Wednesday, April 27, 2005


I like living in the US, but there’s a few things which make me feel a bit squirmy: one of them is this country’s attitude towards gay rights.

Now, I wouldn’t say that the UK isn’t homophobic in parts. But I would say that people in the UK mostly see homophobia as wrong; if not in their own eyes, at least in the eyes of the society they live in. It’s different here: a large number of people in the US see homophobia as right — their God-given right.

Larry Kramer’s speech, delivered the week after last year’s Presidential election, puts this in terms both angrier and sadder than I can muster:

Almost 60 million people whom we live and work with every day think we are immoral. “Moral values” was top of many lists of why people supported George Bush. Not Iraq. Not the economy. Not terrorism. “Moral values.” In case you need a translation that means us. It is hard to stand up to so much hate. Which of course is just the way they want it. Please know that a huge portion of the population of the United States hates us. I don’t mean dislike. I mean hate. You may not choose to call it hate, but I do. Not only because they refuse us certain marital rights but because they have also elected a congress that is overflowing with men and women who refuse us just about every other right to exist as well. “Moral values” is really a misnomer; it means just the reverse. It means they think we are immoral. And that we’re dangerous and contaminated. How do you like being called immoral by some 60 million people? This is not just anti-gay. This is what Doug Ireland calls “homo hate” on the grandest scale. How do we stand up to 60 million people who have found a voice and a President who declares he has a mandate?
In December, most of the media’s “hot issues for the year ahead” lists contained the same predictable items. Terrorism. Iraq. The economy. Social Security. None mentioned gay rights. And yet as Kramer points out this is a terrible time to be gay in America: there’s a wave of repression going on, which were it based on race or religion would be a public scandal. But base it on sexual identity and oh, that’s OK, read yer Bible.

From Max Gordon’s piece, Jesusland:

I marvel at the vogue of hate today in this country; who you can freely hate these days and who you can’t. You can hate women, and gays, and fat people. You can hate poor people, and the homeless. You can’t, however, hate black people or Jews anymore, at least not on television or in print. (You can still hate blacks privately, but Jews are harder; some have blonde hair and it isn’t easy to tell if they are in the room.)

Black and white Christians have been revitalized by the same-sex ban, agreeing to suspend their hatred for each other in favor of a combined, galvanized hatred for gays.
Gordon goes on to speculate as to why homosexuality is seen so threatening to “moral values”:

Is homosexuality contagious or reaching epidemic proportions? How else can the sexuality of one section of the American population singly decide the outcome of an entire presidential election? Only one conclusion can be drawn: Gay people in the heartland are doing some serious fucking. […]

Is homosexuality so irresistible that straight men and women are leaving their homes, mesmerized and in droves, to join the gay ranks?
Theresa Nielsen Hayden riffs on the same theme, skewering Gerald Allen’s proposed bill banning books and other materials that “promote homosexuality” (shades of Section 28, no?):

If a lifetime of constant exposure to positive depictions of heterosexuality doesn’t turn children straight, how is it that an occasional depiction of homosexuality is going to turn them gay?

You know what he’s really saying, don’t you? He’s saying that gay sex has straight sex beat all hollow, that’s what. It’s stronger, sharper, more pervasive and overwhelming. Sexier. Instantly attractive. Transcendently hot. All it takes is one hint that homosexuality is survivable, that it’s something engaged in by humans rather than demons, and right away kids are going to be abandoning the straight and missionary for a life as a queer.
“Homophobe as closet homo” is a cliché, but so is “homosexuality is catching”. Not that that stops the sly application of terms both judgemental and medical: homosexuality as a “corruption” or “malignancy”.

What they’re really scared of is twofold: gays are closeted and tolerance is contagious. Let up the pressure for just a minute, give a hint that homosexuality is acceptable, and horror: an epidemic of gays coming out. And that’d never do: gay Hollywood stars? Gay corporate board members? Gay Supreme Court judges, gay senators — gays in the White House! — my goodness, how would society survive?

It seems to me it’d be a whole lot better.

But why is this all sloshing and squirming around in my brain at the moment? This story about Microsoft’s stance — or not — on discrimination. In summary: Microsoft withdraws support from a Washington anti-discrimination bill, after supporting similar legislation in previous years, and apparently after pressure from the religious right. The bill received support from other Washington companies, including Boeing, Nike, Coors, and Hewlett-Packard, but was defeated by one vote.

But here’s the interesting part: Robert Scoble, Microsoft’s most prominent blogger and evangelist, brought this further outside Microsoft’s walls by seeking, and getting, permission to post the memo on the story which Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, emailed to employees. He also stands up publicly and says “this was wrong”:

One of the reasons I came to Microsoft is because of its very strong stance on human rights.

The fact that Microsoft is even in this position makes me want to leave and join a different company that won’t be pushed around by religious folks. Is that the message you want to send?

Steve: this comes down to leadership. What kind of society do we want to live in? One where religious folks decide the society we live in?
Bravo, Robert. Ballmer’s memo makes me feel uncomfortable, too:

We are thinking hard about what is the right balance to strike — when should a public company take a position on a broader social issue, and when should it not? What message does the company taking a position send to its employees who have strongly-held beliefs on the opposite side of the issue?
Well, in this case it sends the message “Microsoft believes discrimination on sexual identity is wrong.” Not a message that Microsoft employees should be surprised by, given that Ballmer repeatedly affirms Microsoft’s commitment to non-discrimination in its internal policies:

We were one of the first companies to provide domestic partner benefits, or to include sexual orientation in our anti-discrimination policies. And just this year, we became one of the few companies to include gender identity or expression in our protection policies.


[T]he company remains strongly committed to its internal policies supporting anti-discrimination and industry-leading benefits for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees.
And in any case, why is Microsoft worried about offending bigots? Adam Barr, a Microsoft employee, nails Ballmer on the same point:

Steve, first of all, can we cut this “murderers are victims too” line of thinking? Do you agonize about hurting the feelings of employees who enjoy looking at porn on their computers? What about those who like to post internal schedules on public forums? Do you stay up at night worrying about their feelings? I doubt it.

Second, what you said is wrong. If an employee has deeply-held beliefs that women are inferior, or a certain ethnic group has negative character traits, the company certainly has no qualms (nor should it) about dismissing those beliefs, no matter how deeply held. I just did my 30-minute anti-harassment self-training that all employees are required to go through, and obviously if someone decides to run around the hallways shouting anti-gay slogans, they will be disciplined in a way that they would not if they ran around the hallways shouting anti-seafood or anti-deodorant slogans. The company supports free speech up to a point, but beyond that, when personal belief becomes harassment, the decision has already been made which one wins.
More to the point, though, Ballmer should consider this: what message does not taking a stance on a bill apparently so strongly in accord with Microsoft’s internal policies send to its employees — particularly its LGBT employees? “We believe in non-discrimination as a benefit, but not as a legal right”? Or maybe, “we believe in non-discrimination, but only to the point at which pressure is applied to us”?

Shelley Power’s summation is as usual, pithy:

A basic premise in our country is if we err, we err on the side of granting more rather than less liberty. Microsoft could have sent a message to the community and its employees who supported the bill that it recognizes there are citizens in this country who do not have full rights, and this bill would help grant some of the most basic: a right to a home and a job. Microsoft would then have sent a message to those who did not support this bill that though it understands their disagreement, supporting the bill does not lessen their existing rights, as there is no guaranteed right to bias and prejudice in the United States.
I don’t know how this one’ll play out — it could well be a storm in the blogging teacup. But it’s disturbing that Microsoft are paying lip service, not legal service, to gay rights. And it’s fascinating to watch its dirty laundry being done in public.