Op-ed: Where the Vile Pretend to Be Virtuous

LGBT activist and writer Wayne Besen headed to the ultraconservative Values Voter Summit.

BY Wayne Besen

October 17 2013 6:00 AM ET

My mood had soured on the Values Voter Summit before I even arrived. On the subway ride to the Omni Shoreham Hotel, where the three-day Loonypalooza was taking place, a mentally ill homeless person desperately begged for money. A woman reached into her pocket and handed the destitute man a $5 bill.

A jowly, pink-cheeked college Republican, wearing a finely pressed blue suit and a Values Voter Summit badge, wobbled off the subway car. He jabbed his meaty finger in the air and declared that this generous woman was “responsible” for the beggar’s homelessness because she was “enabling” him. His preppy friends enthusiastically nodded in agreement. The presumption, it appeared, was that the only thing preventing this man from sharing in the opportunity society was a warm bath, a new suit, and a vote for the Republican Party.

Once inside, I picked up my badge and entered a room with display booths. One of the organizations presenting was Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays. Notably, there appeared to be no actual “ex-gays” working at the table, but there were a couple of antigay activists.

My observation was echoed in a tweet by Political Research Associates: “HA! Sandy Rios [an antigay activist] asks if anyone in the audience knows an ‘ex-gay.’ No one raises their hand.”

I meandered into the main ballroom to hear some speeches, which all sounded strikingly similar. Did they really need a three-day event to basically say, “Holy shit! The black, queer-loving, Kenyan Marxist was reelected! America is lost and God is pissed. WTF do we do now?”

If there was one unifying thread, it was Sen. Ted Cruz mania. He was clearly the darling of the Values Voter Summit and easily won the event’s presidential straw poll. When the result was announced, I cheered loudly, doing my part to inflate his ego so he will run for president and get walloped.

After lunch, things took an ominous turn. The previous day, my organization, Truth Wins Out, along with Faith in America and the NALT Christians Project, had organized a press conference where we spoke out against these homophobic charlatans. Apparently, this displeased the Values Voter Summit’s extensive security apparatus.

An older yet intimidating security thug firmly placed his hand on my shoulder. He looked me directly in the eyes and warned, “Because you paid, you are allowed to be here. But if you if you slip up once, we are going to take you down hard.”

The guard escorted me to a seat where we awaited Glenn Beck’s speech. He sat about five chairs away and closely watched my every move. When I yawned, his body stiffened as if he were ready to pounce. About 10 minutes into Beck’s address, a younger security thug, with a short beard and menacing scowl, stopped directly in front of my seat, bent down and hovered. This aggressive posturing lasted for at least 15 long seconds. 

Such overt paranoia and pent-up aggression formed a metaphor for the entire event. The crowd consisted primarily of older white people who were having great difficulty coping with the rapid demographic, social, and technological changes in America. This led to a manic-depressive summit experience, with the audience vacillating wildly between delirium and depression, victory and victimhood, nationalism and nihilism.

One moment they were waving the flag and singing “God Bless America”; the next it seemed they were waving the white flag and expressing borderline contempt for our system of governance. Democracy was a fine concept when this crowd fancied themselves the Moral Majority. But now, increasingly in the minority, they throw around reckless rhetoric about reclaiming America by any means necessary. This helps explain the exuberance for backing Tea Party tactics, such as shutting down the government and threatening not to raise the debt ceiling unless Obamacare is scrapped.

I have attended the annual Values Voter Summit many times before. In recent years it appeared that outspoken homophobia was receding, although it was never far from the surface. This year, however, antigay rhetoric was back in full force. The only reason it was contained was that the speakers appeared to have diversified their grievances. Homosexuality was competing for their hatred with abortion, healthcare, global warming, immigration, and the very existence of Barack Obama.

However, there were moments when antigay animus took center stage. During Glenn Beck’s speech, a conference attendee incorrectly volunteered that the purple triangle, rather than the pink triangle, was used by the Nazis to mark gay people. Hilarity ensued. Or as Evan Hurst, my colleague at Truth Wins Out, puts it: “Ha ha, it’s funny that the Nazis branded the gays with pink, because gays are gay!”

Antigay rhetoric was also a staple at a breakout session that I attended, called “Standing Up to the Assaults on Out Faith.” Vision America pastor Rick Scarborough moderated the panel. He stuck a Sodom and Gomorrah-like tone, cautioning that God was angry because of sexual immorality and that if we didn’t watch ourselves, he would “lower the hedge” to destroy the world. He ended his comments by proclaiming, “You are not born gay. You are recruited.”

The panel also featured Janet Porter, the president of Faith2Action Ministries. She is best known as the driving force behind 1998’s Truth in Love “ex-gay” advertising campaign. This ignoble effort ended with one of her “ex-gay” poster boys getting photographed in a gay bar and another living in a sex addiction facility in Kentucky.

When Ralph Reed headed the Christian Coalition, he once derisively called Porter an “issues entrepreneur.” Her latest shtick involves protecting Christianity from those out to destroy it — and she made it quite clear during her talk that LGBT people were enemy number 1. Porter is now producing a documentary with the working title Courage or Criminalization, which she hopes to have completed before Christmas. A preview of this video portrayed LGBT people as a fascist mob hell-bent on forcing good Christians to violate their consciences. From what I saw, it will surely join the ranks of The Gay Agenda and Gay Rights Special Rights in terms of virulently antigay propaganda.

Say what you will about Porter, but she is always on the cutting edge of homophobia. During the next few years, the LGBT movement is going to be besieged with fighting the martyr industrial complex, with claims of bogus attacks on the right wing’s religious freedom. This was driven home in a book the Liberty Institute was giving away, titled Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America.

Personally, I’m worried about where this toxic rhetoric will ultimately lead. The religious right’s leaders are antagonizing already paranoid people and screaming hysterically that the government, the liberals, and the homosexuals are conspiring to get them. It is not unreasonable to think that this constant drumbeat of dread might not take the more unstable elements down a very dark path. 

In the Tuesday New York Times, Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, raised similar concerns, albeit about the Tea Party’s scorched-earth economic tactics:

“Social contracts don’t have to be made for democratic intentions. … In the end, that’s the real danger we are now facing. Not just the shutdown, but the rise of the shutdown strategy. By unraveling the threads of our joint commitment to shared governance, it raises the chances those threads will be rewoven into something else: something deeply, and tragically, undemocratic.”

After listening to the deeply fearful and separatist rhetoric, one has to wonder if there is still a shared social contract between the people at the Values Voter Summit and the rest of society. It seems that many have already mentally checked out. They are wedded to a delusional vision that restores America to a mythical 1950s white utopia. If achieving this demented fantasy means disrupting democracy, so be it.

LGBT Americans are clearly on the cusp of achieving equality. I would strongly caution, however, against premature celebration until the final bolts are firmly screwed into our opponents’ iron coffin. They are a scrappy, determined bunch — and what makes them scary is that they are capable of most vile words and deeds while believing their actions are entirely virtuous. 

WAYNE BESEN is the executive director of Truth Wins Out and the cofounder of The NALT (Not All Like That) Christians Project.

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