned away from Lakeview homeless shelters because management feared she'd be harassed by other boarders. She said she spent the summer sleeping in parks, abandoned buildings, "L" trains and on the lakefront. When nowhere felt safe, King walked all night through Lakeview's streets, waiting until the Center on Halsted opened so she could crash on its couches.

"Every morning I'd come to work, and she'd be outside in the rain," said Tiffany Traylor, a clinical case manager at the center, which serves the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Homeless youth have congregated in Lakeview for decades, but the past three or four years have seen an influx of transgender youth from throughout the city who come for social services or to find a welcoming community, said Heather Bradley, youth outreach coordinator for the Night Ministry, a nondenominational nonprofit that serves vulnerable kids and adults.

"They're younger, they're people of color, and there are lots and lots of trans kids," Bradley said. "Young, transgender women of color are kind of the face of youth homelessness these days."

Though the number of transgender people hasn't necessarily grown, more are coming out at a younger age and flocking to Lakeview because that's where the action is and where they feel safe, said Modesto Valle, executive director of the Center on Halsted.

Largely neglected and misunderstood by the general population as well as some in the LGBT community they're supposed to be a part of, transgender people--an umbrella term for anyone who does not conform to his or her born gender role, including but not limited to transsexuals like King who seek to live as the opposite sex--are at high risk of poverty, discrimination, joblessness, suicide, hate violence and estrangement from family and other support networks.

There are no statistics on the size of the transgender community in Chicago; rough estimates published in a report this year by the LGBT Movement Advancement Project puts the national transgender population at between .25 percent and 1 percent of the U.S. population.

The transgender homeless are among the throngs of youth--gay, straight, homeless and not homeless--who regularly gather on Lakeview street corners, sparking tension in the neighborhood. Some Lakeview residents and business owners worry that loitering, noise and prostitution are damaging the quality of life, while others believe the swarms of young people may be attracting criminals who hide in their midst to commit robberies and assaults.

Meetings to address the strained relationship have been ongoing for years, though some business owners recently have felt the conflict boil over. Scott Jannush, owner of Borderline Music on Broadway, said a group of youths caused such a disruption during a recording artist's signing at his shop earlier this month that a scuffle ensued. He had to escort them out and file a police report.

Jannush said the centers that cater to youth should impart more skills and counseling rather than just provide a place for kids to hang out.

"They've opened the doors to the neighborhood, and now they're destroying the neighborhood," Jannush said.

The Center on Halsted's Valle said people found to be disrespecting the neighborhood are warned and ultimately barred from the Center, which does provide jobs and skills training. But Valle said the kids who frequent Boystown shouldn't all be lumped together.

The youth, for their part, say they're often the targets of crime--and transgender people, in particular, are vulnerable, as they're more visually different and their mainstream acceptance lags far behind that of gays and lesbians.

"We see a lot of verbal and physical violence against trans youth," said Gabriel Ervin, a youth resource advocate at the Broadway Youth Center. "It's still OK to be outright transphobic."

King is doing all she can to beat the odds.

On Oct. 1, King moved into a small Lakeview studio with the assistance of Stable Futures, a transitional housing program of Heartland Human Care Services that helps single homeless people move toward stability. The program pays up to $600 in monthly rent for up to a year.

Though Lakeview has its challenges, King, who said she's known since age 5 that she didn't belong in her little boy's body, said it's far more comfortable and tolerant than Woodlawn, where she grew up. Still, she said she wakes up most days feeling anxious.

"I worry, 'How are people going to view me? What do I have to offer?'" said King, who each day heads to the Center on Halsted to see friends and talk to her case manager about jobs. Finding a job is one of the greatest challenges--and a reason so many transgender people are homeless.

King's driver's license still bears her birth name: Allen King. She worries about which name to put on her applications, and how she's going to explain why she doesn't look like an Allen. King for now is looking for retail jobs, and hopes to pursue a social work degree, but she dreams of working in entertainment.

"I'd like to be a role model," King said, "and represent another type of beauty."

There's a saying in the transgender community that the "T" in LGBT is silent.

That has started to change, as transgender leaders raise their voices and gay organizations and legislation strive to be more inclusive. The federal hate crimes bill that President Obama recently signed into law and the closely watched Employment Non-Discrimination Act now before Congress both cover gender identity as well as sexual orientation.

Still, transgender people remain on the fringe. And while they are the most vulnerable of the LGBT community, they also are the most understudied.

