Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Don’t Say Gay – Florida’s Latest Moral Panic

This week a bill was signed into law in Florida which has widely come to be called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It is an egregious abuse of power on the part of the state legislature and its politically ambitious governor which targets the politically less powerful unable to fend off the abuse it will impose upon them. In the words of James Madison, it’s a pretty classic example of the Tyranny of the Majority.

But its pathological potential exceeds any concerns for the mere abuse of power. This law could destroy lives. I know. I’ve seen this show before.

A Cynical Use of State Power

The provisions of the law are wide ranging. It begins with prohibitions against the discussion of gender and sexuality in the first three grades and to those older when “inappropriate.” In fact, what the language of the statute dictates is that any discussion of gender and sexuality will turn on cisgender, heterosexual terms. Discussion itself is not banned, only its parameters and content have been proscribed.

 There is no small amount of duplicity in this.

The statute is intentionally cast in vague terms. The failure to define what constitutes “inappropriate” discussions for students beginning in the fourth grade means that the law will serve to chill free speech about those issues in all succeeding grades through this use of intentionally vague statutory language.

The law also requires informing parents when students have received any kind of counseling, making confidentiality with the student impossible. For kids wrestling with sexual orientation and gender identity questions, this cuts off one of the few trustworthy sources of counseling many might receive. The inordinate incidence of suicide and homelessness in such children evidences what can happen in such cases.

The worst aspect of the bill provides a right of action for any parent to sue school districts should they believe that its employees have violated any of these provisions. It also requires the districts to absorb the costs of such lawsuits, no matter how frivolous they might prove to be. In a state where schools are underfunded to begin with, requiring school districts to absorb the costs of litigation could potentially bankrupt them.

This is nothing short of criminal.

Exacerbating the harmful impact of this law is its cynical peddling to the public under the rubric of “parental rights.” That’s clearly an appeal to populism, pitting parents against a supposed “elite” (or worse yet, the incredibly tired – and, true to form, vague - reference to “woke”) policy makers who run school districts. In my experience of school boards over the last six decades, this alone evidences how completely out of touch these white male politicians are with reality. Florida’s local school boards may be described in a number of ways but possessed of a high level of consciousness is rarely among them. 

This dissembling is deliberate. And as M. Scott Peck has observed in his People of the Lie, it is when wrongdoing is combined with deception that we begin to talk about evil. 

What is clearly missing in this cynical calculus is any respect for the rights of the teachers upon whom we rely to educate our children. The corresponding right of the citizenry to have an educated - rather than indoctrinated - public (the actual purpose of public education) is also missing. Finally, the rights of any of the students involved who are, in the end, the most vulnerable of the parties in this entire savage calculus, are absent from the law’s provisions.

It is telling that, for the most part, none of these interested parties were involved in the decision making in Tallahassee. I found myself wondering the other day what it must be like to be the group of people that have been targeted by such discriminatory legislation. But I don’t have to wonder about that. I know first-hand what that experience is.

Walking Into a Hornet’s Nest

In the fall of 1976 I came to a small town on Florida’s west coast to teach language arts and social studies in the middle school there. I had a freshy minted undergraduate degree from the University of Florida where I had minored in Journalism and Political Science while majoring in History and Secondary Education. A true child of the 60s, I had come to help change the world.

To say I was naïve would have been an understatement. I had presumed that the world needed to be saved and that this small town to which I had come would welcome my efforts on their behalf. In retrospect, there was also no small amount of faulty presumptions  - much less grandiose thinking - in all of that.

The timing of my arrival could not have come at a worse moment. As I was struggling to figure out my own sexuality, our state erupted in a moral panic over what was then just beginning to be referred to as gay rights. Miami-Dade County had just removed the ordinances from its city code that made gay bars illegal (for most of the 20th CE homosexual acts were second degree felonies in Florida). In what county leaders perhaps saw as a compensatory act, they then voted to create an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public assistance based on sexual orientation.

