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Deja Vu

New October 5: Déjà vu

When I was researching Out for Queer Blood, I spent weeks reading newspapers from the 1950’s, and then I would come home, watch the news, and have strange feelings of déjà vu. It was because all of the hot button issues in the 1950’s had somehow become the hot button issues sixty years later: voting rights, family structure, Mexican immigration, judicial activism, and the list goes on.

For a more extended discussion of the similarities between the 1950’s and today, read the final chapter of Out for Queer Blood (which I titled Déjà vu), but right now, I’d like to concentrate on an example of déjà vu that entered the news (again) this week. You could say that it is deja vu all over again.

Throughout the 1950’s, New Orleans was implementing policies and passing laws with the goal of creating a “frigid climate of hostility” that would cause LGBT people—primarily gay men—to leave the city, and hopefully the state. This became known as the drive against the deviates. The effort lasted for years, resulting in dozens of police raids on gay and lesbian bars, hundreds of arrests on flimsy charges of “lewd conduct,” and a general feeling among the populace that “deviates,” who were said to represent a threat to youth and family, were a population deserving both of contempt and contemptuous treatment. The murder of Fernando Rios represents the logical extreme of these attitudes.

I was reminded of the drive against the deviates this week when I read that Mississippi House Bill 1523, is slated to become law on Friday. The bill is explicitly anti-gay, in that it grants license to service providers ranging from wedding planners to health care personnel the right to refuse to serve to anyone, as long as their refusal is based upon the belief that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman,” that, “Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage,” and that “Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at the time of birth.”

So let’s unpack these three clauses, one at a time.

Much has been made (too much, in my opinion) of the plight of florists and bakers who have been forced—forced!—to provide flowers or wedding cake for same-sex marriage ceremonies. What could be the harm of letting them off the hook? Especially since there are usually other florists and bakers who might willingly supply the same service?

I might be for such a bill, if it were worded in a religiously neutral way. But it isn’t. It does not allow the same florists or bakers to deny services to interracial couples, based upon the sincerely held religious belief that God, in His wisdom, placed the races on different continents, and but for Man’s interference, they would have remained there. It does not allow them to deny services to divorced people getting married for the second or third time (like our president), based upon the sincerely held religious belief that what God has joined, no man should unjoin. It does not allow them to deny services to Jews or Muslims, based upon the sincerely held religious belief that those who have not accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior are doomed to eternal Hellfire. It does not allow them to deny services for a wedding that will be solemnized by a female minister, based upon the sincerely held religious belief that Paul said women were to be silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34).

Clearly, the law is less about protecting the religious liberty of people in the wedding industry than it is about carving out a special legal niche to allow service providers to humiliate a very small subset of the population.

And let’s talk about someone other than the baker or the florist. How about the pharmacist who refuses to dispense hormonal treatments to transgender persons? Or the person at the state-funded adoption agency who refuses to place a child with a same-sex couple? While most of the provisions in the bill are specifically related to the provisions of goods and services related to weddings, there are also clauses that allow private individuals and state employees to refuse other services to LGBT people based upon sincerely held religious beliefs. Their sincerely-held religious beliefs related to interracial marriage, divorce, the damnation of non-Christians, and female ministers are not granted such protections.

As for the third provision (I’ll come back to the second one in a minute), which specifies that male and female refer to the genders determined at birth—I’d love to know how wedding photographers or florists are going to investigate both partners’ birth genitalia before signing a contract or providing flowers for a wedding. Will presenting birth certificates become standard protocol for people wanting to contract services? Will providers require applicants to drop their pants for a physical inspection before moving forward with business transactions? How do so-called “small government” conservatives justify such invasions of privacy and autonomy?

But for all the attention that HB 1523 has attracted for its anti-gay animus, it also has a distinct anti-woman animus, which brings us back to the second clause—the one that protects the refusal of service based upon the religious belief that sex should only occur within the marriage of one man and one woman. Obviously, this would give innkeepers the right to refuse rooms to two people of the same gender, despite a confirmed reservation.

But—let’s face it—the wording of the clause also gives the good people of Mississippi license to slut-shame women. Yes, the language of the bill is neutral on the surface, but whom do you think is most likely to provoke a refusal of service? The distinguished man of a certain age, looking for a hotel room to share with a woman who is not his wife? Or the single mother? Government workers would be protected if they refused service to such a woman, as would the physician who refused to write an unmarried woman a prescription for birth control pills.

HB 1523 is far less about protecting religious liberty than it is about creating the same “frigid climate of hostility” that the New Orleans city of administration pursued in the 1950’s. It does nothing to protect religious liberty. Instead, it will enshrine religious bigotry.

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