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Legal Implications

The ex-gay movement poses a significant new threat to efforts to secure civil rights legal protections for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender people. Potentially, it is the most damaging manifestation of an ongoing backlash against this community.

This backlash has been spawned by heightened media visibility of lesbian/gay/bisexual/ transgender people; increased coverage of same-sex marriage; the progress toward passage of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act; and the growing number of city and county ordinances outlawing anti-gay discrimination.53

The Christian Right has mobilized against these gains with a renewed legal assault on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender rights. Its Congressional supporters won passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which forbids states from granting legal recognition to same-sex marriages approved in another state. The Defense of Marriage Act is an attempt to nullify the impact of a ruling in Hawaii, where a Circuit Court judge ruled that same-sex marriage partners are constitutionally entitled to the same legal recognition and rights accorded to heterosexual married partners. The state has filed an appeal to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

The ex-gay movement offers a vehicle for publicly questioning the very sexual and social identity of homosexuals and, by extension, undermining their claim to civil rights legal protections. After all, the argument goes, if lesbian and gay people need not be homosexuals, because with God's help or through reparative therapy they can "heal" themselves, then civil rights for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender people are not needed.

This is a repackaging of the Right's "no special rights" theme, an idea that casts civil rights as limited to people of color. Christian Right leaders claim that gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender people are out to get "more" rights than those guaranteed to everyone, and that somehow these rights would come at the expense of the civil rights of people of color. The "special rights" theme relies on the argument that sexual orientation is not a basis for discrimination and that gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender people simply want to win legitimacy for their "deviant" behavior by putting it on a par with immutable characteristics such as skin color.54

The ex-gay movement puts a veneer of Christian caring and compassion on the "no special rights" rationale, excising it of its former drumbeat stridency. The potential appeal to conservative Christian voters of this strategic combination of reasoned "fact"-"gays" don't need to be that way, it's just a "lifestyle choice"-and hopeful solution-"all they need to do is to embrace the power of Christ"-has already been demonstrated. In February 1998, the Christian Right and the ex-gay movement were prominent in a successful referendum campaign by "family values" forces to rescind Maine's anti-discrimination law. It was the first time an existing state law protecting lesbians and gay men from discrimination had been reversed.

In a press release from the Family Research Council heralding the victory, FRC president Gary Bauer paid tribute to organizations involved in the campaign, including P-FOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays).55 The Christian Right strategically used the ex-gay movement to promote its anti-gay agenda in Maine. One television commercial featured several men who said they were "former homosexuals who had been saved by Christ."56 Anthony Falzarano of P-FOX led a "Truth Tour," in which he and other ex-gays held themselves up as living, breathing examples of gays who claim to have changed. Their message clearly challenged gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender rights by asking the question: if people can leave homosexuality, why should they be protected legally? If they choose to be gay, they must accept the consequences. Given the outcome of the Maine vote, it seems likely that the Christian Right will attempt to utilize the ex-gay movement and its message to challenge gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender rights laws in other states, exactly the kind of political maneuvering that the Christian Right and the ex-gay movement are teaming up to accomplish.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the Christian Right has a new tool, the logic of the ex-gay movement, to persuade the right wing of the Republican Party that gay men and lesbians do not need legal protections because their homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, not an immutable trait. Propelled by the Christian Right's Congressional allies, in July 1998, the House of Representatives voted to deny federal funds to municipalities that require city contractors to provide domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples. This bill targeted San Francisco, which has such a law, and serves as a warning to other cities considering similar legislation57.#57

Although the GOP was unsuccessful in its attempt to repeal President Clinton's executive order banning discrimination in federal employment, in August 1998 the House of Representatives voted to ban same-sex couples from adopting children in the District of Columbia. Several other homophobic measures around the country are still pending: in Hawaii a referendum authorizing the legislature to ban same-sex marriage is the first major ballot test of that issue, although twenty-nine state legislatures have already passed bans on such marriages; another homophobic marriage referendum is on the ballot in Alaska; and in Fayetteville, Arkansas and Fort Collins, Colorado citizens will be voting on the repeal of their laws protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination.58

The long-term goal of the Christian Right in using the ex-gay movement to convince people that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people can become heterosexual is to create a restrictive legal environment in which equal rights are only accorded to heterosexual men and women. Attacking rights in the legal arena is an important outgrowth of the partnership between the Christian Right and the ex-gay movement and, if unchallenged, could have serious ramifications for the civil rights of gay/lesbian/bisexual/ transgender people in the US.

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