Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Religious Right's Callous Response to Robin Williams' Suicide

Earlier this month, 63 year-old actor Robin Williams hung himself in his California home, according to CNN. Williams had struggled with depression and addiction before his death. His passing has prompted public conversations about mental illness, addiction, and suicide, which may help increase awareness and reduce stigma for those who struggle from mental health issues. Unfortunately, some figures from the Religious Right are using William's suicide to promote hateful agendas.

First, in an August 18th blog post at the Family Research Council website, Peter Sprigg used Williams' suicide as an opportunity to defend conversion therapy. Since Williams and others continued to struggle with addiction and depression after rehab, Sprigg asked liberals "why aren’t you trying to outlaw rehab?"
"Critics of reorientation therapy make two charges — that it is ineffective, and that it is harmful. But they support these charges only by holding such therapies to a standard of “effectiveness” and “safety” that is impossible for any mental health treatment to meet ... There is actually no scientific evidence that reorientation therapy is more harmful than helpful. There are, however, anecdotal accounts of people who claim they found it harmful, or who had negative experiences after such therapy, such as depression or even suicide. However, mere chronological correlation is not scientific proof of causation — any more than Robin Williams’ suicide was “caused” by his recent return to rehab."

Actually, there is evidence that conversion therapy is harmful. In a study of 202 consumers of sexual orientation conversion efforts, many respondents associated conversion therapy with harmful after-effects. In 2009, the American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation concluded that sexual orientation change efforts "are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm". We can safely conclude that conversion therapy is pseudoscience at best, and potentially harmful, anti-gay quackery at worst. More to the point, however, is that Sprigg used a man's suicide to take swipes at critics of the ex-gay movement, which was tasteless and callous.

Next, in an August 12th post at Priests for Life, Kevin Burke claimed that Williams' depression and addiction struggles were rooted in "post abortion trauma" stemming from a girlfriend's abortion decades ago.
"Years of using drugs and alcohol to cope with abortion loss and other emotional pain and life stress takes a toll on the emotions and nervous system of addicts. The failure to recognize the role of abortion loss can be a significant factor in one’s addictive behavior and shuts the door on reconciliation and recovery from the abortion wound."
Reducing Williams' mental health issues to anti-abortion arguments are not only simplistic, but insensitive. Writing for RH Reality Check, Amanda Marcotte argues that such thinking frames depression as a "punishment" for sin, which has devastating consequences for those who struggle with depression.
"Despite all the lip-smacking poses of concern, the fact of the matter is the anti-choice movement is wielding depression like a threat, treating depression like it’s a punishment for your “sins.” Because they can’t get the “abortion means you’re going to hell” argument past basic First Amendment concerns, they just replace the word “hell” with “depression” and presto blammo! Their religious agenda looks secular enough to pass legal scrutiny.

The problem with this, of course, is positioning depression as a punishment for one’s supposed sins just encourages people with mental illness to blame themselves for their problems, even though mental illness is usually caused by a series of complex factors that are rarely up to the person suffering. Considering that one of the major symptoms of depression is a feeling of hopelessness—which can, in some cases, lead to suicide attempts—it is beyond irresponsible to encourage people who already feel bad about themselves to feel even worse. That’s not “pro-life.” That shows such an indifference to life that it’s bordering on depraved. People suffering from depression sure as hell don’t need to be told that they have to go over their past with a fine toothed comb looking for something they did “wrong” to “deserve” this. Believe you and me, many of them are already trapped in a cycle of self-doubt and shame that usually owes more to their illness than their actual actions. People who are depressed need support and therapy, not accusations."
It gets worse. World Net Daily posted a commentary piece from Joe Schimmel at Good Fight, which claims that demons played a role in Williams' suicide. According to Schimmel, Williams "opened himself up to transformative demonic powers that aided him on stage", pointing to his scandalous stand-up comedy routines and struggles with depression and addiction as supposed evidence of demonic influence. (Hat tip to Right Wing Watch).
"Most people are blind to this diabolical pattern of celebrities giving themselves over to satanic power for fame and fortune, only to be exploited, used and abused, and then spit out after Satan is done with them ... Robin Williams, like Morrison, Winters, Ledger and so many others who resort to drugs or alcohol in their attempt to quell the demonic voices that torment them, fail to realize – until it’s too late – that such drugs only draw one deeper into Satan’s insidious web."
Finally, Pat Robertson blamed Williams' suicide on devotion to the "idols" of fame and money, implying that Williams' suicide was because of insufficient piety. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Robertson has made insensitive comments about mental illness on The 700 Club show. (Hat tip to Right Wing Watch.)
"What is your god? Is it money? ... Is it fame? ... You see these very popular people in the media who commit suicide like Robin Williams recently, and you say, 'What is the deal with him? What happened?' You find people who are at the top of the game in music and they're strung out on drugs. What happened? What was their god? You see, the gods of the heathen are idols, and everything that you seek in life can ruin you unless that something and somebody is God himself. He can fill your every need. He won't disappoint you, and you won’t want to commit suicide after you have come to him."
Robertson relies on the old, tired chestnuts that Christian piety solves all problems and that mental illness springs from insufficient piety. He ignores the fact that both the devout and non-devout can suffer from mental illness, and that faith is not a cure-all for disease.

