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Friday, October 16, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The New Deadly Face Of Homophobia

Special To The Times

WHEN Christian conservative groups began buying ads in newspapers and on television promoting the "ex-gay" movement - men and women who claim to have "freed themselves" from the "gay lifestyle," if not from gay desire, by accepting Jesus Christ - the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force called the campaign a "kinder, gentler homophobia." Ostensibly directed at gays and lesbians, these ex-gay ads seemed positively benign when compared to the rhetoric American gays and lesbians are typically subjected to.

In fact, the campaign was hard to take seriously: Many gays and lesbians have already accepted Jesus Christ and most gay Christians believe Jesus Christ accepts them - as gays and lesbians; "ex-gay" or reparative therapy has never been proven effective and is rejected as harmful by all mainstream mental-health organizations and professionals; and ex-gay ministries, including Seattle-based Exodus International, can't minister to gays and lesbians who aren't interested in "escaping" homosexuality. What harm could these ads do?

A considerable amount, as we're beginning to realize. Gays and lesbians were never the true target of the ex-gay campaign and its "message of salvation." The target from the beginning has been straight Americans, and the message is not that Jesus Christ loves gays and lesbians, or that there is "hope for healing" people who are not ill, but that gay and lesbian Americans should simply not be gay or lesbian. The ongoing ex-gay campaign implicitly argues that gay and lesbian Americans don't have to exist - if we would only give ourselves to Jesus Christ we could be straight.

There is nothing kind or gentle about this message: This is an effort to spread a more deadly new form of homophobia through American society. By arguing that the only thing standing between a world free of homosexuality - a world free of homosexual people - are stubborn gays and lesbians, by arguing that we don't have to exist, the ex-gay campaign implicitly argues gays and lesbians have no right to exist.

American Christian conservatives are attempting to introduce a new kind of anti-gay hatred: an eliminationist homophobia. In his book "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust," author Daniel Goldhagen describes pre-war German anti-Semitism as unique and murderous, which he termed "eliminationist." German Christian churches inspired visions of Jews as "Christ-killers," and Jews came to be regarded as a poisonous anti-race that had to be eliminated in order to purify German culture. In America at the end of the 20th century, some American churches are creating an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred, with church-inspired visions of gays and lesbians as Christ-rejecters, and homosexuality as a "behavior" that must be eliminated to purify American culture.

The distance is short between arguing that gays and lesbians as a group have no right to exist and someone taking it on himself to end the existence of an individual gay or lesbian person. Homosexual behavior can not be eliminated without eliminating homosexual people. Few gays and lesbians are interested in subjecting ourselves to "reparative therapy" quacks, and the vast majority of us are happy as homosexuals, with no interest in becoming "ex-gay."

Matthew Shepard, the 22 year-old student tortured and murdered last week in Wyoming, was happy to be gay, had many close friends, and a family that loved him. And Matthew Shepard no longer exists, a victim of eliminationist homophobia. While not the first person in America attacked or murdered for being gay or lesbian - a man in Chicago remains in a coma after a brutal attack last summer that failed to garner national attention - Shepard is perhaps America's most famous ex-gay man.

Christian conservatives have worked hard to fan the flames of eliminationist homophobia, spending millions of dollars on anti-gay ad campaigns. Money that could have gone to house, feed or provide health care for the poor - people Jesus Christ explicitly ordered his followers to look after - has instead been poured into hateful and expensive ad campaigns promoting eliminationist homophobia (full page ads in The New York Times do not come cheap).

One "pro-family" ex-gay ad encourages parents to reject their gay children. Matthew Shepard's parents did no such thing, rushing from Saudi Arabia (where Matthew's father works as an oil rig inspector) to their son's hospital bed. Matthew's parents arrived in Wyoming in time to watch their son die of wounds inflicted by men who took the American Family Association, Christian Coalition and Family Research Council at their word: Matthew had no right to be gay, no right to exist, and so they kidnapped, tortured and murdered him.

Steven Schwalm from the Family Research Council, one of the organizations behind the ex-gay ad campaign, said in USA Today that while he has "regret that the incident occurred," no one should blame his organization simply because it opposes "homosexual activity." But it is not possible to oppose and stigmatize homosexual activity without also stigmatizing homosexuals. Homosexuals are not an activity anymore than Jews or blacks or women are an activity. We are people, people who happen to be gay. Homosexuality is not contagious, so there is no need for pro-family organizations to "oppose" us. Nor are we a threat to families: like Matthew, we are a part of our families.

Christian conservatives have attempted to distance themselves from the violence visited on Matthew Shepard. They must not be allowed to do so. Conservatives like to talk about accountability, so let the religious extremists who help make anti-gay violence a daily reality for gays and lesbians across this country be held accountable. The violence in Laramie is a deadly consequence of the hateful anti-gay rhetoric and eliminationist "ex-gay" ad campaigns.

Fred Phelps, the pastor of a church in Kansas, planned to picket Shepard's funeral today. Phelps and his followers have been protesting the funerals of gay men for nearly a decade. At Shepard's funeral, they intended to carry signs that read "No Tears for Queers" and "Fag Matt in Hell." The actions of Phelps and his followers - the celebration of the elimination of a gay man - are not a distortion of the religious right's position on homosexual people but a distillation of it.

Dan Savage is a columnist and associate editor at The Stranger.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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