In what they're calling the first comprehensive national effort to document discrimination against transgender people, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force launched a six-month survey of 6,450 transgender people.

The preliminary findings, released this month, found that among transgender people:
- 97 percent said they experienced harassment or mistreatment at work.
- 47 percent said they were fired, denied a promotion or not hired because of their transgender identity.
- 26 percent said they lost their jobs because they are transgender.
- 19 percent said they had been or are homeless.
- 15 percent live on $10,000 per year or less (7 percent of the general population in the 2007 American Community Survey does).
- 13 percent said they are unemployed.

For the young, gender is fluid
When Kate Sosin was a little girl, she decided climbing trees was more fun than playing with dolls, so she declared herself a boy and told everyone her name was Patrick. Now 24 and living in Edgewater, Sosin says she doesn't feel like a man, but she doesn't fit the traditional female mold either. Sosin identifies as "gender queer," a relatively new term under the transgender umbrella that describes people who don't strictly identify with traditional male or female gender roles.

"The younger trans community is not necessarily interested in the binary of male and female that was forced on the older generation," said Sosin, who wears short hair, eyeliner, a sweater vest and tie, and explains that she prefers to be addressed with "she/her" pronouns.

Whereas the stereotypical image of a transgender person is that of a transsexual--a person whose gender identity differs from the sex with which he or she was born--there are many more layers than that.

There are drag queens and kings, who perform as the opposite sex to entertain others. There are cross-dressers, who dress as the opposite sex for their own enjoyment but without the intention of living that way full time. There's intersex, which refers to people born with reproductive systems not associated with either male or female. And there's gender queer, which Sosin describes as any gender variance that doesn't fall under the other categories.
What the different layers have in common is that it's often a struggle to look so visibly different from what society expects.

"The trans community is still fighting to just live and exist every day," said Sosin, co-founder of the blog "It's a battle to be able to go to the grocery store, or get a coffee, or walk in the park."

For many young trans people, gender is fluid.

Michael Williams, 29, said that several years ago he started taking hormones to transform his male-born body into that of a woman, but stopped because he felt he still identified somewhat as a man. He said he now splits his time between presenting as a man and as a woman, when he goes by Nomi Michaels.

"I still look like Ice Cube right now, but when I'm Nomi, I look like Queen Latifah," said Williams, who was concealing hormone-induced breasts and hips under several layers of clothing. "I'm lucky that I can go back and forth."

Gabriel Ervin, youth resource advocate at the Broadway Youth Center, said many of the transgender youth who come to the center are experimenting or questioning, and go by terms like "gender fabulous."

Ervin, who prefers to go by the gender-neutral pronouns "they/them," said challenging one's gender creates strong, resilient members of society.

"It's taking what somebody tells you you are when you are born and saying, `No, this is what I am,'" Ervin said. "That's powerful."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fairness, Equality, and Basic Human Rights

By Courtney L. Anderson for The Sharon Herald:

When Oil City native Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer announced their wedding in The Derrick newspaper in summer 2004, a battle erupted on the editorial page between supporters and letter writers who were so outraged they suggested it would be better if the men had never been born.

Wilson was disappointed by the controversy over his same-sex marriage but wasn’t surprised.

He grew up gay and closeted and knew some people, particularly in rural western Pennsylvania, view homosexuality as a violation of Biblical law or a choice.

But after Kathy Springer, the mother of a gay son who was being tormented at Franklin High School, sent Wilson a letter about her heartache over her son’s troubles, Wilson and Hamer, filmmakers who live in Washington, D.C., grabbed their cameras and headed to Wilson’s hometown.

Footage from the couple’s interaction with gays, lesbians, allies and vocal opponents there became “Out in the Silence,” a documentary screened recently at Penn State Shenango in downtown Sharon.

About 100 people turned out to watch the film and talk with the men behind it and activists like Hickory High School senior Matthew Chess and Stephen A. Glassman, chairman of the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission.

“I believe that this is a struggle about basic human rights,” Wilson told the crowd.

Professor Dr. Missa Murry Eaton said she hoped the movie would stimulate discussion on campus and in a town not unlike Oil City. She said there’s also a possibility of reviving Penn State Shenango’s now-defunct Rainbow Lions club for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and their allies.

The movie’s subtitle — “love, hate and a quest for change in small town America” — sums up the filmmakers’ motivation.