The Religious Right's ongoing insensitivity surrounding mental health issues astounds me. Where is their respect for people who struggle with mental illness and suicidal thoughts? Where is their sensitivity for those who have lost loved ones to suicide? Why do they refuse to acknowledge that mental illness can afflict anyone, regardless of their faith, career path, or political stance?

At times, I wonder of the Religious Right's insensitivity surrounding mental illness is an attempt to assuage their fear and confusion. Mental illness and suicide can be bewildering, not only for the sufferer but for those around them. It can be difficult to acknowledge that mental illness is not orderly or predictable, that its pain can be too intense for words, and that it can strike anyone. For Religious Right figures, it might be easier to blame the sufferer, or distract themselves with irrelevant arguments about abortion or conversation therapy, than to wrestle with difficult questions about illness and suicide.

Williams' suicide is an opportunity to have constructive conversations about mental illness and addiction. It is a call to everyone to educate themselves about mental health issues, and to offer support to those who struggle. It is NOT appropriate to blame suicide victims, spout superstitious nonsense, accuse people with mental illness of insufficient piety, to take cheap shots at reproductive rights or the LGBTQ community. Robin Williams and others who have taken their own lives deserve more respect than that.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

Media Matters: Conservative Site Uses Robin Williams' Death To Sell DVDs About Celebrities Using "Demonic Powers"

TWO Care: FRC’s Peter Sprigg Callously Uses Robin Williams’ Suicide To Promote ‘Ex-Gay’ Therapy

Politicus USA: Religious Right: Robin Williams Died When Demons Exacted Their Price for His Success 

Danthropology: Pro-life group blames abortion on Robin Williams suicide

AmericaBlog: Lead GOP hate group ties Robin William’s suicide to “ex-gay” therapy

Thursday, August 28, 2014

News Tidbits

The Age: Protesters vow to block World Congress of Families attendees

The Guardian: Australia: Kevin Andrews books out parliament room for anti-gay marriage conference

Progress Now NM: Homeschooled students offered credit to campaign against marriage equality in Southern New Mexico

Edge Boston: NOM Can't Defend Oregon Marriage Ban

Raw Story: Florida pastor lashes out at atheists because he wants school prayer ‘like the Constitution says’

The Town Talk: Pineville judge hopeful backs Ten Commandments display

The Column: Conservative parents blast LGBT community at Anoka-Hennepin School Board meeting

Memphis Flyer: Complaint Filed In DeSoto County Over Conversion Therapy Sexual Abuse

Leicester Mercury: Anger after man dressed as monk delivers homophobic leaflets to homes in Leicestershire, UK

Commentary Tidbits

Gawker: How Many St. Louis-Area Cops Are Members of "Patriot" Groups?

