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Swan Song of the Illinois Family Institute?:

Hate-Gays Group in Turmoil

By Andy Thayer,Co-founder, Gay Liberation Network

Over the past few years the Illinois Family Institute (IFI) has established itself as the state’s most active and vociferous opponent of equal rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans people. This week it announced that its Executive Director, Peter LaBarbera, had resigned. Given his string of failures, we suspect the real truth is that he was given the axe.

Peter LaBarbera, late of the IFI

Peter LaBarbera, late of the IFI

Working out of their bunker in the lily white suburb of Glen Ellyn, LaBarbera has churned out ream after ream of press releases over the past few years, once even putting out a press release decrying the lack of coverage for his press releases!

His obsession with all things gay seemed to know no bounds: from his undercover “research” into the annual International Mr. Leather festivities, while dragged out in leather himself so as to “fit in,” to his opposition to not just equal marriage rights, but employment, housing and access to public accommodations.

For all of his activity, Mr. LaBarbera has strung together an impressive list of failures. Here are just some of the highlights:

  • When dairy magnate Jim Oberweis launched his immigrant-bashing campaign for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, LaBarbera enthusiastically signed on, even though the anti-immigrant, anti-gay combination made him look like the choice of far right haters.

  • After the victorious Republican nominee, family values supporter Jack Ryan, crashed and burned in a sex scandal, LaBarbera became one of the few stalwart supporters of Maryland import Alan Keyes. As ever more unbalanced comments from Keyes cascaded into the biggest landslide defeat in Illinois senatorial history, LaBarbera became one of the few remaining Republican operatives willing to be seen in public with crazy Keyes. GLN, Church of the Open Door, and other pro-gay forces hounded Keyes and LaBarbera at their increasingly pathetic campaign appearances.

  • Twice out of the box wasn’t enough for Peter. When Oberweis ran for governor, distancing himself from his own, previous immigrant bashing campaign and instead highlighting anti-gay rhetoric, LaBarbera signed on again, going down to defeat as the openly homo hating fringe of the Illinois Republican Party continued to eviscerate itself before the party’s moderate wing. At a GLN protest against an Oberweis debate appearance at Channel 7 studios, LaBarbera’s counter-demo consisted of two people besides himself.

  • Despite being bottled up in the legislature for 30 years, in January 2006 Illinois finally became the 15th state ordering equal employment, housing and access to public accommodations for gay people, and the 5th state to do so for transgendered people. Despite his vociferous opposition to any kind of equality for LGBT people, the pro-gay victory came on LaBarbera’s watch.

  • This past spring the IFI attempted to schedule an anti-gay rally at a west suburban African American church, but Black people in the church thwarted it by calling the pastor out regarding his bigotry. African American gay activist Wil Lockett of Black LGBT & Allies for Equality courageously stood up during an anti-gay tirade (read “sermon”) a few weeks before the scheduled rally, denouncing the pastor for his hate speech dressed up as religion. That, and the threat of pro-gay a protest outside of the church during the anti-gay rally, prompted the pastor to scuttle the IFI’s event.

  • When the Gay Games came to Chicago in July, LaBarbera saw it as his mission to prevent homosexual fun (& Games), trying & failing to the get the far northern suburb of Crystal Lake to ban the rowing competition, trying & miserably failing to get corporate sponsors such as Kraft Foods to rescind their endorsements, and failing to get significant media coverage during the Games themselves.

  • At the start of the Games he held a press conference at the one hotel in the entire downtown Chicago area that is the subject of a long-time boycott and union picket – way to win allies, Peter! Reporters at the press conference later told us that Peter really seemed to lose it during his rambling presentation, fixating on GLN as the mother of all evils. His real problem is that GLN has made a habit of showing up at all of the IFI’s public appearances with our banner that reads, “Opposition to Equal Rights is BIGOTRY,” which always seemed to put a damper on whatever gay-hating festivities the IFI was conducting.

  • At the end of the Games he and his crew invaded the heart of Boystown in a stated attempt to do “Christian” outreach outside of Steamworks bathhouse. GLN and the Coalition of Welcoming Churches staged a counter protest several times bigger than LaBarbera’s crew, which swelled much larger again as we pointed out to passersby who the funny looking people in the matching T-shirts were. Having scheduled his appearance to run from 5:30 PM to midnight, LaBarbera & Co. left before 7 PM, as the much larger opposition taunted them with catcalls and boos.

