It has been a painful seven days on a lot of fronts. On the national stage, as the politically engineered austerity crisis called sequestration unrolled (predictably) in Washington, cultural critics–well, some, at least— unraveled the sexist, misogynistic, racist spectacle of last Sunday’s Oscars telecast, including The Onion’s outrageous, disgusting tweet–since deleted and apologized for– calling Quvenzhané Wallis a “c**t,” and the sad spectacle of seeing so many white folks lining up to defend it, or keep studious silence. As Tressie McMillam Cottom put it, in writing of the reaction, or lack thereof, of mainstream white feminists, “If [Quvenzhané] doesn’t look like people you care about, I have to wonder where your give-a-damn cuts off.”
I have to wonder, too. How does one become the sort of person who is not only unmoved by seeing a little girl called that word, but whose sense of humor somehow depends on the supposed right of overwhelmingly white male comedians to demand that she, and other people like her, be OK with it? How does that get to be the expression of some sort of high-minded principle? Why is your joke more important than their humanity?
Back here in Kentucky, something similar happened that didn’t involve race but that cut deeply for me. I am writing about it because I want to call my fellow Kentuckians to action, and my friends outside Kentucky to awareness.
The Kentucky House of Representatives yesterday passed, by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of 82-7, House Bill 279, a so-called “religious freedom” bill. In its present form, it would allow “persons” (I assume this includes artificial persons like corporations) the right to act with minimal government interference, so long as they can cite a “sincerely held religious belief.” In form and effect, and likely also in intent, this bill threatens to gut local civil rights protections in Kentucky based on gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity– protections like Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance. It is a stunning and shocking development for all of the people who for over twenty years have fought hard for the basic human rights of all people in Kentucky.
It also hits close to home for me, a queer man. If the bill becomes law–the Senate has yet to vote on it, and the governor would have to sign it– it could mean that I could lose my job, be denied housing, or be denied service in a restaurant, so long as the people who did these things cited a “sincerely held religious belief” for their actions. Of course, any of those things could happen–and do happen– even with existing law. This law would simply make it much more difficult for me to invoke civil rights protections to remedy the situation.
But this bill is not just about LGBTQ folk, though, I don’t think. I am no constitutional lawyer, but to my amateur eye the bill looks to be drafted broadly enough to invalidate civil rights protections against gender-based discrimination as well, so long as the perpetrators cite “sincerely held religious belief.” This bill is very likely bad for women, too.
Please understand that I am a firm believer in religious freedom. But this bill is a travesty. Let’s be clear: in practice I guarantee that the “sincerely held religious beliefs” legislators want to shield most are evangelical Christian ones. I say this as someone who was born and raised in rural Kentucky, who went to a historically Baptist college here, and has lived in Louisville since 2002. Outside Louisville, where the bulk of the support for HB 279 can be found, evangelical Christianity predominates without question, especially among the class of people most likely to get elected to the Kentucky House or Senate.
I am a Christian and churchgoer. As such, I feel a certain liberty to speak my mind to, and of, my fellow believers. The faith I struggle to practice is one of radical love and acceptance; of redemption and integrity; of struggle with hard truths; of love that will not let me go, that triumphs even over death. It ain’t easy, and I fall short a lot. I depend on a lot of help and a lot of generous criticism from other people.
But the faith I practice is not the “belief” this bill seeks to protect. I barely recognize the traces of that faith in the words and actions of this bill and its advocates. The faith this law seeks to protect has precious little to do with following the way of the cross. It is instead one in which comfortable, powerful people get to deny the rights of human beings– their own neighbors, their sons and daughters– out of a putatively “sincere” adherence to a proposition. It enshrines in the law the principle that these “religious” people have to be shielded, like children, from having to face the fact that the real content of their “belief,” their washing their hands clean of others’ humanity and holding fast to their propositions, amounts to the oppression of actual people. It is an irresponsible, self-indulgent version of belief, one that gets used routinely to justify all manner of discrimination and abuse yet shield the perpetrators from the reality of their own actions. With staggering irony (and, I would argue, ample quantities of projection), it is these selfsame people who routinely assign themselves the privilege of lecturing everyone else on how their own problems are due to their lack of responsibility.
If your belief is so flimsy as to require protection from the principalities and powers to shield it from ethical encounters with other human beings, how on earth is it a testimony to the Christ of Easter? To the one who we proclaim took solidarity with his fellow humans all the way to death on a cross and rose triumphant?
I know I am taking a pretty harsh line here. Correct me if correction is needed. But whatever you do, do not tell me that I am overreacting or making this “too personal.” This is personal for me, even if it isn’t for you. The “beliefs” of a lot of powerful people in Kentucky mean, in practice, that I have to watch my back, and if this law passes, the state takes the side of their “belief” over my back.
If I don’t get to take this personally, what do I get to take personally? What do I get to be angry about?
If I don’t speak out on behalf of myself and my other brothers and sisters who lose under this law, what does that make me?
If power seeks to deprive us of everything down to our voices, what else are we supposed to do but raise them?
I hope my give-a-damn extends further than just my own back– further than just to people who look like me and think like me. I still have a lot more to say–and a lot more work to do– around issues of race and about listening to the voices of women of color in particular. But If my give-a-damn cuts off here, with what is going on right here in my own back yard, it cuts off entirely.
If you live in Kentucky and you care about me, about other LGBTQ Kentuckians, and about women, please call (800) 372-7181 and leave a message for your Senator (don’t know who your Senator is? Check here), for Senate President Robert Stivers (R-District 25), and for the Senate Leadership asking them to vote “no” on HB 279 unless it is amended so as to keep it from invalidating existing civil rights laws and protections.
If you do not live in Kentucky, please publicize this issue through your social networks. Read up on similar efforts in other states; similar measures to advance “religious freedom” are an emerging tactic of those who oppose equality. There may be similar legislation afoot where you live.
No matter what happens, may God have mercy upon us all.