DCist: 'Ex-Gay Awareness Month' Hopes To Bring More Than 10 People To D.C. This Time

3200 Stories: Connecting With the Cause in Uganda

Killing the Buddha: Fundies and Aspies

Think Progress: Why Conservative Christian Homeschoolers Are Fighting Standards That Don’t Apply To Them

The Guardian: The dirty little secret inside the fight for gay marriage: Moralists want to own the sex lives of straight people, too

Homeschoolers Anonymous: CHEC’s Kevin Swanson and Steve Vaughan on the “Little Whiners” and “Benedict Arnolds” of Homeschooling

Love, Joy, Feminism: Kevin Swanson, and Letting the Foxes Guard the Hen House

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Headaches for World Congress of Families Down Under

The World Congress of Families, an anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice organization with ties to prominent Religious Right groups, will be hosting its 2014 conference this Saturday in Melbourne, Australia. That is, if it can find a venue.

According to the Guardian, four venues -- St. Patrick's parish hall in Mentone, St. Cecilia's Church in Glen Iris, Aurora Receptions in East Brunswick, and an unnamed venue -- have backed out of hosting the conference. The Guardian reports that conference organizers had not made arrangements for liability insurance or security, and that at least one venue was advised by police to back out due to security and logistical concerns.

If and when WCF finds a venue, it will have to cope with protesters who oppose its stance on LGBTQ equality and reproductive rights. Gay News Network reports that several groups plan to protest at the conference. Equal Love, an Australian LGBTQ rights organization, describes the conference as a "gathering of bigots" in its outreach to protesters.

The Melbourne fiasco is only the latest logistical headache that the WCF has dealt with this year. Its plans for a conference in Russia, where homophobic legislation burdens the Russian LGBTQ community, fell through. The World Congress of Families VIII Moscow Conference, schedule for this September, was canceled this spring due to unrest between Russia and Ukraine. In a March press release, Don Feder stressed that the WCF was not expressing disapproval of "the Russian people, churches or individuals who have taken a leadership role in the fight to preserve life, marriage, and the natural family". Right Wing Watch and Mother Jones have documented WCG alliances and events surrounding the Moscow conference.

The World Conference of Family's reputation is well established. Prior conferences have provided Religious Right figures with opportunities to network with their counterparts around the world while pontificating on the "natural human family", "demographic winter", and the supposed evils of feminism, divorce, and the LGBTQ community. Human Rights Campaign has just released a hard-hitting report on the organization's troubling messages and activism. Exposed: The World Congress of Families -- An American Organization Exporting Hate discusses WCF's ties to anti-LGBTQ activists, and its support of homophobic legislation around the world and its international outreach in Australia, Nigeria, Russia, and eastern Europe.

The WCF is well-aware of critics' ire and has released an open letter "in response to unremitting and grossly misleading attacks" on its upcoming Melbourne conference. Global Religious Right figures signed their names to the letter, including American figures such as Matt Barber, Mike Huckabee, Mat Staver, and Sharon Slater.

"Sexual radicals have launched a smear campaign to discredit the Melbourne conference," the letter complains, calling disapproval from their critics "an attempt at intimidation." The letter lobbed the usual anti-gay myths at critics, insisting that children do best when raised by heterosexual couples (despite evidence that children raised by same-sex couples do just fine) and that the definitions of marriage and family have remained static across the world until recently (despite evidence to the contrary). The letter accuses "sexual radicals" of seeking to "deconstruct marriage and marginalize the family, and thus to transform society into something unrecognizable to generations past."

The WCF needs to realize that all of this international attention is but a taste of what is to come. As enlightened people around the world learn about the WCF and its right-wing agenda, they will speak out, raise awareness, protest, and deny succor to the organization and its ilk.

