Tuesday, October 13, 1998

Hate Rhetoric Opened Door for a Murder
To define gay rights as a homosexual power grab is to invite a deranged response from more loosely ordered minds.

For 18 hours, the battered body of Matthew Shepard hung helplessly, lashed to a fence in Laramie, Wyo., his 105-pound, 5-foot-2 body so frail and lifeless that the bicyclist who discovered him mistook him for a scarecrow. For days, he hovered in a coma. Now the gifted language student, fluent in Arabic and German, who had returned to his native Wyoming to attend his father's alma mater, is dead, a victim of hate.

An openly gay student at the University of Wyoming, he'd been drinking a beer at a local bar when two men pretending to be gay invited him outside. The police reported that Shepard was clubbed into a barely recognized form with the handle of a .357 Magnum they recovered in possession of the those charged with this heinous act. Another hate crime against a gay man.

Searching the news files for some insight into how this barbarism could occur, I came across a telling anecdote. Back in 1990, when President Bush invited dozens of people to the White House to witness his signing of the federal Hate Crimes Statistics Act, his guest list included a representative of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. A natural fit, since gays so often are the target of the very hate crimes that new law was intended to document. But the participation of a gay person in the ceremony incensed Richard Land, then-director of the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, who condemned Bush in a letter stating, "Large numbers of Southern Baptists want to know why you are giving such official recognition to a homosexual-lesbian lifestyle they find abhorrent."

Land was speaking for the largest Protestant denomination, and a spokesperson for his organization insisted that those hostile remarks were an expression of love, not hate. "Our position is that we hate the sin, but love the sinner," said Louis Moore, CLC assistant director. That was the same line taken by Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi when he recently compared homosexuals to kleptomaniacs. It's the position of Pat Robertson, who warned that earthquakes, terrorist bombs and a meteor might strike Orlando, Fla., as divine punishment for Disney World's willingness to allow "gay days" as it routinely permits days for many other groups.

The religious right's claim that "it is the sin and not the sinner" they hold in contempt is an invidious distinction. Their rhetoric abrogates the fundamental right of individuals to make their own intensely personal moral choices. In Wyoming, the effort of gays to obtain the same legislative protection from hate crimes afforded in all but 10 states was beaten back earlier this year by the religious right using the most divisive rhetoric.

Words have consequence. To define gay rights as a homosexual power grab is to invite a deranged response from the more loosely ordered minds in the crowd. If we deny the indivisible right of otherwise law-abiding and rational adults who happen to be gay to define and take responsibility for their own moral code, we deny their essential humanity.

Young Shepard was just such a sentient being attempting to define his own relation to the natural order. Hours before he was beaten, he'd attended a meeting of a campus-based gay organization. It was clearly his view that being gay was a natural expression of self, consistent with his view of the dictates of his maker in whatever form. Others can disagree, but only in a theocracy do they have the right to elevate the notion of sin to a political slogan to be imposed on others.

We are not a theocracy, and for good reason: Trafficking in the presumed judgments of the divine is a road map to the outer limits of civic intolerance. In the process, scripture--be it the Koran or the Old or New Testament--becomes a club for intimidation rather than a path to moral enlightenment. "The Bible calls divorce 'sin' far more often than it hits homosexual activity," writes University of Chicago religion professor Martin E. Marty. "Yet not a few evangelical ministers who are divorced and remarried blithely attack an activity seldom condemned in Scripture. Why?" The answer is that the scriptural prohibitions against divorce, or eating crustaceans or shaving one's beard, are not politically useful slogans for gaining recruits and donations. But thundering on about the sin of homosexuality is appealing to right-wing religious demagogues. As they say, it energizes their base. Tell that to the family of the promising young man now dead.

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Robert Scheer Is a Times Contributing Editor

Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

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