Anti-Gay Politics on the Web

Janice M Irvine. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume XIII, Issue 1. Jan/Feb 2006.

The internet is transforming American politics, and it’s happening at a remarkably rapid rate. Its emergence as a political force dates back scarcely more than a decade, after all, to the 1992 presidential election, when both Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown were the first to use e-mail to communicate with reporters and the general public. The mid- to late-1990’s saw an intensification of Internet politics in several respects. Candidates established websites in the 1994 midterm election, and a range of news and political organizations launched websites dedicated to both coverage and activism. By the late-90’s the Internet had become not only a vehicle for information; its role in politics had become newsworthy in itself, as when on-line correspondent Matt Drudge first posted a report on Bill Clinton’s rumored affair with a Washington intern, or when independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr later posted his sexually explicit report on-line.

In the early years of the new century, Internet use has burgeoned, and scores of news, political, and religious organizations have gone on-line. The Internet has been transformative across the political spectrum, but its impact has been greatest at the two extremes.

On the left, the emergence of MoveOn.org in 1999 was of monumental importance. Originally founded by software entrepreneurs Wes Boyd and Joan Blades to urge Congress to “move on” from the Clinton impeachment proceedings, the website garnered 100,000 signatures on a petition during its first week on-line. It would later throw its on-line weight into opposing the war in Iraq and the California recall campaign of Governor Gray Davis. MoveOn.org established an extraordinary political presence during the 2004 presidential election campaign, raising millions of dollars and launching successive waves of advertising in support of John Kerry and to counter the Bush camp’s attack ads. MoveOn.org, currently an impressive force with some 3.3 million members, has been credited with galvanizing young, computer-savvy progressives and revolutionizing political activism.

At the other end of the spectrum, conservative Christians have established a vast number of websites, some of the most important of which are discussed here. Religion scholar Brenda Brasher (2001) found over one million websites of religious organizations in operation at the turn of the 21st century, and noted that “cyber-religion” could become the dominant form of religious experience in this century. If on-line religion, as she suggests, has the capacity to transform the future of religion, it will also transform the future of politics, since the escalation of conservative religious political activity has been one of the hallmarks of the late-20th-century political landscape.

To understand the Christian Right’s use of the Internet, a little history may be in order. Conservative Christians have a long history of using new communication technologies both for spreading the gospel and for political mobilization. They established radio ministries in the 1920’s and 1930’s when broadcast radio was in its infancy, finding it an ideal vehicle for outreach to nonbelievers. And they were quick to realize the potential of the new technology of television in the 1950’s, broadcasting Sunday programs by evangelical ministers such as Oral Roberts and Billy Graham. TV ministries flourished through the 60’s, and by the 80’s televangelism was ubiquitous. “Televangelism has been the single most important ingredient in the rise of the Christian Right,” observed sociologist Sara Diamond (1989), noting that by 1987 there were more than 1,000 full-time Christian radio stations and more than 200 full-time TV stations, together comprising a $2 billion a year media industry. Although the scandals of the late 80’s (for example, Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart) slowed its growth, the number of Christian radio and TV stations has continued to rise. One minister alone, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, airs on more than 3,000 radio stations across North America, and he appears on eighty TV stations each day.

New Technology, Same Old Rhetoric

Opposition to gay rights has long been a cornerstone of the Christian Right’s political agenda. In one study from the early 1990’s, conservative evangelical activists ranked gay rights organizations as first on the list of their opponents, placing them above Planned Parenthood. Opposition to gay rights is a priority for more than 35 major groups. Gay rights is a flashpoint for them because it serves as a metaphor for a kaleidoscope of conservative and right-wing concerns. Preservation of the heterosexual nuclear family, a restrictive sexual morality, and traditional gender relations are at the core of contemporary Christian Right beliefs, and the struggle for gay rights is braided through all three. By the end of the 20th century, conservative efforts at restricting sexuality had targeted areas such as gay rights, sex education, public funding of the arts, discussion of abortion in federally-funded health clinics, sexual content on television, and AIDS education. In 2004, the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts raised the stakes and the intensity of these battles.

