Saturday, August 14, 2010

Your weekly dose by Michael Cook

As I read Daniel Potoki's recent column in the Daily News celebrating the success he and his friends believe they achieved by gathering in support of the Fire House Center's production of "The Laramie Project" in opposition to what people feared would be an appearance by members of the cult led by Fred Phelps, known as the Westboro Baptist Church, all I could think was, "Mr. Potoki must be very young."

As much as I abhor all that Phelps and his cult stand for, well meaning people like Mr. Potoki played right into Fred Phelps' hands.

The Westboro Baptist Church is a fringe group, even within the most anti-gay elements of the fundamentalist Right.

The fact Phelps and his cultists have picketed the funerals of brave young Americans who have died in our misguided wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because Phelps believes America has become too accepting of gay people, sent even the most anti-gay bigots within the Religious Right into retreat.

They understood the wacky tactics of Fred Phelps and his followers undermined their equally bigoted, anti-gay agenda.

This is all rather ironic for me.

I'm a fifty three year old gay man who came out of the closet long before doing so was either safe or fashionable.

In the 1990's, as the director of AIDS services at a large, regional non-profit organization, I frequently found myself engaged in bizarre political battles that were as much about "morality" as they were sound public health policy.

Those battles, on two different occasions, resulted in me receiving death threats, one of which was deemed so credible my former boss actually asked me to leave Gloucester and my home for a few days until the authorities could determine the true nature of the threat.

One threat, because it came through the mail postmarked Connecticut, required the Gloucester police to actually contact the FBI.

Those years and those battles taught me a lot.

The first lesson was, "You never back down from a bunch of bullies and bigots. If you do, they will ride rough shod over you for ever."

But another lesson learned, and one perhaps even more important than the one above, was to always pick your battles carefully.

Three summers ago I was living in Provincetown when Fred Phelps and his cult members decided to descend upon America's "gay hometown" in all their bigoted splendor.

When the news of their coming broke, community leaders, activists, and ordinary citizens came together to discuss how best to respond.

Amid the voicing of many opinions, in ways that were often heated and passionate, a consensus emerged that the best way to handle Fred Phelps and his cult followers was to just ignore them.

Word went out throughout the community to do just that.

The cultists arrived, took their appointed place on the green across from Town Hall on Bradford Street, were subsequently ignored and, within a day, they were gone.

Fred Phelps and his followers thrive on attention, publicity, and confrontation. They depend on it to maintain the illusion that they are some kind of legitimate force with which to be reckoned.

Ironically, with no doubt the best of intentions, the Daily News, the Current, the young people who gathered in a show of support and solidarity with gay men and lesbians at the Firehouse, and Mr. Potoki with his column, gave Fred Phelps much more attention and "air time" than he could ever have received if those same people had simply followed Provincetown's example and treated Phelps and his followers as they should always be treated - as people to be ignored and pitied rather than people to be confronted, feared, or rewarded with free publicity they do not deserve.

Now, I sincerely appreciate the show of support for gay people the demonstrators displayed, and I was moved that so many young people would take the time to stand in opposition to the kind of bigotry and hatred espoused by the likes of Fred Phelps and his followers.

But I would urge all those good people, especially those young people, if you truly do care about the rights and equality of gay men and women, to be sure you are registered to vote and that you do vote in November.

Here's why.

The Republican/Tea Party candidate running against John Tierney in the 6th Congressional District race, Bill Hudak, has publicly stated, and had posted on his website, that issues pertaining to people's civil rights should be put to popular votes.

He, of course, was referring to the issue of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, but such a stand also reveals a lot about how Mr. Hudak feels about civil rights in general, and it is a troubling stand indeed.

In addition, the GOP candidate for governor, Charlie Baker, has come out publicly in opposition to legislation at the State House that would make it illegal to discriminate against transgendered people, much as it is now illegal to discriminate based on a person's race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, or because of a disability.

Ironically, when Charlie Baker was CEO of one of the state's largest health insurance providers, he supported and implemented just such an anti-discrimination policy in that organization. But today as a candidate, no doubt trying to woo what I call the "New Right/Tea Party" crowd that has emerged within the GOP, Charlie Baker has endorsed allowing public discrimination against transgendered people to continue with his opposition to a bill that seeks to do for all transgendered people in Massachusetts what Charlie Baker once did for his transgendered employees.

Go figure.

Anyway, this essay was not meant to, in any way, disparage the efforts of those people who gathered to offset the bigotry promoted by the likes of Fred Phelps and others on the American Right.

But it was meant to urge those same people to pick their fights carefully, and one way to do that, and not just in relation to gay rights, is to pay close attention to the stands and positions being put forth by those who are seeking real political power in our state and in this country today.

Educating yourselves about those matters, when all is said and done, is far more important than standing up to a fringe figure like Fred Phelps and his cultists who, in the bigger scheme of things, really are more to be pitied and ignored than they are feared or confronted.

Michael Cook
PV de Limon, Costa Rica
formerly of Nbpt

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