Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Evolution of a Small Town

Sunday’s Orlando Sentinel carried this story on its front page:

Vote shows Orlando is growing more gay-friendly

By Mark Schlueb, Orlando Sentinel 10:37 p.m. EST, December 11, 2011

The relatively easy passage of a new domestic-partnership registry in Orlando is the latest sign the city has grown more accepting, members of the gay community say.The registry, which grants limited rights to unmarried couples, won unanimous approval from Mayor Buddy Dyer and the six-member City Council at an initial vote Dec. 5. It is expected to easily pass a final vote Monday. Council members even wore red to show their support.

While I no longer read the Sentinel daily for the same reason I avoid the local TV news – they rarely actually inform me and they inevitably irritate me – this story popped up on my Google News homepage and I thought it merited a look see.

The story actually did a nice job of detailing Orlando’s darker days when fundagelical excesses resulted in homophobic spasms of restrictive laws and mean-spirited public assertions. Those were the days when crusades to close gay bars marked the nadir of the Reagan years, an era marked by its mindlessness long before the president’s Alzheimers was disclosed. A decade later it took the form of Pat Robertson’s thus far unrealized predictions of devastating meteor showers in the wake of the city’s agreement to post banners celebrating Gay Pride. This was followed by vandals ripping down the banners and tossing them into Lake Lucerne exposing the ugly underbelly of a city which has long called itself “The City Beautiful.”

The turning point in Orlando’s climb out of the misanthropic sewer occurred six years ago when the city approved an anti-discrimination ordinance which set the tone for a subsequent county-wide ordinance, partner benefits for city employees and now the domestic partner registry. I was one of the speakers at that public hearing. Wearing my clerical collar, I spoke about my then partner (now husband) of 31 years and the discrimination we had faced over those three decades. I will never forget the looks of shock on the faces of the assembled righteous wearing their yellow buttons opposing the ordinance when this ordained minister took the stand to speak – gasp – in favor of ending discrimination.

Against my better judgment, I read the comments following the Sentinel story. Not surprisingly, the early warning web system that conservatives operate brought out the crazies from across the country to respond. Even more against my better judgment, I broke my own rule and decided I’d respond to three of them.

Texas adds its Two Cents

A writer from Dallas (Can anything good come out of Texas, Mr. Perry?) said: “A vote by a left leaning council, introduced by an openly gay council member, does not "show" anything except where that council stands.” Given that this man lives in the hermetically sealed state of Texas, I can forgive him his ignorance. Intellectual incest abounds within circled wagons. But if this fellow ever visits Orlando, he might ask the homeless on our streets or the Food Not Bombs folks who would have the audacity to actually feed them in a public park about our “left leaning council.” His comment got this response from me:

What it shows is that Orlando is finally growing up and becoming a modern city albeit in fits and starts. Being the center of a 2 million plus metropolitan area alone does not make for a real city. It's more of a self-understanding which values diversity of human experience and the opportunity to learn from each other. Healthy cities have a place for all their residents and treat them all as first class citizens.

Homophobia is a rather primitive prejudice unworthy of adults capable of critical thought. The actions of the city council reflect a general ethos in Orlando that no longer has time or tolerance for such base misanthropic attitudes. Frankly, I never thought I'd see this day. For so long Orlando allowed small minded, small town fearfulness to define itself.

Much of the credit for that change is due to the enormous sea change in demographic diversity. Such diversity recognizes the value of different cultures and variant worldviews. When there is no "common sense" as a default to critical thinking, prejudices cannot go unchallenged. Some of the change can be credited to the entertainment industry which has long recognized the value of its LBGQT cast members. And part of the change is simply the changing of the guard. The Gen Y now rising simply doesn't get homophobia or why anyone would take it seriously.

All things evolve, even moderate sized cities like Orlando.

Appeal to their basest instincts

Another writer who identified himself as reddogg88 said : "Put this to a vote of the people and it will fail just like nearly all of the votes seeking to grant gays special rights and status have nationwide." His comment drew this response

Of course, this is only part of the picture. Add to that tons of money from people like the Koch brothers from outside the state. Add tons of money from Mormons guilt-tripped into donating. Add intensive brow-beating by Catholic clerics voicing the party line even as many are themselves gay. And then run the most misleading, unfactual, misanthropic and mean-spirted advertising campaign possible. Manipulate the base prejudices in the electorate. Scare them with lies. Pimp their masculinity. Be presumptuous enough to suggest that somehow G-d favors the homophobic position. In short, appeal to the basest, most fearful instincts of their humanity while avoiding anything remotely resembling a fact-based, reason driven decision making process.

No doubt, you'll secure narrow margins of "victory" in such endeavors. But demagogues have always found ways to win by appealing to fear and prejudices. This is one of the reasons that rights are protected by constitutions, to place them outside the grasp of electoral lynch mobs whipped into a frenzy by power-seeking demagogues. And ultimately, even fear subsides and justice has her day.

Not even for one day

Finally, a writer who actually used his own name (which I will omit to protect the thoughtless from their own thoughtlessness) said: “Why don't you just change the city's name to GAYLANDO? Queers and Dikes add nothing positive to life on this planet. They are the scourge of humanity and should be eliminated.”

Responding to such childishness is like shooting fish in a barrel. The challenge is always to temper the immediate desire for the easy slam dunk with a bit of moderation if not reason. But as I thought about my response, it occurred to me that living inside the skin of a person so clearly driven by such fearfulness for even one day would probably be pretty awful. And so my yetzer tov rose to the occasion and I responded with the following:

I would guess it would be painful going through life holding such misanthropic attitudes. Hatred is based in fear and fear eats us alive from the inside out. All of us know what it feels like to suffer. And these comments decidedly evidence suffering not only in the maker of these comments but also potentially in the targets of the comments. The appropriate response to suffering is compassion, according to the Buddha.

I doubt seriously that the man who made these comments will be able to hear that, at least not today. But, if nothing else, I will be able to live with myself this day.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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