In response, Florida’s religious right, which has always had a major presence in its politics, erupted. Led by Florida Orange Juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant, petitions to place an initiative on the county ballot in a special election to revoke the ordinance soon began circulating. Bryant called the initiative “Save Our Children” deliberately confusing sexual orientation with allusions to pedophilia. Not surprisingly, when voters went to the polls that fall, the Human Rights Ordinance would be repealed by a 2-1 margin. The ripple effects of this highly publicized movement would impact people across the state and the nation.

A Classic Moral Panic

I wouldn’t know what a moral panic was for another couple of decades until I studied this phenomenon in a Sociology of Deviance course I took at Cal-Berkeley while in seminary. As I read about this phenomenon, I immediately recognized that Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” crusade in 1977 had all the classic aspects.

Moral Panics designate a scapegoated group which social theorist Stanley Cohen described as “folk devils:”

[I]ndividuals who are socially alleged or defined to be responsible for bringing a    threat to society. Unlike other malicious characters, folk devils are entirely evil          and are stripped from anything positive or anything that could possibly contribute to their likeability. They are simply the embodiment of a "bad guy" and are deemed the antagonists in a moral panic drama.

There is always a yawning gap between the supposed dangers alleged and any actual dangers in a moral panic. Exaggeration, hyperbole and isolated anecdotal evidence become the stock in trade of the Moral Entrepreneurs, the individuals and groups who promote the panic.

In turn, the Media play an essential role in the rise of moral panics to public consciousness through repetitive reporting which includes distortion of words and events, predictions of the dire consequences of failure to act and the creation of caricatures that signify the designated scapegoats to be a danger to society.

Once the moral panic has sufficiently roused public alarm, the agents of societal control with institutional power (lawmakers and law officers) feel both compelled as well as empowered to act.  The result is a crusade against the demonized “folk devils” who have been reduced to things, no longer bearing the marks of human beings and no longer entitled to human dignity.

Ripple Effects

In 1977 Florida that would mean the passage of two major laws penalizing gay people. The first was a prohibition on same sex marriage that would stand until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s law along with that of virtually all of the other states in
Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. The other was a prohibition on same sex couples adopting children, a law which would be ruled unconstitutional by a Florida District Court of Appeals in 2010 and revoked by the legislature in 2015.

During the raucous sessions of the Florida Legislature at the height of the Save Our Children moral panic, Florida’s politicians increasingly turned their attention to Florida’s teachers. While Anita Bryant was busy calling gay people “human garbage” from whom we needed to “Save Our Children,” Florida’s ostensibly progressive governor, Reuben Askew, readily signed both the marriage and adoption bans adding that he would not want his children taught by “known homosexual[s].” In the meantime, legislators would make headlines with quotes demanding that Florida’s gay teachers “Go Back in Your Closets.”

As if any would have ever dared to have been out in the first place.


Daily life for gay teachers in Florida came to mean enduring vicious caricatures of ourselves in the papers each morning and hearing ourselves pilloried on broadcast  media by blustering moral entrepreneurs each night. It meant enduring sharp increase of slurs from emboldened bigots in public and learning not to answer one’s phone after dark to avoid obscene phone calls. The ripple effects of the moral panic brewing in Miami and Tallahassee were widespread and deeply demoralizing.

Bills of Attainder – Singling Out Scapegoats

A year later, I left public school teaching to begin law school at my alma mater, University of Florida. In Constitutional Law classes, we learned of the prohibition in our Constitution against bills of attainders, laws which single out individuals or identifiable groups of people for punishment. We also studied the significant case law around the 14th Amendment and its equal protection clause barring discrimination against less powerful minorities.

In theory, our constitutional law stands foursquare against the abuse of state power - what Framer James Madison called a “tyranny of the majority” – to impose laws which dehumanize those less politically powerful. Constitutional democracy is more than a mere majoritarian exercise in which the powerless can be voted off the island at the whim of the powerful.

But, in fact, our caselaw reflects a long history of such abuses of power beginning with the genocidal displacement of indigenous peoples, the protections of chattel slavery written into our Constitution whose ongoing legacy plagues us to this day, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in WWII and in laws aimed at LBGTQ people like the one just enacted here in Florida. The actual practice of our law often stands in stark contrast to its noble ideals. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill is a classic example.