Unfortunately, the group has many allies among global opponents of LGBTQ equality and reproductive rights, and it will perform international outreach as long as it has an audience. Activists must continue to monitor the WCF and call out its agenda.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

Buzzfeed: Boycott Of World Congress Of Families Heads For Senate Vote

TWO Care: World Congress Of Families Facing Backlash, Cancellations Ahead Of Melbourne Conference

Human Rights Campaign: Anti-LGBT Group to Meet in Melbourne this Week

Right Wing Watch: Why Are 'Sexual Radicals' Accusing Poor Matt Barber, Rick Scarborough And Daniel Lapin of Being Anti-Gay?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Michelle Duggar Narrates Transphobic Robocall

Michelle Duggar, the mother of the Duggar family featured in TLC's 19 Kids and Counting, is in hot water because of a transphobic robocall she narrated this month. The Duggars are no stranger to controversy, having drawn criticism for their Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull ideology and their ties to scandal-ridden religious leaders. However, this latest development has put Michelle Duggar's true attitudes on public display.

Earlier this week, the City Council of Fayetteville, Arkansas passed Ordinance 119, an anti-discrimination measure banning housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, reports the Fayetteville Flyer. Given Arkansas' lack of legal protections for LGBTQ people, as well as the high rates of discrimination and harassment reported by Arkansas' LGBTQ community, the Fayetteville ordinance is a positive step forward on the local level.

Before its approval, the ordinance came under fire from local Religious Right voices, including a Baptist pastor who insisted the ordinance would lead to free speech obstacles, topless women at public pools, people using the wrong restroom, and sexual predators targeting children in dressing rooms. The Arkansas Family Council also condemned the ordinance, claiming that it would infringe on the rights of churches and render business vulnerable to unfair prosecution.

The Fayetteville Flyer reports that on August 18th, a robocall went out to area residents urging them to condemn the ordinance. Narrated by Michelle Duggar, the robocall was paid for by freefayetteville[dot]org, which directs visitors to the Arkansas Family Council website.

In her robocall message, Michelle Duggar refers to transgender women as "men" who "claim they are female" and lumps them together with sexual predators. She demonizes transgender equality as a movement that would allegedly give predatory men access to women and children. (Anita Bryant comes to mind.)
"Hello. This is Michelle Duggar. I’m calling to inform you of some shocking news that would affect the safety of northwest Arkansas women and children. The Fayetteville City Council is voting on an ordinance this Tuesday night that would allow men – yes, I said men – to use women's and girls' restrooms, locker rooms, showers, sleeping areas, and other areas that are designated for females only. I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas reserved for women and girls. I doubt that Fayetteville parents would stand for a law that would endanger their daughters or allow them to be traumatized by a man joining them in their private space. We should never place the preference of an adult over the safety and innocence of a child. Parents, who do you want undressing next to your daughter at the public swimming pool’s private changing area?

I still believe that we are a society that puts women and children first. Women, young ladies, and little girls deserve to use the restroom and any other women's facility in peace and safety. Will you speak up for protecting women and children? ... Tell the Fayetteville City Council members and Mayor Jordan to vote no on Ordinance 119."
The hypocrisy of Michelle Duggar's rhetoric is apparent when one considers the Duggar family's ties to Bill Gothard, founder of the Basic Life Principles ministry and Christian homeschooling supporter. The Duggar family supported Gothard and his ministry, as observed by Wartburg Watch and No Longer Quivering. Earlier this year, Gothard resigned from Basic Life Principles after several women accused him of sexual harassment (more here). To boot, Gothard's Advanced Training Institute counseling seminars promoted callous responses to sexual abuse survivors, as evidenced by this training document. The "umbrella of protection" doctrine he promoted gives authority figures unfair power over subordinates, potentially making them vulnerable to abuse. Critics of Gothard and women who have accused Gothard of predator behavior have urged the Duggars to end their support of Gothard's ministry.

The irony is glaring. Michelle Duggar demonizes transgender people as sexual predators while actual predators in her subculture go unquestioned. LGBTQ equality is maligned as a threat to women and children, while a belief system that actually renders women and children vulnerable is celebrated. In short, Michelle Duggar uses transphobia -- which inflicts real harm on transgender persons, including transgender women and children -- to prop up illusions of safety and protection, while real dangers to women and children go unaddressed.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

Liberaland: Michelle Duggar Fighting Against Gay Rights

Huffington Post: Open Letter to Michelle Duggar -- Ignorance is Not Bliss

Arkansas Times: It's always about the bathroom

Uganda's Anti-Gay Law Struck Down; Scott Lively Responds

Figures from the America Religious Right have promoted anti-gay messages in Uganda and other African countries for years. The relationship between the American Religious Right and affronts to LGBTQ rights in Africa have been explored in Box Turtle Bulletin's "Slouching Toward Kampala" series, documentaries such as God Loves Uganda and Missionaries of Hate, and reports from Political Research Associates. Now, one Religious Right figure is reflecting on anti-gay upheavals in Uganda. Anti-gay activist Scott Lively has responded to a struck-down homophobic law in Uganda with both relief and acrimony toward his critics.