Right-wing movements in the U.S. have a long tradition of crusading against groups or ideas that they consider alien or dangerous. Many scholars have pointed to the right-wing style of paranoia and conspiricism, coupled with a tendency to demonize all enemies. In earlier times, this has taken the form of nativist movements during waves of 19th-century immigration, the racism of the Ku Klux Klan, and the virulent anti-Communism of the McCarthy era. By the 1970’s, as traditional anti-alien rhetoric began to fall out of favor, the Right turned to different adversaries and ideologies. While the tactics of scapegoating and demonization remained the same, by the early 1980’s feminists and homosexuals had largely replaced Communists and ethnic minorities as the favorite targets of the “New” Right.

Christian Right leader Jerry Falwell once defined a fundamentalist as “an evangelical who was mad about something.” Fundamentalists uphold an especially absolutist concept of right and wrong, concepts that are literally written into the Scriptures, such that God’s Truth can be stoked to a fiery anger directed at those deemed unrighteous. When Christian fundamentalists politicized their morality and coalesced as part of the pro-family, anti-gay movement, they brought along these strong commitments and rhetorical tendencies. For one thing, given their fixed world view about God’s will, it was unlikely they would compromise in the political arena. Some fundamentalists have even asserted that the Scriptures allow them, since they’re on the side of righteousness, to mislead people intentionally by employing what they call “mental reservation,” a process by which they make a statement while “holding back some of our true feelings, some concealment of our true design” (Marshner & Rueda, 1984). Finally, they believe politics calls for strong or even provocative language. In an article entitled “Why I Use ‘Fighting Words,” evangelical leader James Dobson (1995) defended his metaphors of violence and war as befitting an age-old struggle between righteousness and darkness, between God and Satan.

“Words are bullets” in the culture wars, according to Dobson, founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family. The use of language as a weapon gives rise to strategies that include the repetitive use of evocative sexual language (for example, calling all gay materials “pornography”), reference to lesbians and gay men as repositories of sin (referring to gay men as pedophiles), or the recitation of various narratives of depravity (use your imagination). One recent trend is the secularization of their claims such that a position is stated in apparently “scientific” terms that might even come to sound like common, taken-for-granted knowledge, notably the recent shift from creationism to “intelligent design.”

The power of the Christian Right’s affective vocabulary depends on specific webs of meanings and conventions in the broader sexual culture. Sex has always been a largely negative domain of danger and immorality in the West, divided into practices that are either acceptable or utterly disreputable, the latter serving as a powerful mechanism for social and political control. The Right didn’t create this tradition, but it benefits from it and keeps it alive. Conservative activists can safely anticipate that their rhetoric will resonate with, and be amplified by, a broader climate in which sexuality is bound up with anxiety and shame.

The Study

In a recent research project, I examined the use of the Internet by Christian Right groups as a new tool for expressing their opposition to GLBT rights along with their other platforms to their members (as well as casual visitors) and to the media. I also analyzed the content of their anti-gay representations with a special focus on their use of mainstream scientific and medical data in their anti-gay rhetoric.

Over a period of six months, I monitored the websites of the following six national organizations: Concerned Women for America (www.cwfa.org); Focus on the Family (www.family.org); the Family Research Council (www.frc.org); Traditional Values Coalition (www.traditionalvalues.org); the American Family Association (www.afa.net); and Americans for Truth about Homosexuality (www.americansfortruth.com). The web-sites of these organizations share many features, and they all share three main goals: information dissemination; encouragement of activism; and promotion of community.

The websites accomplish this task in several ways. The home page generally consists of a mix of news updates, special reports, and links to the organization’s publications. Some of these updates and reports are general interest items, such as a story about Annie Meadows on the American Family Association (AFA) website, “Contemporary Christian Singer Reveals Her Dark Past in Witchcraft.” However, most items are based on current events, and the sites were regularly updated in order to effect a timely response to rapidly changing issues.