“If I didn’t shine a light on and try to understand and illuminate the basis for the controversy, it would simply pass away into history’s ether … and silence would settle once again over my hometown in the faded hills of northwestern Pennsylvania, affirming and perpetuating the fear and isolation that I knew too well as a young gay boy in a stiflingly anti-gay world,” Wilson said in a news release.

The movie opens with photos from Wilson’s childhood and captures their drive north, where the audience meets 16-year-old C.J. Bills, an athlete, animal lover and budding mechanic just trying to get the beater he’s bought road ready.

After the hostile reaction at school to C.J.’s coming out, he began cyber school to avoid what he called “eight hours of pure hell” every day.

The filmmakers gave C.J. a camera and he documented his feelings, along with the shenanigans kids in a rural town get into.

Mrs. Springer speaks out for her son and all other children in taking on the school board and Legislature. The self-proclaimed “little back hills mom” said she would continue to “stand up against the bigots until they wake up.”

Her attempts to get diversity training at the district to address sexuality were thwarted by more letters to the newspaper, including one from Sharon school board member and Farrell principal Rev. Lora Adams-King, whose church is in Franklin.

The film also depicts the unexpected friendship struck between the filmmakers and C.J. and an evangelical pastor who authored an angry letter to the newspaper following the couple’s wedding announcement.

A lesbian couple’s emotional journey to restore and reopen an art-deco theater in Oil City and the reaction of the town feature in the film, as well. The women receive great support from some, but others call for a boycott and claim it’s all a ploy to promote “the homosexual agenda.”

The audience responded positively to “Out in the Silence,” which is being shown at colleges and festivals across the state and on public television.

“I believe they should show this in high schools,” said Kristy Martell, who brought her daughter. “If kids saw it, maybe they wouldn’t feel so trapped or alone or dehumanized.

“What they call an agenda, we call our lives,” Wilson says in the film of extremist groups like the American Family Association of Pennsylvania.

Much of the anti-gay propaganda is not based on fact, Stephen A. Glassman, chairman of the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission, said.

Homosexuality “is not something you choose,” he said.

And while society is more accepting than when one man in the audience’s coming out resulted in emergency school board meetings “to determine if (his) gayness was a threat to their children,” it’s still not easy to be openly out everywhere.

Hickory High School senior Matthew Chess said he’s tried for three years to start an LGBT group at Hickory without success.

“School boards are so reluctant to change because they fear parents so much,” Matthew said.

He said parents need to speak up, get involved and make sure children are being treated well.

Some of the things C.J. talks about happening to him happen in hallways locally, Matthew said. Kids are bullied and throw around jokes and use the word “gay” to mean lame or stupid without thinking.

“These things hurt and leave lasting impressions,” Matthew said. “You’re the one exhibiting strength and maturity by speaking out.

Matthew said the problems are often ignored. A Pittsburgh organization that he’s a part of works to educate teachers and administrators about how to deal with such issues, he said.

One step youth can take is to call classmates out when they call something “gay,” Matthew said.

Glassman urged people who support equal rights to contact their government representatives and make their opinion heard.

Pennsylvania is one of 30 states that does not have laws that provide rights to same-sex partners when it comes to things like taxes, child custody, insurance and medical situations. Wilson and Hamer married April 10, 2004, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

According to the announcement in The Derrick, Wilson and Hamer met in 1996 at an event sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to honor activists who successfully fought to have sexual orientation included as a protected class in the South African constitution.

They live in Washington D.C. “Out in the Silence” was made with support from the Sundance Institute, Pennsylvania Public Television Network and presented by Penn State Public Broadcasting.

For more information about the film, visit OUT IN THE SILENCE

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Liberty and Justice for All

from The Advocate:

Fifth-grader Will Phillips from Washington County, Ark. is taking a lot of flak from his elementary school classmates for not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, in protest for gay equality.

"I've grown up with a lot of people, and I'm good friends with a lot of people that are gay, and ... I believe they should have the rights all people should, and I'm not going to swear that they do," he said.

Jay Phillips, who appeared on CNN Monday morning with his son, said Will refused to say the pledge for several days. Will lost his temper with the substitute teacher who was overseeing his class when he decided not to recite the pledge. After a trip to the principal's office and a written apology for telling his teacher to "jump off a bridge," Will has been allowed to sit while his classmates recite the pledge each morning.