  • The crowning “achievement” of LaBarbera’s reign was his failed attempt to get an anti-gay advisory referendum on Illinois’s ballot this November. A multi-year campaign, pumping all of the group’s resources into a measure that doesn’t even make it onto the ballot, was LaBarbera’s most stunning defeat yet. Despite the support of local Catholic leadership and various mega-churches in and around Chicago, LaBarbera’s failure in Illinois stands in stark contrast to the achievements of his anti-gay colleagues in almost every other state.

For those interested in promoting equal rights for LGBT people, it is important that we now evaluate how and why we have won these victories, and brought about at least the stunting, if not end, of LaBarbera’s anti-gay career. While we have been aided by LaBarbera’s strategic incompetence (taking on the ballot initiative was a breathtaking misappropriation of resources), the man and his organization are not completely stupid, and have been able to draw on a nationwide constellation of wealthy, rightwing foundations, religious media networks and mega-churches.

Despite these advantages, LaBarbera was always operating under the handicap that his group might become perceived as a far-right hate group, and hence lose traction in wider society and politics. While many Illinoisans may have mixed up ideas about LGBT people, one of the most important cultural legacies of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement is that many people don’t want to be associated with any organization or movement which is seen as hating whole groups of people, whether the targets are African Americans, Latinos, Jews, or whomever. That is why any number of gay hating groups – various religious leaders, for example – cloak their gay-hating and opposition to our equal rights in “love the sinner / hate the sin” rhetoric, as if opposition to equal employment opportunities, for example, is a way to show one’s “love.”

In the occasional debates we’ve had over the past few years, LaBarbera seemed acutely aware of his organization’s susceptibility to the “bigot” charge, and labored mightily to overcome it. One of his favorite tactics was to change the subject by accusing LGBT rights leaders of pimping off of the African American civil rights struggle, accusing us of saying LGBT people’s fight for equal rights was the same as African Americans’ struggle for equal rights.

His problem was that he could never quite identify when and where any LGBT leader had said such a thing. What many of us DO say is that anyone who sees it as his or her mission to advance human rights for any group would be a complete imbecile if s/he didn’t look to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s for guidance on how to make progress. The simple fact is that LaBarbera’s movement is in the business of PREVENTING equal rights for a whole group of people, and the LGBT rights movement is about GAINING equal rights for a group of people, so excuse us if we try to learn some lessons from those activists who came before us, and made legendary achievements in that latter task.

Another way LaBarbera has tried to insulate himself from the “bigot” charge was by associating himself with African American “leaders” of the Clarence Thomas variety, that is to say, African Americans Against Black People (as a former paid staffer for “Concerned Women For America,” LaBarbera also apparently liked associating himself with Ladies Against Women; as a promoter of the “ex-gay” movement, he apparently also favors Homosexuals Against Gay People).

Unfortunately for Mr. LaBarbera, his intellectual forbearers include people like Jerry Falwell who, as an openly cracker preacher in Lynchburg, VA, infamously denounced the Civil Rights Movement as “the civil wrongs movement.” Alan Keyes, of course, is a darling of the fringe right, opposing mainstream civil rights leaders on almost every single issue. During LaBarbera’s Gay Games protest, he partnered with an African American preacher who is the new pastor of a Southern Baptist congregation (the Southern Baptists were notorious supporters of segregation, and were a pro-slavery split off from the mainstream Baptist movement shortly before the Civil War). A few years ago one of his African American allies, Rev. Gregory Daniels, proclaimed from his South Side pulpit that “If the KKK opposes gay marriage, I would ride with them.”

LaBarbera’s strategy boiled down to a ploy used by opponents of equality down through the ages: divide-and-conquer. Pit one oppressed group against another. Imply that equal rights progress for one group might come at the expense of another. Try to get each group fighting the other, while the opponents of equality for both groups laugh all the way to the bank. As the Abolitionist activist Frederick Douglass put it, “They divided each to conquer both.”