Gay marriage was, of course, the most riveting gay-related news story during the time period of this study. All of the organizations featured information opposing gay marriage. Focus on the Family had a story, “Is Marriage in Jeopardy?” that included activism links such as one to the Protect Marriage Action Center. Concerned Women for America (CWA) featured “Talking Points on Marriage” in order to assist activist opposition to gay marriage. In February 2004, when San Francisco was marrying same-sex couples and Massachusetts was engaged in a statewide debate over the legalization of same-sex marriage, most sites gave the topic prime space on their home pages. A significant exception was Focus on the Family, which had only one link marked Homosexuality, which took the visitor to a page geared toward parents, with stories about “The Gay Gene” and “How Parents Can Prevent Homosexuality.” The Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), a longtime opponent of gay rights, has an ongoing feature called the Homosexual Urban Legend Series, a highly detailed website designed “to provide reporters, editors, and other opinion leaders with accurate information on the relationship between homosexuality and the molestation of children. It will also expose and debunk dozens of factually inaccurate urban legends created by homosexual activist groups to promote their political and social agenda.” Updated frequently, this website has links to anti-gay reports on topics such as hate crimes, gay adolescent suicide, and child abuse.

In addition to their informational content, these websites sought to promote anti-gay activism. The home pages encouraged on-site activism by several means: petitions and advertisements; opportunities to e-mail a legislator directly, the president, or other government official from the site; on-line surveys; ways to e-mail the page to a friend; information about upcoming protests; and links to make a financial contribution to the organization.

Some websites gave visitors the opportunity to sign a petition or manifesto while on-line. For example, CWA offered at different times the opportunity to “Sign the Sanctity of Life Manifesto!” endorsing an ad against a Democratic filibuster of Bush’s judicial nominees, and to sign a petition prohibiting women in combat. Direct e-mail is a technique that’s used effectively by Concerned Women for America, such as a link that allowed a visitor to send a pre-written e-mail to the head of the South Florida United Way protesting the denial of funding to the Boy Scouts. The use of on-line surveys was pioneered by the TVC, whose home page typically sports a question such as “Do you support the passage of the Federal Marriage Amendment?” or “Homosexual Marriage in America: I Say” [yes or no]. Another technique is getting visitors to recruit friends to the organization: the Traditional Values Coalition featured a form for the names of five friends who would receive “a short informational e-mail with an invitation to join.”

Some of the websites deployed features that gestured toward creating a broader sense of political community among visitors. For example, the TVC and the AFA both had features that told visitors how many people were on-line at that moment. Other sites provided information on local (real-world) events. For example, CWA invited visitors to events where they could meet the group’s president, Sandy Rios.

Science, Ideology, and Stigma On-Line

One of the major features of these websites is the attempt to bring a seemingly objective—but actually quite biased and often inaccurate—body of anti-gay news and information to their readership. News stories were updated frequently, and there was little overlap among the six websites. Much of the material took the form of short news reports and updates, but all were presented with a decidedly anti-gay spin.

For example, the American Family Association linked to the following story: “Judge to Christian Mom: No ‘Homophobic’ Teaching. A Colorado mother is appealing a child custody decision in which a court barred her from teaching homosexuality is wrong.” The story, which came from WorldNetDaily.com, a conservative news website that features a column by Jerry Fal-well, told of a Colorado woman who was appealing a child custody decision in which a judge ordered her not teach the child to be homophobic. The mother had been in a lesbian relationship that ended after she became a Christian and then disavowed homosexuality and her former partner. The partner was awarded joint custody. The article noted that the decision was “troubling” and liberally quoted Mathew Staver, of the Florida-based, conservative Christian legal organization, Liberty Counsel, who asked, “Must the mother rip out pages of the bible that say homosexuality is against nature, or must she cover her child’s ears if her pastor preaches about sexual purity?”

Another purpose served by these websites is to link readers to their own special reports, which feature in-depth anti-gay material. Two such reports caught my eye under TVC’s “Urban Legend” series: “Exposed: The Myth That ‘10% are Homosexual” Updated,” (TVC, undated) and “Exposed: 30% Of Teen Suicide Victims Are Homosexual…NOT!” (TVC, undated).

