I would say it's political satire, but in the Lone Star State, really, what's the difference?

17 July 2012

Gay Bashing and Bad Science: The Sequel

After quite a bit of further thought I’ve realized that, while it may seem painfully obvious to me, I should perhaps clarify for some of my readers just what exactly my previous post has to do with Texas politics. More importantly, I also feel the need to better explain and emphasize explicitly why this issue ought to matter—and matter greatly—to all of you, regardless of which side of the debate you happen to be on.

Before we begin, if you’re just joining in this conversation and missed the post referenced above, I would recommend that you start there to catch up since I don’t plan to repeat it all here, but I’ll try to give you the quickest-ever recap in history: As reported last week in the Statesman, UT Professor of Sociology Mark Regnerus is currently under international fire for a recently published study in which he essentially claims to have found conclusive evidence that the children of gays and lesbians fare significantly worse than the children of heterosexual couples. Astonishingly poor experimental design coupled with serious conflicts of interest in both funding sources as well as Regnerus’s biased personal ideologies have led to open demands for retraction by hundreds of well-respected scholars along with countless civil rights advocacy groups around the world. The publishing journal’s parent company, publishing giant Elsevier, has subsequently referred the publication to the Committee on Publication Ethics and Regnerus is now under investigation by the University of Texas for scientific misconduct. Extensive coverage of the case can be found here from outspoken civil rights activist and writer Scott Rose, whose series of investigate reports has been a leading catalyst for the inquiries.

Well, I’m not sure about the “quickest-ever” part, but there you have it. Now, where were we? Ah, yes.

The Politics

Many have speculated, and quite rightly I presume, that the Regnerus study will be both used and abused by those championing the anti-gay rights side of the political spectrum, politicians whom are typically pandering to the conservative/Republican/evangelical Christian voting block. One of the central and frequently heard rallying cries that comes from this anti-gay demographic is something along the lines of "But what about the children!?" with their very appalled-shock-and-horror faces. However, the growing body of scientific research conducted over the past decade has, by and large, steadily chipped away at the myth that same-sex orientation of a parent is inherently tragically detrimental to a child. Science had all but debunked this baseless claim being used as a weapon to serve political and social agendas. 

Now enter the Family Structures Study, courtesy of UTs Mark Regnerus and his team of conservative backers. You might be inclined to ask: "If all of this is true, can a single erroneous study at odds with a massive body of literature actually do that much damage? Won't people simply see it for what it is and move on?" To this I would reply with only one question: 

Do you think vaccines are safe? 

Chances are, even in a tiny sample size of 36, at least a handful of you answered "I'm not so sure." Would you like to know from where this equally baseless and equally damaging idea came? From a single erroneous study published in 1998 in which British doctor Andrew Wakefield claimed to have found evidence that childhood vaccinations were "the cause of autism," and the worldwide media frenzy and public hysteria inevitably ensued. However, it gradually came to light—albeit painstakingly slowlythat the Wakefield study was nothing more than egregiously flawed experimental design coupled with radically unsubstantiated conclusions, not the least bit supported by even his own evidence, and severe conflicts of interest concerning funding sources. (Sound familiar? It should.) Despite being abruptly denounced by hundreds of thousands of academics and the entire medical community; and despite the publication's initial partial retraction, followed later (much later, unfortunately) by a full retraction; and despite the fact that numerous ethical and scientific review investigations later found Wakefield guilty of dozens of legal and ethical violations, ruling that he had "failed in his duties as a responsible consultant and researcher, acting both against the best interests of his patients, and irresponsibly and dishonestly misrepresenting data in his published research; and despite the fact that he ultimately had his medical license revoked—yes, despite all this, the myth lived on. Or, I should say, "lives on."

