Lambda’s Pizer: Don’t let marriage wins lead to complacency

Posted on 23 Apr 2009 at 7:10pm
By Tammye Nash Senior Editor

Leading gay-rights attorney addresses NOM ad, other right-wing attacks in wake of Iowa, Vermont

Women’s Brunch
What: Lambda Legal Women’s Brunch
Where: At a private home in Dallas
When: Saturday, April 25, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Keynote speaker will be Jennifer C. Pizer, senior counsel and Marriage Project director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. For more information, call Carla McKinzie at 214-219-8585 or e-mail cmckinzie@lambdalegal.org.



Jennifer Pizer, right, is shown last year alongside client Guadalupe Benitez, center, a lesbian who was unfairly denied a common infertility treatment by doctors based on their religious beliefs.

Momentous victories on the same-sex marriage front in recent weeks have left many in the LGBT community quite giddy with success.
But Jennifer C. Pizer, senior counsel and Marriage Project director with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, warned this week that the community should be careful not to let its guard down: Anti-gay forces are still out there, and they, too, have been energized by marriage rights decisions in Iowa, Vermont and around the country.

Pizer, who will be keynote speaker at the Lambda Legal Women’s Brunch on Saturday, April 25 in Dallas, said part of her speech will be devoted to "the challenges we still face because of the way some conservative religious and political groups continue to use LGBT people as a political organizing tool."

"I will probably talk a little about the kinds of attacks on LGBT people that are happening, and how we are trying to defend against and defuse those attacks in different parts of the country," Pizer said. "There are patterns in the kinds of attacks being pressed, and that’s an area I have done a lot of work in."

Some of these groups are "creating talking points for themselves" by claiming that advances in marriage equality and LGBT rights overall are threatening their rights.

A prime example, Pizer said, was the recent video created and distributed by a group called National Organization For Marriage.

The video, title "A Gathering Storm," featured paid actors talking about how the legalization of same-sex marriage threatens their religious freedoms, their right to rear their children as they see fit and the institution of "traditional marriage."

The LGBT community must respond by pointing out the fallacy of those claims, Pizer said.

"It’s nonsense," she said. "The idea that gay marriage creates some kind of risk to them and their freedoms — it’s just pure nonsense.

"Anti-discrimination rules have existed for years in many places that require that LGBT people be treated equally in public accommodations and in their jobs. That’s a basic idea of equality that has been part of the American culture for some time — that people should be treated equally in a store or a restaurant or a doctor’s office or hospital; that people should be treated fairly on the job and paid equally with equal benefits," Pizer said. "That has not been changed much at all by marriage laws changing. When the marriage laws were changed, it allowed same-sex couples who wanted to be married the opportunity to get married and be very happy. But it didn’t change the non-discrimination laws, and the religious conservatives saying their right to freedom of religion was threatened by it was just fiction."

One of the vignettes in the NOM video featured a "California doctor" who claimed recognition of same-sex marriage forced her to compromise her religious beliefs in her career. It referred to one of Lambda Legal’s cases in which a California doctor refused to provide fertility treatments for a lesbian.

"The law requires fair access to health care for all people. That case doesn’t depend on [the plaintiff] having access to marriage. If a doctors doesn’t want to provide equal treatment, that’s a violation of the nondiscrimination laws and of medical ethics," Pizer said.

Another vignette in the NOM video referred to case in New Jersey in which courts rules that a church there could not refuse to allow same-sex couples to use a beach gazebo it owned for marriage ceremonies. The suggestion that legal recognition of same-sex marriage was threatening that church’s religious liberty was, Pizer said, "grossly misleading."

"The fact is, this church was receiving money for renting that property out to people for weddings, and they wanted to not have to pay taxes on that income.

New Jersey law says that if you want to not have to pay taxes in that situation, then you have to promise to have the facility open to all people and not discriminate against anyone," she said. "That church wanted to get special treatment under the tax law, but they also wanted to not follow the law they had agreed to follow.

"What the religious conservatives don’t acknowledge is that if that church in New Jersey had been turning away an interfaith couple, people would have been appalled," she continued. "They don’t acknowledge that this wasn’t private property. They don’t acknowledge that this church made a promise to treat people fairly and then tried to back out of that."

The right-wing’s "talking points" are based on inaccuracies and outright lies, and it is up to the LGBT community to call them on those inaccuracies and lies, Pizer said.

"What it all boils down to is reactionary fundamentalist religious groups are weaving fantastic tales of their victimhood. But it’s all fiction," she said. "We as a community of people who really are victimized, we have a responsibility to speak out and help the rest of society understand who’s really being hurt and who isn’t."

But, Pizer warned, the LGBT community must also remember to approach the battle with "respect for religious diversity and the positive role religion plays in many people’s lives."

Again using the NOM ad as an example, Pizer said that while those who paid for and produced the deceptive "Gathering Storm" video surely understand the inaccuracies at its heart, those people targeted by the ad often don’t. Ands those people often won’t ever see the multitudes of parodies of the video produced in response by LGBT people and their allies.

And even if they did see the parodies, she said, they wouldn’t be persuaded by them.

"I think the bulk of the people who might be receptive to that ad are not watching the parodies on YouTube," Pizer said. "Those scathingly funny critiques are encouragements to us that the ranks of those that support us are growing daily, and that the more thoughtful, attentive and engaged people believe we should be treated fairly.

"But while those parodies can nourish our resolve, we also have to be able to reach out to those people in the middle who feel conflicted," she said. "They are the people who think equality is important and they don’t want to see gay people harmed. But at the same time, they have conservative religious views, and they are being told by their religious leaders to deny us our equality, and they feel they have a duty to their faith community to obey that. These ads legitimize their feelings by telling them they and their religion are being threatened."

While such manipulation may seem obvious and egregious to the LGBT community and its allies, that kind of "encouragement to bigotry" is an "age-old political manipulation" that has been used for years with great success, Pizer said. The passage of the anti-gay-marriage amendment Proposition 8 last November is a perfect example, she added.

"Consider this NOM ad. Yes, the special effects are cheesy and the acting is bad.

And yes, we can laugh at it, dismiss it and mock it," Pizer said. "But we have to remember, when we are talking to those people who don’t yet understand the issues, it is very important that we be respectful in explaining that the stories are dishonest and that the real facts are different.

"Nobody likes to be talked down to, to be mocked," she said. "The people who paid for that ad and produced, they deserve our mockery. But the people targeted by it, they deserve our friendly engagement."

E-mail nash@dallasvoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 24, 2009.

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