Will, who skipped the fourth grade and says he wants to be a lawyer, is enduring taunts and name-calling from fellow classmates. Nonetheless, he says he will continue to refrain from saying the pledge of allegiance each morning until there is truly "liberty and justice for all."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

End Legal Discrimination In Pennsylvania

It's legal to fire people in Pennsylvania because they're gay. It's time for that to end.

Many Pennsylvanians mistakenly think it's already illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. They're wrong. Only 15 municipalities in the commonwealth have anti-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation-leaving almost 75% of LGBT Pennsylvanians without protection from discrimination.

House Bill 300 would end discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in Pennsylvania. It would amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, the commonwealth's civil rights law, to include "sexual orientation" and "gender identity or expression" as protected classes.

Anti-gay extremists have been hammering the offices of state representatives with phone calls and especially emails. Unfortunately, those who think LGBT Pennsylvanians should be second-class citizens have had some success. Numerous representatives have been intimidated by this vocal minority, including some co-sponsors who have removed their names from the bill.

It's time for those of us who oppose discrimination to fight back. If we expect to win in this important struggle, the ACLU of PA and our allies need you to take action.

Learn More and Take Action HERE.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Northwest Penna. PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays)

NW PA PFLAG Chapter meets:

Every 2nd Monday - 7:00 - 8:30 PM
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Erie
7180 Perry Highway
Erie, PA

Contact: (814) 454-1392 (John)

Mark D. Hoovler
President, PFLAG Erie & Crawford Counties
PFLAG PA State Coordinator

Visit PFLAG National's Website:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

From The Hypocritical Land Of Traditional Family Values

Evangelist Sentenced To 175 Years For Sex Crimes

By Jon Gambrell - The Associated Press

TEXARKANA, Ark. -- Evangelist Tony Alamo used his stature as a self-proclaimed prophet to force underage girls into sham marriages with him, controlling his followers with their fears of eternal suffering.

But the judge who sentenced Alamo on Friday to 175 years in prison for child sexual abuse warned of another kind of justice awaiting the aging evangelist.

"Mr. Alamo, one day you will face a higher and a greater judge than me," U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes told the preacher. "May he have mercy on your soul."

Barnes leveled the maximum sentence against the 75-year-old, who preyed on followers' young daughters and took child "brides" as young as age 8. A jury convicted Alamo in July on a 10-count indictment accusing him of taking the girls across state lines for sex.

Alamo, who has made millions through his ministry, also must pay $250,000 in fines. He will return to court for a Jan. 13 hearing at which Barnes will determine if the five women who testified about their sexual abuse will be paid restitution. Federal prosecutors say an expert believes each one should get $2.7 million for the physical and mental abuse they endured.

Barnes said Alamo used his influence as both a father figure and a pastor to force himself upon impressionable girls who feared "the loss of their salvation."

"You are described by others who testified as a prophet of God, a person of trust, a person of supreme authority in the church," Barnes said, staring the pale preacher. "It's hard to imagine the scenario and the damage that occurred to these five young girls."

Alamo, who had muttered and cursed through his two-week trial, stood silently during the sentencing, dressed in a yellow prison uniform and a blue windbreaker. Before Barnes' ruling, Alamo told the judge: "I lean on the lord Jesus Christ."

"I'm glad I'm me and not the deceived people in the world," the evangelist said.

Alamo's defense team, which had asked for leniency due to the preacher's age and poor health, promised to appeal Barnes' ruling.

FBI agents and Arkansas State Police troopers raided Alamo's compound in nearby Fouke in September 2008. The FBI arrested Alamo five days later in Flagstaff, Ariz., charging him with violating the Mann Act, a century-old morality law originally aimed at stopping women from being sold into prostitution.

Five women, age 17 to 33, testified in July that Alamo "married" them in private ceremonies while they were minors, sometimes giving them rings. Each detailed trips beyond Arkansas' borders for Alamo's sexual gratification.

With little physical evidence, prosecutors relied on the women's stories to paint an emotional portrait of a charismatic religious leader who controlled every aspect of his subjects' lives. The women said Alamo ordered beatings or punitive fasts for minor infractions or at the whim of his paranoia.

Defense lawyers said the government targeted Alamo because it disapproves of his apocalyptic brand of Christianity. Alamo never testified at trial, but spoke to Barnes twice during the hearing Friday. He first told the judge he thought his defense team provided him adequate legal help, though he wanted them to harshly cross-examine the women to show "that the people who were testifying against me were lying."