We now find ourselves, nearly 15 years later, somehow still living at the mercy of this one stray, bunk study and the incomprehensible groundswell of widespread fear, irrationality and mistrust that it ushered in. We watch in helplessly awestricken horror as childhood vaccination rates continue to decline, bringing with it the inevitable resurgence of many very dangerous, sometimes deadly, childhood diseases, that prior to the decades-long "Wakefield Massacre," as I like to call it, had been all but eradicated in the Western world. 

 Yes, nearly 15 years later, this one stray, bunk study lives on—at the peril of not only the millions of children who now remain unvaccinated, but also at the peril of those whose parents have been wise enough to immunize because they may very well be running around on the playground with many children who aren't. Increased disease prevalence means increased opportunity for random mutation, which means an increased likelihood that one of these diseases will essentially morph into a version (strain) for which our current vaccines are useless.
 So, again, if you are inclined to ask if one bogus study can really do much damage, even if a few politicians and/or the media latch on with their paranoid, fearmongering fingers? YES. Absolutely and unequivocally YES.
What Does This Have to Do With Texas?

Despite his recent open endorsement of equal rights for gay and lesbian citizens, President Obama has stopped short of pushing federal legislation and has instead left it in the hands of the states. As I’m sure you are no doubt aware, our shared state of residence happens to be among the most conservative in the country. And as I am sure you are also aware, civil rights is not merely a social issue; it is a legal one. As with all things legal and political and nature (and everything else on the planet for that matter) there is no such thing as a “final word.” So even though we have already written a ban on same-sex marriage into the Texas Constitution, this debate is far from over, it entails much more than simply marriage, and it will continue to be a central issue in state and local politics well into the foreseeable future.

Why It Matters

I’ve read that many of my classmates consider themselves largely apathetic towards politics, which leads me to believe that there are also at least a few here who would say that their personal opinions on this (or any other) matter makes no difference whatsoever one way or the other in terms of public policy. I am here to tell you that you are wrong. The relationship between public policy and social attitudes is not unidirectional; it is a perpetual feedback loop where each continually feeds off the other. Even if you have never cast a vote in your life, the general ways in which we speak or act towards one another, even the ways we think about things, has this very weird way of becoming a sort of collective dialogue that eventually manifests itself into public policy.  So I care not only how you might vote on something like gay rights legislation, but also—and perhaps more—I care how you actually think about it, too.

Nearly every argument I’ve ever heard waged against equal rights for the gay and lesbian community has ultimately come down to religious beliefs. Come to think of it, EVERY argument I’ve ever heard waged against equal rights for the gay and lesbian community has ultimately come down to religious beliefs. If anyone anywhere has different motivations for holding that position, I would invite you to please share that with me. Does such an argument exist? Whatever you believe, put it aside for a moment and play along in a little thought experiment: Come up with a convincing argument for the anti-gay position that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with tradition or religious dogma. And NO, the Regnerus study does not count. We’ve been through this. But I will now pause and give you a moment to think.

Nothing yet? Sure, I’ll wait.

Really, it’s fine. Take your time.

Still waiting.

Alright, I give up. I can’t wait all day here. And I’m fairly convinced I would be waiting much longer than that, because so far as I can tell, in absence of religion, no such defensible argument exists.

 Which leads me to the million dollar question: Should religious motivations ever be our primary source of inspiration when considering matters of public policy? Public or social policy does not mean general social dynamic, mind you; it means LAW. If, when and to what extent is it reasonable, appropriate or wise for religious convictions to dictate law? Before anyone answers that question, I would like you all to quickly pause once more and first consider this: If we were to have looked only to the Good Book, “American tradition,” and “Christian values” rather than reason and civility when making ALL of our social policy decisions throughout history, at this particular moment in time each and every one of you reading would, in all likelihood, be one of two things: either (a) slave-owner, or (b) slave.

Let that one marinate.

What Are We Doing?

