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"What does unchangeable skin color have to do....with changeable sexual orientation?"

Graphic courtesy of Box Turtle Bulletin

These are the words of Peter LaBarbera, who operates a web-based group out of his house in suburban Chicago called "Americans for Truth about Homosexuality." He and others of his ilk attempt to discredit the natural comparison people make between the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s and today's gay rights movement by suggesting that, though African-Americans have no choice being who they are, gays and lesbians can "change" if they "choose."

There are two things wrong with LaBarbera's tendentious distinction, both damning. First, he fails to understand that the comparison of black and gay struggles gets its purchase because it is based on the similarity in types of discrimination (housing, jobs, social acceptance, violence, etc.) the two groups have historically experienced at the hands of bigots, not on whatever it is about the victims, gay or black, that provokes such discrimination. No one, least of all gay activists who know their history, has ever argued that black and gay struggles for equality are the same; suggestive and important similarities do not constitute an identity.

Second, even if we grant for the sake of argument that sexual orientation is "changeable," whatever that might mean, and people have a "choice" in the matter, LaBarbera's argument collapses. For if his distinction between the two struggles based on "changeability" points out a genuine difference, then by the same reasoning any fight against, say, religious discrimination as a fight for civil rights would suffer by comparison to the black struggle because anyone can change her religion! Of course, such a conclusion is absurd and it's equally absurd in the case of the gay rights struggle.

So what really does LaBarbera's argument amount to? He is prepared to concede that LGBT people suffer discrimination because of who they are (though he maintains that reports of discrimination are wildly exaggerated by his special bugaboo, the "homosexual lobby"). But---and this constitutes his special form of bigotry---he insists that such discrimination does not matter. It shouldn't count, and if politicians had any spine, he contends, they would see to it that it didn't count, instead of always caving to the "homosexual lobby" by granting "special rights." LGBT people have no claim to any group rights against discrimination because, based on LaBarbera's Christian beliefs, they're living in "sin" and ought to be changing themselves into heterosexuals instead of agitating for equal rights. (In fact, LaBarbera often comes very close to saying that any victimization LGBT people suffer they bring on themselves by their sexually "aberrant" behavior). African-Americans, on the other hand, are entitled to such rights, he thinks, because they are both historical victims of bigotry and are not as a group defined as "sinful."

This is the key. What it boils down to, according to LaBarbera's twisted logic, is that two groups can both be victims of discrimination but only one deserves our sympathy and the protection of law while the other deserves our censure because its members are living in "sin." In the African-American case racist bigotry is rightly condemned and its flagrant expression considered immoral and often illegal. But what can LaBarbera say against bigotry directed at LGBT people? At best he must be ambivalent about it, or at worst supportive. After all, if prejudice as an expression of social coercion, or even full-breasted hate, prompts a gay guy to change his "sinful ways" or at least feel guilty about them, how bad can it really be?

LaBarbera's opinions have a very troubled pedigree. What's interesting and instructive and even creepy is that white racists in the past, claiming the mantle of Christianity, pointed to biblical passages about the "sons of Ham," etc. to justify slavery, condemn interracial marriage, and in general justify their racism. These precedents should be an embarrassment for LaBarbera, who, as an heir to such racists, routinely considers LGBT people fair game, grist for the mill, for the same selective use of biblical passages when he attacks their struggle for legal equality and social acceptance.

We have to make sure that the Peter LaBarberas of the world are, and are perceived to be, as much on the wrong side of history as those bible-quoting racists of the past were.



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