My lawyers "did prove that I never took girls out of state to have sex with them," Alamo said.

Three of the five victims spoke in court Friday about how Alamo stole their childhoods and tore apart their families to satisfy his sexual perversions. One woman Alamo took as a child "bride" at age 8 described how she shook uncontrollably when he first molested her.

"You have the audacity to ask for mercy," the woman said, looking up from her handwritten notes to stare at Alamo. "What mercy did you show us?"

The evangelist's lawyers pleaded for a lower sentence because of his age and infirmities. They called as witnesses two followers and a doctor, who discussed how Alamo suffered from hypertension, diabetes, obesity and glaucoma. However, Dr. Samuel Berkman acknowledged under cross-examination that he examined Alamo only once in 2004, as the preacher sought an eye lift to look younger.

"There's no question he's done a lot of good," said Don Ervin, a Houston lawyer who led Alamo's defense, outlining the church's efforts to reach the poor. "He's an unusual man and an unusually great man."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyra Jenner said after the hearing that prosecutors would work with the federal prison system to ensure Alamo can't control his ministry and its many businesses from behind bars. At trial, one of the victims described how Alamo "married" and groped her during a prison visit.

How long Alamo remains an influence depends on whether police or former followers dismantle the ministry through lawsuits and criminal cases. The FBI declined to say Friday whether it had ongoing investigations involving the ministry.

As Alamo left the courthouse, he said he would leave to his church's future in other hands.

"The Lord is in charge," the preacher said.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Gay Straight Alliances Lend Support In Changing Society

by Dan Berrett for the Pocono Record:

When Chris Romer came out of the closet two years ago, the response from his peers could be called unexpected.

"I gained popularity," said the 18-year-old senior who attends East Stroudsburg High School North, describing what happened after he told people he was gay.

Instead of consigning himself to the shadows, Romer became more gregarious — and more himself, he said.

"I don't hold myself back anymore," he said.

Romer also transformed physically, as he dropped 50 pounds and worried less about what others thought. "If you don't like me, then you don't have to be my friend," he said.

Romer's comments — made during a recent meeting of North's after-school Gay Straight Alliance — point to the widely reported generational shift in attitudes regarding sexual orientation. According to this view, the culture-war schisms that divide adults are greeted, increasingly, with a yawn by young people.

But a closer look suggests that the situation is more complex.

On one hand, the existence of the more than 4,000 Gay Straight Alliances, or GSA clubs, in the United States reflects just how much of a shift has taken place over the past decade.

The first GSA was started in 1988, and the number of clubs increased slowly at first. But the past five years have seen as many GSAs started in schools as were founded during the preceding 16 years, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national organization that looks to develop tolerant climates in schools.

Still, GSAs remain a relative rarity. While there may be 4,000 GSAs, the nation has more than 98,000 public secondary schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Locally, North's club was the first of its kind when it was launched three years ago. Stroudsburg High School recently started one of its own.

Opinion polls also suggest that the younger people are, the more accepting of this difference they are likely to be.

For example, a poll last month by the Pew Research Center found that, among respondents between the ages of 18 and 29, 58 percent supported gay marriage. This was 20 points higher than those age 30 to 49.

But if the clubs represent one form of progress on the road to gaining acceptance, they also reflect how far gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (an umbrella term that describes people whose sense of themselves as male or female differs from their sex at birth) students have yet to travel before they are fully embraced.

"On the one hand, it looks like things are getting better in terms of respect for (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) teens, but we're still seeing victimization," said Daryl Presgraves, public relations manager for the network.

Gay and lesbian students remain at significantly higher risk of being bullied when compared to their straight classmates, and may be far more likely to skip school because they worry about their safety.

A 2007 study by the network found that more than half of LGBT students in Pennsylvania reported being physically harassed during the past year. Nearly all said they regularly heard the word "gay" used negatively.

The goal of GSA clubs is to lessen the isolation and fear that some students feel. At North, the club has helped sponsor a "no bully zone," and carried out a National Day of Silence, in which students take a vow of silence as a way of drawing attention to anti-gay bullying and behavior. The club also organizes service projects.

"I feel that there's a strong need for this," said Patti Mondello, an instructional aide at North who is the club's adviser. "People should not feel unsafe."

