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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

Who's In The Closet Now?

I was intrigued by a statement made following the U.S. Senate’s praiseworthy vote on June 20 to add sexual orientation as a protected category under the federal hate crimes law. The quote was from the legislation’s co-sponsor, U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., one of 13 Republicans to break ranks with party leadership to support the bill, which passed, 57-to-42. Smith was quoted in an internet article as saying he knew of “many more Republicans want to vote for it that, for one reason or another, felt restrained from voting for it.” I suspect most of the reasons have to do with covering their backside — it wouldn’t do for them to step out of their closets of sympathy for gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual victims of hate crimes. That could antagonize party leadership and possibly even the folks back in their home districts. And that, as Belle Watling said to Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, “wouldn’t be fittin’.”

Somehow, the position of these GOP closet sympathizers reminds me of what it has been like and in many cases, still is like for GLBT people who remain in the closet. They’re afraid of the consequences of coming out. In some cases, so are the family and friends who support gay people who are out. They worry about retaliation — physical, political and social — and not without just cause for doing so. But the fact is, everyone is going to have to bust through their closet doors eventually if justice is ever to occur. We can’t just harbor good wishes for those who are out and then do nothing on their behalf except pray silently.

I’ve taken to wearing a rectangular-shaped rainbow pin on my dress shirt pockets while I’m on the job as a newspaper writer. Recently, a lady came up to me at a ribbon-cutting ceremony I was covering and asked what the pin was for. “Do you just like rainbows or are you communicating some message with a rainbow as a symbol,” she asked coyly. “I do like rainbows,” I said. “Always have. But in this case, I’m advocating equal civil rights for everyone, including my oldest son.” I winked at her knowingly and she smiled. I then told her that I was a member of a chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), which is always open to people of like minds.

Thinking about it later, I realized that the lady had not indicated she was a sympathizer or an opponent of gay rights. I have a feeling she was gay-friendly, but what if she wasn’t? I fretted for a brief paranoid moment and then shrugged it off. If I’m going to wear the pin, I have to be prepared to take some grief as well as some gratitude from the general public. If we expect people like Senator Smith and the bill’s Democrat co-sponsor, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to stick their necks out, there needs to be more of us willing to go on the line and say, “I am a friend of a gay person, and I want to see the law protect him or her; I am the parent/sibling/child of a gay person, and I want to see the law protect him or her; I am a gay person and I want to see the law protect me.”

Personally, I have a hard time understanding why anyone, whether they approved of homosexuality or not, would object to laws protecting human life. What is equally puzzling is that many of the people in Congress who are opposed to including gay people among those protected by federal hate crimes legislation are those, like U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who call themselves “pro-life,” especially in matters of a woman’s right to choose termination of pregnancy. But then, the same pro-life politicians tend to be in favor of the death penalty and against euthanasia, so why should I expect consistency from them? “We must firmly and unequivocally say ‘no’ to those who injure or murder because of hate,” Kennedy was quoted as saying. “Every day that Congress fails to act, people across the nation continue to be victimized by acts of bigotry based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability ... These crimes send a poisonous message that minorities are second-class citizens with fewer rights.”

Taking Kennedy’s words one step further, it would appear that a vote against protecting any group of minority people against hate crimes committed against them would be a vote in favor of giving aid and comfort to the twisted souls who commit the crimes. When I think about the two losers, handcuffed and dressed in prison garb, who killed Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, I also picture spiffy Trent Lott, dressed the same way. I also can imagine the venerable U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-Va., the only man from his party to vote against the hate crimes legislation, in a cell with the mumbling good old boys who dragged Billy Jack Gaither of Sylacauga, Ala., to his death. I also have little sympathy for the obstructionist tactics of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who, while indicating he might support a federal hate crimes law, called for a federal study of hate crimes and the effectiveness of existing state laws to see what further action might be needed.

Excuse me, senator, but ask Dennis and Judy Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard. Ask the family of Billy Jack Gaither. They will tell you the study is complete — the death of one young person because someone does not like his or her sexual orientation is all the proof we need that current hate crime laws do not effectively put the fear of God into bigots that they will be severely punished if they act on their bigotry. And if the Shepard and Gaither families are not enough evidence, ask me. Ask me if I live in fear that I will get a call in the middle of the night informing me that my gay son, Patrick, has been butchered by someone who feeds his or her self-image by killing gay folks.

I will tell you, yes, that’s true, and if it ever happens, I will hold responsible those who voted against legislation that could have provided some protection for my son and those who hesitated and called for more time-wasting “studies” of the issue. Observers of Congress see little chance of the Senate-passed measure even reaching a floor vote in the House during this session of Congress. All the more reason for us who support gay rights to look carefully at not only what the major party presidential candidates are saying about gay rights, but also at what those folks running to represent us in Congress are saying. To me, if they will not support the issue and protect people like my son, they increase the chances of not getting my vote.

Published 2th July 2000


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