The most effective way to counter this divide-and-conquer strategy is for LGBT rights groups to not just put out boiler plate statements opposing the injustices that “other” groups face, but to actually dirty one’s hands by actively supporting other community groups fighting those injustices. I put the word “other” in quotes because, LGBT people are Black, Brown, Yellow and yes, sometimes white. The reality is that we can’t unite our own rainbow colored LGBT community, let alone make common cause with “other” communities, unless we oppose the injustices each of us face.

On a strategic level, LGBT people, variously estimated at between 3 and 10 percent of the population (the exact, indeterminable percentage is irrelevant here – injustice is still injustice, whether it happens to 1 or 1 million people) cannot hope to win our battles for equality unless we enlist the support from non-LGBT people. On a moral level, we cannot in good conscience ask for solidarity from others for our struggles, unless we are actively giving such solidarity to others.

This is one of the reasons why GLN has always taken a multi-issue, not a “gay rights only,” approach to political activism – walking beneath a huge “Lesbians & Gays SUPPORT Immigrant Rights” banner during Chicago’s recent immigrants rights marches, opposing the “legal” and extra-legal attacks on Muslims, Arabs and South Asians in the wake of 9/11, opposing police brutality not just against LGBT people, but against anyone, etc. Gay rights groups that don’t actively take such an “ecumenical” approach to human rights issues are rightly viewed as taking a “tokenist” approach to “other” issues.

The final element in our strategy to defeat the IFI has been to attack its desperate attempts to become a “respectable,” and hence potentially powerful, part of the political discourse. LaBarbera knows that while Fred Phelps-like groups (“Fags Die, God Laughs” is one of Phelps’s favorite signs) may be able to garner headlines, they’ll never become a player in politics, at least short of fascist takeover. So LaBarbera’s approach has been to put on a suit and tie, put out bigoted screeds labeled as position papers, and call his group the Illinois Family “Institute,” rather than a nut group for bigots.

Our response has been that any leader, whether dressed in a suit and tie, or church vestments, does not deserve respect if s/he opposes equal rights for any group. On several occasions, including during his unhinged press conference at the start of the Gay Games, LaBarbera has peevishly denounced my repeated refusal to shake his hand during our occasional debates. My response: I would no more dignify a committed anti-gay bigot with a handshake than I would a committed racist, sexist or any other type of bigot. As with our approach during our successful Stop “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger campaign back in 2000-2001 (gays are “biological errors,” she said), we believe that anti-gay bigots should be treated as pariahs, and commercial venues should not dignify them with a platform, any more than a comment from an African American, Latino or Asian American leader needs to be “balanced” by a response from a racist hate group, etc.

Down, But Probably Not Out (Yet)

Poor Peter has had a career setback, but is probably not out of the game yet. GLN will continue exercising our 1st Amendment right to protest his hate until he ceases holding public anti-gay events in the Chicago area. It is this sort of steadfast opposition to public expressions of bigotry that finally put paid to Orange Juice Queen Anita Bryant’s anti-gay career a generation ago. By contrast, when Mel White offered an olive branch to his former boss, Jerry Falwell, following the latter’s potentially career-destroying “Tinky Winky” comments in 1999 (shortly after Matthew Shepard’s murder), he gave the life-long bigot a new lease on life to his career. We won’t make the same mistake. See you at the next protest, Peter.

Post Script

by Bob Schwartz

Ever hear about "Americans for Truth?" With Peter LaBarbera's penchant for failure, you may never hear these words again, at least not as the moniker of a national hate group.

In a likely face-saving move, accompanying his resignation from IFI was a report that LaBarbera will "re-launch" a group he founded some ten years ago, but which has lain dormant ever since.

Claiming for it national status, the group will be headquartered in Naperville, just a stone-age throw from the LaBarbera abandoned fuehrer bunker in Glenn Ellyn.

Unbelievably, LaBarbera's world class wannabe is equipped now with a letterhead and web site under construction. With this powerhouse, he will "oppose the homosexual agenda!" Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, Concerned Women of America and others are well ensconced in the already crowded franchise of antigay so-called "family values" hate groups.

A final career ending failure for Peter LaBarbera could be just around the corner. You may not hear the whimper.


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