While Romer and another upperclassman in the club, who asked not to be named, said they personally had not heard many slights in the hallways, and that negativity rarely was directed at them, others in the club told a different story.

"I'd say the kids aren't really accepting," said Janet Hawley, 15, a sophomore. "I have seen kids being beaten up because of their orientation, and it made me sick."

North's principal, Steve Zall, said that he perceived gay and lesbian students to be accepted in the school, though he acknowledged that some students may not be reporting incidents when they happen.

"The program has afforded students an opportunity to speak (and) discuss with one another in a non-judgmental setting," he said, describing the club.

Some teachers have gone a step further, posting signs with pink triangles that declare their classrooms to be "safe zones."

These small steps can make a big difference when they are combined with anti-bullying policies that forbid bullying on the basis of sexual orientation, Presgraves said.

And that difference extends to the student body as a whole, he added.

"The general concept of spreading respect around the halls benefits all students," Presgraves said.

"What GSAs do and what policies do is they don't change people's beliefs, they change their behavior," Presgraves said. "It has to do with respecting people."

Romer said the club served an important purpose.

"I think the club is needed as an outlet," he said. "When they come here they can be themselves, not be judged, and be comfortable being in a place where they're not surrounded by people who don't understand them."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Salt Lake OKs Gay Rights Laws With Mormon Backing

OK, It's Not Perfect, But If Salt Lake City, Utah, Can Pass An Ordinance Protecting GLBT Rights, Oil City And Other Venango County Municipalities Can Surely Do at Least As Much For Starters!

from The Blade:

The Mormon church for the first time has announced its support of gay rights legislation, an endorsement that helped gain unanimous approval for Salt Lake city laws banning discrimination against gays in housing and employment.

The Utah-based church's support ahead of Tuesday night's vote came despite its steadfast opposition to gay marriage, reflected in the high-profile role it played last year in California's Proposition 8 ballot measure that barred such unions.

"The church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage," Michael Otterson, the director of public affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said.

Passage made Salt Lake City the first Utah community to prohibit bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Under the two new ordinances, it is illegal to fire someone from their job or evict someone from their residence because they are lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender.

Utah lawmakers tend to quickly fall in line when the influential church makes a rare foray into legislative politics. So Tuesday's action could have broad effects in this highly conservative state where more than 80 percent of lawmakers and the governor are church members.

"What happened here tonight I do believe is a historic event," said Brandie Balken, director of the gay rights advocacy group Equality Utah. "I think it establishes that we can stand together on common ground that we don't have to agree on everything, but there are lot of things that we can work on and be allies."

But the church has pointed out an inherent dispute it has with gay relationships. Mormonism considers traditional marriages central to God's plan. Gays are welcome in church, but must remain celibate to retain church callings and full membership.

Its strong support for Proposition 8 in California last year drew a sharp reaction from gay rights supporters nationwide, with many protesting outside temples that singled out Mormons as the key culprits in restricting the rights of gay couples.

Since then, however, Utah's gay community has sought to engage church leaders in quiet conversations to help foster better understanding, said Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center.

"I thought this conversation would never come to be while I was here in Salt Lake City," said Larabee, adding that the discussions have "shifted her perspective of what's possible" and could foreshadow a different relationship between the two sides.

But addressing the council on Tuesday, Otterson said the endorsement is not a shift in the church's position on gay rights and stressed it "remains unequivocally committed to defending the bedrock foundation of marriage between a man and a woman."

Church support for the ordinances is due in part to the way the legislation was drafted to protect those rights. Exceptions in the legislation allow churches to maintain, without penalty, religious principles and religion-based codes of conduct or rules.

"In drafting these ordinances, the city has granted commonsense rights that should be available to everyone, while safeguarding the crucial rights of religious organizations," Otterson said Tuesday.

Previous Utah legislation that sought statewide protections for the gay community did not contain those exceptions.

And although this was the church's first public endorsement of specific legislation, it is not the first time the church has voiced support for some gay rights. In August 2008 the church issued a statement saying it supports gay rights related to hospitalization, medical care, employment, housing or probate as long as they "do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches."

Last year, church leaders were silent on a package of gay rights bills known as the Common Ground Initiative, dooming them from the start, despite the bill having the support of the most popular governor in state history, Jon Huntsman. Huntsman resigned this summer to become U.S. ambassador to China.

His successor, Gov. Gary Herbert, has repeatedly said it shouldn't be illegal to discriminate against someone for being gay.