We are writing discrimination into our Constitution rather that out. Instead of focusing our efforts on ensuring fairness and equality for all, we are banning it. Whatever your personal beliefs about it may or may not be, is this really the direction in which we want to be going as state? As a nation? As we have seen with countless other demonized groups of people all throughout history, in a country that prides itself immensely on principles of freedom and fairness with “liberty and justice for all,” it seems inevitable that hateful Prejudice and Discrimination will eventually be trounced by our greatest friend, dear Equality. So why must we continue to cling to our irrational, insidious “traditions” and force each and every single grouping of people that we’ve arbitrarily labeled as "different" to fight and struggle for decades on end to gain access to the those very principles and liberties that this country was supposedly founded on?

Where Are We Going?

Considering his presidential bid can only be described as a complete and utter miserable failure, and considering that we seem intent on keeping him in charge of Texas forever, let’s see how Governor Rick Perry weighs in on the issue.

A New York Times article, tellingly titled “Perry’s Anti-Gay Rights Focus Divisive Even to Staff,” sums it up quite nicely, but let me break it down for you. Or better yet, let’s let Mr. Perry speak for himself.

Exhibit A:

And then, as the NYT put it, I give you Exhibit B:
“The ad came a day after Mr. Perry stood out in attacking as “silly” a new Obama administration initiative using diplomatic efforts and foreign aid to promote gay rights around the world and beat back efforts in other nations to criminalize homosexual conduct and persecute gays. This policy, Mr. Perry contended, was an “example of an administration at war with people of faith in this country.”

I’m sorry… What? This may very well be the most logically incoherent line of reasoning I have ever heard in my entire life—and I worked as a psychiatric nurse in intensive care schizophrenia units for a very, very long time. I suppose this isn’t surprising, though, coming from a state whose governor vetoed the initial version of a 1998 anti-hate crime bill put forth in honor of a black man who was beat unconscious, urinated on, chained at the ankles and dragged behind a pickup truck for three miles before getting decapitated by a cement block when the truck took a hard turn, only to then be dumped in mangled pieces in a ditch beside an African American cemetery, at which point his white supremacist murders headed on over to their neighborhood barbeque in Jasper, Texas. And why exactly was the initial version of this anti-hate crime bill vetoed? Because its first version included phrasing that extended protections from these types of hate crimes to gays and lesbians, and that apparently isn’t in line with “American and Christian values.” The bill had to be rewritten twice before it was finally passed into law—I guess to assure that safety and equality were not yet extended too far. To be fair, though, that wasn’t Perry. It was none other than our former Governor and President, George W. Bush. This bill was not amended to include crimes targeted at people based on sexual orientation until 2009 after Obama took office, despite the fact that more than 12,000 such serious crimes had taken place—and those are just the reported crimes; the actual number is undoubtedly significantly higher—in the decade that passed while Bush refused to compromise his highly moral “Christian values.” I wonder if Governor Perry took this move by Obama as an “attack on faith” as well.

What Now?

There is a place for religious sentiment and Christian values, if you like, and that place is in a church—not in a legislative chamber. If these are the types of policies that so-called American tradition and righteous moral values produce, then I, and I suspect a great many others, want absolutely NOTHING OF IT involved in the decision-making processes that take place within the hallowed walls of local government buildings.

I think Americans ought to be free to believe in whatever god or gods they choose, if they choose, and I stand by that position. But when factions of people among us begin implementing policies based on such beliefs, or even gross misinterpretations of such beliefs, that are intensely damaging to the general welfare and well-being of our society, then this is where we have to draw the line.

It is high time that we start seriously evaluating these dearly beloved “American traditions.” We all need to take a long, hard and HONEST look at not just the traditions themselves, but the implications that these traditions carry. We must break down the walls of this unyielding, dogmatic, partisan radical extremism that has entrenched itself in our governing bodies so that we may finally give way to an open and honest, rational and intelligent, meaningful public discourse. And once evaluated, we have to then be willing to actively challenge those traditions that we find are not genuinely in the best interest of our society.

This should be the new American Dream.


