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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Obama, Buju & gays

Ian Boyne

Jamaica's President of choice in the United States, the deeply loved Barack Obama, facilitated an historic and far-reaching victory for gays on Wednesday when he signed the first major piece of gay-rights legislation into federal law, an act seen as path-breaking as the 1960s civil rights legislation.

Large numbers of Jamaicans, who share a cult-like adoration of Obama and an even more vehement aversion to homosexuals, must be in what the psychologists call cognitive dissonance. It's just hard to hold those two things together in one heart. Rationalisation is usually the way out. What seems undeniable, though, is that Obama is the most gay-friendly president the United Sates has had - at least publicly.

From his presidential campaign he made it clear that he would advance the cause of gays as part of his overall mantra of inclusiveness. He had promised to support this new legislation, labelling as 'hate crime' violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, putting it on par with crimes against persons for racial, religious and ethnic reasons. Gay-rights activists see this as a major victory on the road to full integration in American society.

For a crime is a crime and violence is violence, so if someone gets murdered, for whatever reasons, the law has provisions to deal with that. As well-known homosexual columnist Andrew Sullivan has written: "The real reasons for the hate crime laws are not a defence of human beings from crime. There are already laws against that - Matthew Shepard's murderers were successfully prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law in a state with no hate-crimes law at the time".

The amendment made into law on Wednesday was partially in honour of Matthew Shepherd, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, who died after a 1998 beating targeting him because he was gay. His parents led the struggle for this legislation. "This hate-crimes bill is the proverbial foot in the door or camel nose in the tent that makes possible - indeed inevitable - all future laws involving 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity', screams the Harvard and Princeton-educated theologian Robert Gagnon, who has written the finest theological work critiquing homosexuality (The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics).

Gagnon, in a paper titled, 'Why a sexual orientation and gender identity hate crimes law is bad for you', posits that this legislation "ensconces in federal law the principle that homosexuality, bisexuality and transsexuality are as benign as race, gender and disability - an aspect of human diversity that must be affirmed and celebrated. Those who refuse to go along with this principle then become encoded in law as hateful, discriminatory bigots."

The founder of the gay rights advocacy group Equality Forum, Malcolm Lazin, was not unmindful of the significance of the Obama-signed legislation on Wednesday. He was quoted in the media as saying, "This is really the first federal gay-rights bill. So it is a literally historic moment. This is America acknowledging homophobia as a social problem". For Republicans and conservative religious folks, this is a major retreat for America, morally, as the gay lobby advances in its mission of gaining full acceptance - and even persecuting those who would beg to differ.

Fears are being expressed that free speech could be endangered by this legislation, in that strong opposition to homosexual behaviour could be construed as incitement to violence. For example, if someone quotes the Old Testament which says homosexuals are to be killed (and it does say that) and a homosexual gets killed nearby afterward, could that person be charged with inciting violence? Or if one preaches that homosexuality is an "abomination", which the Bible says, could he be prosecuted for a hate crime?

In 2007 two 16-year-old girls were arrested on hate-crime charges for distributing about 40 fliers on cars in the student parking lot of their school, featuring two boys kissing. The pamphlets also contained what was considered anti-homosexual slur. The assistant state attorney for the county, Thomas Carroll, stated then: "You can be charged with a hate crime if you make a statement or take an action that inflicts injury or incites a breach of the peace based on a person's race, creed, gender or perceived sexual orientation." And another Assistant State Attorney, Robert Windon said, "We do not feel this type of behaviour is what the First Amendment protects". Hate crimes are now part of federal law and the rub is, what can be deemed to be incitement or inducement to violence?

Preachers and ordinary Christians fear that they might soon not be able to as speak out against homosexuality at all. There was an important protective clause in the legislation which was subsequently taken out and which would have given more solace to conservatives. When the Bill was originally introduced in the US House of Representatives, it contained this provision: "Noting in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition or any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise of the First Amendment to the Constitution".

cause of concern:

But House Democrats deleted the following words: "the free speech or free exercise clauses of the First Amendment to". That these words were omitted is a cause of concern to conservative religious people, particularly the Christian Right. There are already disturbing indications that hate crimes legislation can lead to an abridgement of free speech. In a number of European and Scandinavian democracies, verbal opposition to homosexuality has been punished.

Gagnon cites some examples from neighbouring Canada where free speech infringements have been flagrant as a result of simple opposition to homosexuality. For example, a Roman Catholic priest who writes for Catholic Insight magazine has been fined and threatened with imprisonment for speaking out against homosexual behaviour. One Roman Catholic activist, Bill Whatcott, has been fined for producing pamphlets calling homosexuality immoral. Pastor Stephen Boisson was ordered to desist from expressing his views on homosexual behaviour in any public forum after he wrote a letter to the press denouncing homosexuality as immoral.

Says Gagnon expressing fears about the impact of the passage of this new federal law : "The argument that free speech protections in the US constitution will prevent such abuses from taking place rings hollow in view of the inducement to violence provision in Title 18.2 and in view of the fact that even Supreme Court justices have taken to citing precedents in foreign law (e.g. the Lawrence sodomy decision). Moreover, we already have instances in the US where 'sexual orientation' laws led to abridgements of other liberties".

Most Jamaican Obama lovers would be deeply disturbed by a speech he gave at the Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month Reception at the White House. They would be alarmed that the President could even welcome homosexuals with open arms to the White House. But the President welcomed the gays by saying "Welcome to your White House".

In this speech delivered on June 29 this year, President Obama made this frightening statement (as it would be to fierce, visceral opponents of homosexuality here) : "I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration."

In this speech (what does Betty Ann Blaine think?), Obama spoke, some would say, patronisingly about those who "hold fast to worn arguments and old attitudes". Obama pointed to things already achieved for the gay community - his signed memorandum requiring all agencies to extend as many federal benefits as possible to LGBT families and his commitment to ending the ban on the entry of gays to the military.

slain homosexual student:

He said: "My administration is working hard to pass an employee non-discrimination bill". He then promised to sign a hate-crimes bill in honour of slain homosexual student Shepherd, whose parents were at the reception. (President Bush had previously refused to sign this bill)

Said Obama: "Someday, I'm confident, we'll look back at this transition and ask why it generated such angst." But he pledged to the homosexuals gathered at the White House to celebrate Gay Pride Month that: "We must continue to do our part to make progress - step by step, law by law, mind by changing mind." This is what frightens conservative people about the passage of this federal law last week.

The first black US president went on: "And I want you to know that in this task I will not only be your friend but I will continue to be an ally and a champion and a president who fights for you". Jamaicans who are said to be homophobic will have a problem with that commitment, although, happily for them, the vast majority won't see these words hidden in long-winded columns.

Buju Banton is feeling the pressure of the gays. Even he was strategically forced to meet and greet them, posing uneasily with them. But their demands were hard: He should hold a town hall meeting declaring his love of homosexuals, sing songs urging love for our gay brothers and as though that were not enough, donate some funds to the gay cause through their local organisation. Buju declined, though he is getting flack for even meeting and greeting.

It is almost impossible to have a rational, dispassionate discussion about homosexuality in Jamaica for, on both sides - the enraged anti-gay Jamaican majority and the embattled, defensive gay community - reason is expendable and emotions are at a premium. But the time is past due for a serious discussion of the issues. I am ready for the discourse. Are you -without the abuse, prejudice and name-calling?

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at or