Let me analyze the first of these reports in depth. Characteristically, it combines real scientific findings with demonizing rhetorical strategies. The ten percent figure goes back to Alfred Kinsey’s research, and Christian groups have been relentless in trying to shoot this figure down. The TVC report describes a series of mainstream studies that challenge the ten percent figure. The most important of these is the National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS) that was conducted from the University of Chicago in the early 1990’s. This study found that 2.8 percent of the male and 1.4 percent of the female population identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. A number of other studies are cited, but nowhere does the TVC point out that Kinsey was measuring same-sex behavior while the NHSLS was capturing people’s identification as “lesbian” or “gay.”

This report aspires to scientific legitimacy through its use of statistics and citations. Interestingly, however, TVC seems to have found these studies not from a search of original databases but from the writing of gay scholars themselves, and from popular periodicals. It found its first reference in the footnotes that referred to the NHSLS study in an amicus brief filed in the Supreme Court case which overturned the Texas sodomy law, Lawrence v. Texas (June 26, 2003). The TVC report claims to have found the other studies in two popular sources: USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. This suggests that the TVC report writers are not doing substantive and systematic research but are instead relying on popular media, as well as secondary sources written by lesbian and gay scholars themselves. The TVC report uses gay scholarship to discredit the gay movement as dishonest. It begins by saying that “homosexual activist groups have finally admitted that their claim” is false. It continues: “Even as homosexuals admit they’re wrong about the 10% figure, they apparently still can’t resist lying about their true numbers in our population.” It argues that homosexuals used the “bogus” figure in order to “recruit children into the homosexual lifestyle and to lobby for…special legal protections for homosexuals.”

Finally, the report draws on a discredited allegation that Kinsey used pedophiles to molest children. This claim was first made by conservative religious activist Judith Reisman, who has been associated with right-wing evangelical organizations such as the American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, and the Family Research Council (FRC), and who has waged the most vehement campaign to discredit Kinsey. Her two books, Kinsey, Sex, and Fraud (1990) and Kinsey: Crimes and Consequences (1998), lodge a series of personal attacks against Kinsey and his associates, alleging that they were closet homosexuals and pedophiles whose research was corrupted by their sexual perversions. Perhaps the most provocative allegation is Reisman’s charge that Kinsey and his associates advocated incest and child molestation. This claim is elaborated in the FRC’s documentary, The Children of Table 34 (1994), which charges that Kinsey’s research was based on cruel and illegal sexual experimentation on hundreds of children. Although the Kinsey Institute issued a public refutation of these charges, they are continually repeated by Christian Right activists.

The two TVC reports demonstrate two important developments in national anti-gay strategies. First, they reveal a move away from the most stigmatizing rhetorical strategies and toward a more “scientific” form of argumentation. Because of the flawed use of mainstream data, and the often shoddy nature of their own research, their initiatives are really quasi-science or faux science. But they project the appearance of sound, heavily documented research reports. Second, these reports indicate that Christian Right activists are conducting their own “opposition research” and keeping up to date on the scholarship in the field of sexuality studies. This trend, coupled with the Christian Right’s nascent fear of being considered bigoted, will probably mean that future contests will increasingly take the form of dueling research studies.

The internet is proving to be a formidable new communication method and organizing tool for national anti-gay organizations. All six of the organizations I studied used the Internet for anti-gay purposes. To be sure, they differed in the degree to which they used their websites for this purpose, with the Traditional Values Coalition and Concerned Women for America at the high end of the spectrum and Focus on the Family at the low end. There was little overlap or interconnection among the six websites. Although allied in their opposition to gay rights, it appears that they’re not using the Internet to forge an alliance in cyberspace. All but one increased their anti-gay coverage dramatically during the same-sex marriage debate in Massachusetts in 2004. Moreover, these national organizations, as well as others that were not the main focus of this study, employ mass e-mail as a political mobilizing strategy. These mass e-mails are directed both at politicians and at the grassroots level to prompt political action and fundraising.

The ultimate impact and effectiveness of Internet-based, anti-gay political organizing remains to be seen. In part, the impact of on-line material will depend upon the audience. True believers will find what they’re looking for and interpret it accordingly. Uninformed readers will be less able to critique the seemingly scientific reports than those readers with more analytical acumen. It is certain, however, that the Internet, by increasing the availability of anti-gay material, inevitably extends the reach of anti-gay politics.