But neither the current “Don’t Say Gay” nor the “Save Our Children” moral panic targeting gay people in Florida which proceeded it is hardly original. In 1956, white male politicians had begun to realize that their quest to keep Florida racially segregated would fail in the face of Supreme Court decisions ruling such laws unconstitutional. A new scapegoat onto whom the Shadow of the racist, white male ego could be projected was needed. 

A common tactic in Southern resistance to desegregation was to declare civil rights activists to be communists. Organized by the state legislature, a self-described  “investigatory” committee was formed under the leadership of Charley Johns, a former governor who had returned to the state senate. This Red Scare witch hunt would cross the state to remove books from university libraries and grill professors about the content of their teaching. (Sound familiar?) If it was determined the professors were a little red (i.e., pinko), they were hounded out of their jobs.

By 1958, the
Johns Committee had located a more profitable scapegoat, switching gears to target gay teachers at Florida’s public schools and colleges. In a tortured twist of logic which arose from the socially sanctioned homophobia of the time, those who were accused of being gay were presumed to be easily manipulated by communist agents and thus a threat to national security. Professors and students would be picked up in the middle of the night by local police and grilled without legal representation. They were pressured to inform on others who might be involved in behaviors that UF President J. Wayne Reitz would call “a complete aberration.”

This homophobic hysteria would lose steam by the early 1960s about the same time that Florida’s public facilities were finally ordered to desegregate. In 1965 the legislature stopped funding the committee’s activities ending a decade of persecution of the designated “folk devils” du jour and a resulting chilling effect on the educational process in Florida. That hysteria would lie dormant awaiting new opportunities to rear its ugly head in Miami-Dade County in 1977 and more recently in Tallahassee this year.

There is No “There” There

Like Bryant’s “Save the Children” crusade and the Johns Committee crusade before it, the current moral panic has posited a danger that does not exist in reality. There has been no evidence produced that teachers are talking about sexuality to children in grades one to three. Similarly, there are no reports of students being counseled to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. Whatever rights parents might have in the process of public education have been cynically marshalled to prevent predatory practices which simply are not occurring.

It’s the stuff of classic moral panics.

Like every bill of attainder, this law singles out identifiable groups of citizens for punitive treatment - folk devils to demonize - simply because of who they are. And as my own experience demonstrates, its ripple effect has enormous potential to harm unforeseen victims at the hands of those whose bigotry has been legitimized by state power holders and who now feel empowered to act upon the same.


This law will require LGBTQ teachers to be dishonest with others about who they are and to deny the realities of the lives of LBGTQ students and families. It will require people who know better to lie to those to whom they owe the truth about matters central to their personhood. And it will gaslight many who are trying to come to grips with their own identities, telling them that what they know to be true about themselves is false.

 Such demands always come at a major cost to the souls of all the parties involved.

This law has been pursued by inordinately ambitious moral entrepreneurs seeking political gain at the expense of the very humanity of the powerless. But it also comes at a huge cost to the legitimate interests of the nation’s third largest state facing actual crises of environmental degradation, sea levels rising from climate change, gridlocked highways and underperforming schools, all largely ignored by politicians busy shoring up their “base” through culture wars.

As a grateful retiree, I am not directly affected by this new law. But this deceptively packaged law deeply troubles me as a former teacher. In all truthfulness, having parents involved in the education and welfare of their children I taught would have been a largely unknown luxury during my time in public schools. But that is not what this bill encourages. Rather, it creates an adversarial relationship pitting parents against teachers.

There are no winners in such contests.


As a fourth generation public educator, were I just coming out of undergraduate today, knowing what I know, the chances I would enter public school teaching in Florida would be negligible at best. And as a sixth generation Floridian, I must sadly acknowledge that if I had no generational ties to this state, I would never choose to live here. Indeed, as I vicariously experience once again being the target of yet another Florida moral panic, I sometimes wonder how long I can stay.  

Moral Panics inevitably have very human costs. Many of them are immediate but many are also unforeseeable. That makes them much more dangerous. In the end, moral panics leave indelible scars on the souls of those whose lives they touch.

