Last week, I spent two days in Lynchburg, to observe a major Religious Right conference, “The Awakening”, which featured many of their biggest stars.
The symposium revealed the decline of anti-gay focus and showed that it was no longer the far right’s number one priority. The obsession with all things gay was nudged aside by an intense hatred of Barack Obama, which was closely followed by a passionate dislike of immigrants, who many in the crowd wanted to see promptly returned to their homeland.
While the sheer number of anti-gay attacks had decreased from past conferences, the remaining rhetoric was vicious and vile, as desperate homophobes realize they are losing the battle of public opinion.
The sullen mood over ceding ground was best summarized by Lou Engle of “The Call”. During a breakout session on the “LGBT Agenda,” he acknowledged that when he preaches against LGBT issues, Christian youth often “rage against” him. Engle said that the far right has lost on this issue barring a miracle. One idea floated by Engle to turn the tide was creating an intercession by holding a 500,000 strong youth rally.
If Engle is wondering how his movement lost the current generation of youth, it is because the hatred and hyperbole spewed by anti-gay activists is incongruous with reality. Many teenagers, including evangelicals, have friends who come out of the closet at early ages. They listen to the slurs and the slander at such conferences and know, based on real life experience, that they are hearing lies. Such cognitive dissonance is costing evangelical leaders enormous credibility.
I was not “undercover” at the event, having signed up under my own name in case they checked ID. But I was trying to keep a low profile so I wouldn’t get thrown out of the conference. To look inconspicuous, I grew some facial stubble, wore a lumberjack shirt and left out the hair gel. The plan worked until The Traditional Values Coalition’s Andrea Lafferty spotted me at the LGBT Agenda breakout session, which made me as comfortable as a fly crash-landing on a porcupine.
She asked me if I had any questions. I looked around the room and saw no movable middle in this bunch, so I declined. I preferred to plead the 5th to ensure I could attend the big revival that was planned that evening.
During the seminar, Lafferty said if we pass The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill in Congress to protect LGBT Americans from job discrimination, we are on a slippery slope to protect those who have sex with amputees, children and animals.
Lafferty seemed to have an unusually acerbic, if not allergic, reaction to transgender people saying, “they are actually she-males…. we need to talk about how truly troubled they are…. Do we want them in the classroom?”
The Liberty Counsel’s Matt Barber chimed in, saying that transgender Americans are the “ultimate act of rebellion against God.” He justified persecuting LGBT people claiming, “The ultimate act of hatred is to help someone foster a self-delusion.”
Just to let everyone know his heart and soften his vitriolic presentation, Barber kindly added, “We are not homophobic.”
After the seminar, I photographed Barber and Lafferty. As I left the room, Lafferty pulled me aside to introduce herself. With a friendly smile she shook my hand and told me that the demeaning lies against LGBT people “weren’t personal attacks.”
Likewise, Barber approached me, shook my hand and told me that he was very glad to have me at the seminar. In a statement on an anti-gay activist’s website, Barber claims that I was, “clearly confused and taken-aback by the kindness.”
He also wrote, “Meeting Wayne in person, it was clear to me that he is searching. It is my hope and prayer that he and all who struggle with same-sex attraction, live a life of heterosexual or homosexual promiscuity or adultery, or anyone else for that matter, can come to know the life-changing, life-saving, life-making grace and redemption that can only come through surrender, belief and acceptance of Christ Jesus.”
It was true that I was searching for something – the nearest exit. I had reached my limit on anti-gay activists and their cult-like mentality for the day. However, Barber was wrong to say that I was “taken aback” by he and Lafferty’s friendly demeanor. I have met several anti-gay activists over the years and many of them are nice people. If it weren’t for politics, we might even be friends.
However, it is always disheartening that activists, who give presentations that reduce LGBT people to human garbage, somehow don’t think they are leveling personal attacks. Their ability to disassociate their words and actions from the harm they cause real people is astonishing.
While I appreciate being welcomed at hate-spewing anti-gay conferences, genuine kindness would be not having such conferences at all.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”