  1. Hate crime legislation is ridiculous. That is the only flaw in this post. Surely you would agree that killing someone regardless of why should carry the same punishment for any murder. If not, then you believe that some groups of people are more important than other groups. I cannot imagine you would think that way seeing as how in this post you seem to be very open minded (which is a great thing!). So for your own good, re-evaluate your position on hate crime legislation because it is does more harm than good to all parties and serves no point what-so-ever. It's actually more detrimental to society as whole.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Feedback is always more than welcome. And I think you make a fair point; I can respect the argument that equivalent crimes ought to carry equivalent punishments. That being said, while I do respect the argument, it is not one that I find to be particularly convincing, and there are a number of reasons why.

      First, our criminal justice system is not one in which we have punishments blanketly assigned to crimes; we take into account a number of factors, most notably: motive. This is why shooting and killing someone in a fit of rage or during a bank robbery carries substantially different consequences than accidentally shooting and killing someone while hunting. And it is why we differentiate between premeditated crimes and crimes of passion. Motives matter, and in my view, rightfully so.

      Secondly, our criminal justice system and legislative policies concerning crimes in America are not based solely on the crimes themselves, per se. A substantial portion of our laws and protections are essentially guided, at least to some degree, by a sort of make-shift risk-assessment system. Those things that are of higher risk tend to elicit more active prosecution and carry more severe punishments. Crimes that happen at higher rates, or that are viewed by the community or the state as being more socially unacceptable or damaging to the general welfare of citizens often bring about stiffer fines, harsher sentencing and/or more aggressive policing policies in efforts to combat and deter such crimes.

      While equal punishments for equal crimes might sound like a convincing argument on the surface of it, this line of reasoning necessarily implies that there ought be no variation in legal consequences whatsoever between shooting an estranged lover and shooting a police officer; between sexually assaulting a grown woman and sexually assaulting a child; between bombing a supermarket and bombing the Pentagon; or between selling crack in the parking lot of a gas station and selling crack in the parking lot of an elementary school.

      Many of our laws and policies are based upon the frequencies with which crimes happen; the immediate and long-term consequences of such crimes, both locally and on societal scales; the degree of immediacy with which we feel a particular crime must be stopped and prevented; the level of risk or harm felt by a particular sect of society, and the relative likelihood that those within said grouping will be targeted explicitly because they fall into said group.

      Your logic seems to not only rebuke hate-crime legislation, but also the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in which it was specifically laid out which reasons were unacceptable grounds for discrimination. Broad groups of people that incur a significantly higher risk of being subject to prejudice, discrimination or undue harms were enumerated to offer extended protections based on the criteria of race, color, religion or national origin. (Gender-based protections came later.) I view hate-crime legislation to be an extension of protections offered in this same vein, circumventing the need for the tedious process of constitutional amendment.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I am so sincerely sorry for not replying sooner! This is my first ever attempt at blogging, so much of this in new, but I'm still not sure how I've managed to miss this comment until now. Thank you so much for your input. I genuinely appreciate it, and you are absolutely right about the retraction. When I wrote this, I had in mind the earlier partial retractions in which all authors (Wakefield, of course, being the only exception) pulled their names from the paper. I knew the full reaction was later, but I hadn't realized it was that much later. Thank you so much for pointing out the error.

      I am also guilty of using, I realize in hindsight, in large part a result of your comment, "science speak" that was potentially misleading there, too. It was a full 2-3 years before even the partial retraction, which in the world of academia is about as soon as one can be expected; hence my use of "prompt." But that is clearly no where near "prompt" by everyday standards, nor nearly as prompt as anyone but Wakefield would've liked.

      I've made several corrections to the referenced paragraphs above, hopefully providing a more accurate portrayal this time. Please let me know if anything is still amiss, and again, thank you so much for your comment.

      For what it's worth, I honestly hope my entire comparison of Regnerus to Wakefield turns out to be unfounded. It will be such a shame - to both scientific integrity and to human rights - if it takes anywhere near that long to retract, or if it is allowed to do even a fraction of the damage.

      *fingers crossed*


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