As citizens, we are all complicit in the harm done in our names by those to whom we have given political power. The reputation of our state has suffered enormous harm in this debacle. To paraphrase John’s Gospel, increasingly the rest of the nation wonders, “Can anything good come out of Florida?”

But our teachers deserve better. Our children deserve better. And when our citizens exercise our responsibilities, we will deserve better. Now is the time to do better.



 Harry Scott Coverston 

   Orlando, Florida

  If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

  Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

  For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

  Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

  © Harry Coverston, 2022





Monday, April 04, 2022

Lent: A Time to Reconsider Our Presumptions

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”


Today’s Gospel lesson relates the story of a woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with a perfumed ointment and then wipes them dry with her hair. A version of this story appears in varying forms in all four of the canonical Gospels. While scholars are fairly certain that the words attributed to Jesus here are probably not his, clearly this was a story that animated the understandings of him among the early Jesus movement. As a result, this story has much to tell us about the Way of Jesus that is worth knowing.


Which Mary?

This version of the story from John is set in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany just after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. In six days Jesus will depart for his fateful encounter with the Romans in Jerusalem. The woman who interacts with Jesus is Mary of Bethany, Martha and Lazarus’ sister. It’s important to note who this woman is and who she is not.


She is not the woman of ill repute in Luke or the mystery woman who shows up in Mark and Matthew’s accounts. More importantly, she is definitely not the Mary Magdalene whom historians increasingly recognize as one of the main leaders of the early Jesus Movement. 

Pope Gregory the Great would conflate all of these women in his 6th CE account, tarring Mary Magdalene as a penitent prostitute. For many centuries that would be the teaching of the church. It was a very effective – if dishonest - means of burying the role of women’s leadership in a church with an all-male hierarchy seeking to legitimate patriarchy and to subordinate women in the process.

But Mary’s engagement with Jesus arose out of her gratitude for his raising of her brother, Lazarus, from the dead. She also recognizes something important here. Her anointing of his feet with nard symbolically pointed toward the coming anointing of his body in preparation for burial after his crucifixion.

 Death hovers in the background of all of these Gospel accounts.

Both the symbolism and the actual impending death of Jesus escape the disciples completely. Like many of us, their vision is too immediate and too literal to see the truth to which these symbols point. Maybe they just don’t want to see it. 

Instead, they become distracted by Judas’ criticism of Jesus for allowing Mary to lavish expensive ointment on his feet even as the desperate poor languish all around them. Jesus responds that while the poor will always be around, he will not be present with them much longer. Indeed, within another six days, Jesus will be on his way to Golgotha.


My guess is that today’s Gospel reading is one of the most underestimated passages in our scriptures. In an ordinary reading of it, we miss two essential aspects. First, the second century Jesus community is making an important statement here about the presence of women in the Jesus movement. And second, contrary to what might appear to be a casual dismissal of the poor, the words placed in Jesus’ mouth come from a much longer and much more pointed commentary on poverty in the Torah that actually reflects the historic Jesus.


Self-Abnegating Devotion

Let’s start with Mary. Her willingness to engage Jesus in this intimate manner runs afoul of the customs of both her Hebraic culture as well as that of the highly misogynist Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire. Letting down her hair in public is a big no-no. This is the kind of behavior that causes people to call women who do such things prostitutes. At a very basic level, she is an incredibly courageous woman, willing to violate cultural mores to demonstrate her devotion to Jesus.


As followers of Jesus, we ignore that aspect to our peril.

But what is more striking is Jesus’ response to her. He is taken by her compassion and her self-abnegating behavior. This woman has put aside her own dignity and status. She risks censure for violating communal norms. But she realizes Jesus is not long for this world and responds to that insight with a display of loving kindness. Jesus is clearly moved by this. And when he responds to Judas’ criticism of her behaviors, he essentially says “You should be so thoughtful, Judas.”