Lively, author of The Pink Swastika and founder of Abiding Truth Ministries, has a long history of promoting homophobic messages in the U.S. and abroad. In 2009, Scott Lively presented at a conference on the alleged "gay agenda" in Kampala, Uganda. During his presentation, he condemned homosexuality as sinful and disparaged the LGBTQ rights movement as "an evil institution" that seeks to "defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity".

Shortly after the conference, Ugandan MP David Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which proposed harsh punishments for same-sex sexual acts. Lively called the anti-gay bill "a step in the right direction", according to Liberaland. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed the bill into law in February 2014, drawing disapproval from international observers. However, Uganda's Constitutional Court struck down the law earlier this month on a legislative technicality.

On March 14th, 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court against Scott Lively and four other men on behalf of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). The suit alleged that Lively's anti-gay activism in Uganda and his role in the creation of homophobic legislation constituted persecution of Uganda's gay community. Lively sought to have the suit dismissed, but a federal judge ruled that the suit could continue.

In an August 2nd blog post, Lively shared his thoughts on the fate of the Ugandan anti-gay bill, with scathing words for CCR, SMUG, and others critics. He mocked his critics as "Marxists" who supposedly painted him as a Svengali. To boot, he blasted modern critics of Uganda's policies as "disgusting modern example of the same “blood libel” used against the Jews by the Nazis."

"Now that the Ugandan government has shown itself capable of self-governance, I’m waiting for calls of apology from media outlets around the world who for years have insinuated (or outright insisted) that the Ugandans were merely my puppets in a nefarious scheme to persecute homosexuals there. That lie is also, of course, the premise of the “Crimes Against Humanity” lawsuit filed against me here in U.S. Federal Court by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and their Marxist New York attorneys of the ironically named Center for Constitutional Rights.

The SMUG lawsuit claims that my preaching against homosexuality in Uganda overpowered the weak-minded African natives and turned them into rampaging bloodthirsty savages bent on “gay” genocide. Never mind that there has not been any actual violence there — except for the murder of SMUG leader David Kato by his “gay” lover. Never mind also that Kato’s murderer was convicted by this same Ugandan judiciary and is now serving a 30 year sentence. And never mind that in the paltry few other instances listed in the SMUG lawsuit where alleged wrongs were committed against homosexuals – instances which I condemned and had nothing to do with – the same Ugandan courts have held the wrongdoers responsible – which decisions I applauded."
Lively wrote that he is "not unhappy" about the fate of Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act, mainly because it did not include provisions for "prevention" of "homosexual disorder".
"I am not unhappy that the Ugandan law as written has been nullified. I have always said it was too harsh and did not emphasize prevention and therapy for homosexual disorder. The law’s enactment and quick repeal conclusively demonstrate that Ugandans can think for themselves, are capable of self-governance, and do not need “enlightened” Marxists and homosexual militants from the West to shape their public policy and uphold the rule of law." 
Sadly, it seems that Scott Lively has learned nothing over the years. He still insists that homosexuality is a "disorder" to be prevented, despite evidence to the contrary. Criticism from human rights supporters over his anti-gay activism has failed to produce any self-reflection on his homophobia. In a twisted reversal, he claims that LGBTQ rights supporters are somehow infantilizing Ugandans, ignoring ways that homophobia he encouraged is disempowering LGBTQ Uganans. Finally, he fails to recognize anti-gay legislation as harmful in and of itself.

The future of Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act remains to be seen. Unfortunately, Scott Lively's homophobia and the legacy of his anti-gay messages won't be going anywhere.