This story is but one of many such stories in the Gospels that evidence that, compared to the patriarchal culture of both Rome and Judea, women were highly valued in the Jesus movement. As is often the case, Jesus draws a distinction between the Kingdom of Caesar with its dominating patriarchy and the kingdom of G-d where women are no longer seen as mere property of their husbands. The Way of Jesus turns many aspects of Caesar’s kingdom on their heads. That’s precisely the reason that so many people talked about Jesus during his lifetime and continued to do so long after he was gone.

It’s also the kind of thing that could get a guy crucified.


A Cavalier Jesus

But it’s the second aspect of this story that has always troubled me. I have always been disturbed by this passage which ends with Jesus making what strikes me as a flip remark about poverty: “The poor you will always have with you….” 

There is a sense in that comment that somehow poverty is normative for any given society. There are no obligations to relieve it, much less prevent it. Many defenders of our market fundamentalist system have used this verse as its legitimation – so what if our economic system benefits some while generating crippling poverty for many and inequalities which render our society unstable. Poverty is a given. Even Jesus said so. Deal with it.


But bear in mind that all of the Gospels are the product of several cultural inkpots that their writers dipped into in their creative process. In this case, it the scripture of the Hebrew tradition, the beginning point for all the Gospel writers in their telling their stories about Jesus, which serves as the lens through which this story is told.

In constructing this dialogue, the writers of John’s Gospel have borrowed a passage from the Torah to create Jesus’ response to Judas. The words “The poor you will always have with you…” come directly from Deuteronomy 15 which begins with the words placed in Jesus’ mouth: “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land…” 

But that is only half of the verse. The remainder of it points to the response demanded by G-d in the face of that reality: “…which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” 

Now, that sounds an awful lot like the Jesus of history who scholars are fairly clear actually said, “Give to all who beg.” 


The writer of John cleverly used just the first half of that verse to set up an awareness of the precariousness of Jesus’ life, soon to end in crucifixion. In scolding Judas for his condescension in criticizing the actions of Mary - the only one who actually gets what is happening to Jesus - he goes on to say, “You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me." But the point of John’s reference to the poor here is neither to normalize poverty nor to excuse his listeners from responding to it. His point is that Jesus is about to die even as his disciples do not want to deal with that reality. Rather than fight among themselves about how they should spend their meager funds, this is the time to be fully present with Jesus while he is still there.


Lent Calls Us to Reconsider our Presumptions

So what difference does any of this make to those of us who would follow Jesus?



This is the fifth Sunday of Lent. It is a time for reflection on our lives, for reconsideration of our attitudes and for repentance from ways of being human that are harmful to ourselves and others. The Way of Jesus calls us to question our own cultural presumptions just as Jesus challenged those of his own day.


We might ask ourselves why we expect men and women to act in certain ways and demonize them when they behave otherwise. Indeed, we might ask ourselves why we presume that our inherited understandings of the sexes exhaust all the possibilities and why we deny people the right to tell their own stories and live their own lives as they see fit. Where in all of that is our respect for their humanity? And what gifts are we missing when we deny anyone an equal place at our table?




The Way of Jesus also calls us to question how we see others vis-à-vis wealth. It requires us to reconsider our rationalizations of a system which rewards its winners, telling them they are somehow entitled to their privilege, while demonizing the poor, constructing them as lazy. Anyone who has ever toiled in the agricultural fields or in the kitchens of restaurants – the working poor who insure that all of us actually get our daily bread - knows that is simply not true. So why do we buy into this?

Jesus knew only too well that the ways we treat women and the poor are always a matter of human choices.  The pointed question our Gospel poses us this day is how and why we make those choices that generate or acquiesce to human suffering. What is our own role in attitudes and behaviors that deny the humanity of our fellow children of G_d? And what is the Way of Jesus calling us to consider here?

Those are tough questions. And I think it’s hardly a coincidence that we are asked to wrestle with them during this penitential season we call Lent. Let us pray:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.     (Collect, Lent V)    


A sermon offered Lent V, April 3, 2022, St. Richard's Episcopal Church, Winter Park, Florida 

 Harry Scott Coverston 

   Orlando, Florida

  If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

  Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

  For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

  Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

  © Harry Coverston, 2022