28 May 2008

Is Uncle Tom A Gay Man? (Part One)

David Benkof
A fool to himself and his kind . . .

One of the most withering insults that one Black man can hurl at another is "Uncle Tom". This was especially true during the peak years of Black Power activism, when I was a teenager. The insult dates back to the mid-19th century, when author Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The fictional "uncle" (a condescending nickname that Southern Whites once used on older Black men) was a hero in her book. However, among Progressive African-Americans, that moniker quickly took on a derogatory connotation. It came to mean any Black man who was excessively accommodating of White prejudice.

An "Uncle Tom" was always trying to stay in the good graces of the Great White "Massah". He accepted racial segregation and inequality with a shuffle and a smile! He embraced buffoonish "coon" stereotypes, flaunted his lack of education like a badge of honor, and worst of all, criticized Black people who sought to better their lot in life. He was there to assure Southern racists that "colored folks" were happy with imposed second-class citizenship, and that it took either "carpetbaggers" from the North or the rare "uppity n*gger" to stir up feelings of discontent among them.

Uncle Tom and his female counterpart, Aunt Jemimah, were particularly loathed by young Black foot soldiers who spearheaded America's Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s. Largely via their frequent use of the insult, it entered the lexicon of other oppressed communities. Latino activists began to denounce Uncle Toms in their ranks (called "Tio Tacos" in Spanglish), as did equality-minded Native-Americans and Asian-Americans.

It was inevitable, then, that the term would also enter the vocabulary of LGBT activists. A term like "Uncle Tom" seems very appropriate now, with stereotypical Gay imagery everywhere, homophobic self-identifiers proliferating, and counter-productive politics so widespread among us! I was reminded of just how widespread they are when my pen pal, the Reverend Jerry Maneker, linked me to a syndicated editorial that appeared in the May 20th edition of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Titled "Why California Gays Shouldn't Celebrate State Court Ruling", it was penned by one David Benkof. He's a Conservative author, columnist and founder of a fringe blogsite called gaysdefendmarriage.com. That's right, pilgrims . . . it's a site for LGBT folk who share the religious Right Wing's exclusionary credo about "traditional" marriage! (It's really true that you can find anything at all on the Web!)

The subject of Benkof's op-ed is, predictably, the landmark ruling that California's Supreme Court handed down on 16 May, which legalized same-gender marriage in that state. Dude does his level best to throw a soaking wet blanket over the euphoria that Gay Californians are now feeling! Benkof's essay isn't the worst example of Uncle Tom-ism I've ever encountered; that dubious honor goes to an Advocate article I read in which a Gay pornographer decried safe sex as encroachment on the "freedom" to be homosexual. Nothing, I repeat, nothing could be worse than that!

However, Benkof's shuffle and smile routine ranks right up there with GLAAD's endorsement of the viciously heterosexist movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, former Venus magazine editor Charlene Cothran's high profile conversion to the "ex-Gay" cause, Jamaican LGBT activists' cowardly opposition to a cultural boycott of their rabidly anti-Gay island, and last month's ill-conceived "Million F*g March" that (unwittingly?) validated the rhetoric of Rev. Fred Phelps, the notorious hatemonger. Lord, deliver me! If we keep trending in this backward direction, before we know it, the Gay Rights movement will have become nothing but a fond memory!

OK, OK, I know: You want I should can the curmudgeon routine, and bring on the offensive op-ed, right? Well, here it is, then, slightly edited for style.

Champagne corks have been popping wherever Gays (sic) and Lesbians gather throughout the Golden State after the California Supreme Court's ruling in IN RE: Marriage Cases, which opens the way for same-sex couples to legally wed beginning next month. But the Gay community shouldn't be celebrating.

Any Post-Intelligencer reader who wondered what interest group Mr. Benkof carries water for wasn't left wondering for very long!

This decision does next to nothing for California Gays (sic) and Lesbians, and causes real harm to people who believe in the "old" definition of marriage. It's nothing to be proud of. The June weddings that can now be expected for same-sex couples all over California actually will provide little tangible advantage to anyone. California already has a Domestic Partnership law providing all the state benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, and the Federal Defense of Marriage Act prevents all the Federal benefits.

Time out for a reality check! California’s Domestic Partnership law actually falls short of giving Gay couples every state benefit. However, even if there were exact equivalency, it wouldn’t matter; the Court overrode that law in its decision! It found that separate-but-equal provisions for Straight and Gay families violate the state constitution's guarantee of equal protection for residents. Read the complete decision at:

Sure, Gays and Lesbians may get a lift in self-esteem from having their relationships declared "equal" by four jurists, but does an ego boost really outweigh the real harm caused by last week's decision? Because there certainly are harms: To religious liberty, to give just one example.

How snide can you get? And how ignorant can you be? Has Benkof never heard of justice and fairness? Does he really think Gay couples brought litigation against the state of California in order to boost their egos? What a dumbass!  There are far less expensive ways to do that! Could it be he's got a hungry ego himself, and mistakenly believes the same about everyone else? And could it be that his "just one example" of "harms" resulting from the California decision amounts to a Chicken Little-styled scare tactic? Judge for yourself:

For the past two weeks, I have been contacting "marriage equality" leaders all over California to ask about the impact of re-defining marriage on religious freedom. All, including several prominent Lesbian and Gay legislators and other leaders, have refused to disclose their opinions, some repeatedly.

Excuse me . . . names? What are the names of these LGBT leaders from California? Benkof wants us to take his word that these unidentified people exist, are what he claims they are (note the curious use of quotes), and did what he says they did. I tell you what, sugar: I’ll trust him if you will!

Although California marriage-equality leaders won't say what impact they expect the new decision to have on religious freedom, activists in other states haven't been so shy. Openly Gay Washington state Sen. Ed Murray (Democrat from Seattle) and a representative of the largest Michigan Gay Rights group, the Triangle Foundation, have both told me that people who continue to act as if marriage is a union between a man and a woman should face being fined, fired and even jailed until they relent.

Hmmm . . . did Senator Murray really say this? Note the suspicious lack of a quote from him! The only quote Benkof offers in support of his inflammatory claim comes from the aforementioned Triangle Foundation spokesman, and as you'll see, context is everything:

So if a traditionally religious business owner wants to extend his "marriage discount" only to couples married in his eyes, the Triangle Foundation's Sean Kososky says: "If you are a public accommodation, and you are open to anyone on Main Street, that means you must be open to everyone on Main Street. If they don't do it, that's contempt, and they will go to jail."

Benkof has constructed a far-fectched, hypothetical scenario here! Faced with a legal definition of marriage they disagreed with, most Fundamentalist business owners would simply stop offering such a discount. Let's pretend it's plausible, though, just for the sake of clarifying some points: The legal definition of civil marriage is not determined by individuals. It is determined by law. So if the law says that marriage can only happen between men and women, a vendor is within his rights to withhold a hypothetical "marriage discount" from Gay couples.

On the other hand, if the law does not limit marriage that way, and the vendor refuses to accommodate same-gender spouses, he can and should be sued for false advertising! A religious zealot's ability to impose exclusionary doctrine on people ends when he leaves his church community and enters the public sector to provide services! However, if he tries to do so and becomes the subject of a grievance, there's no direct correlation between filing a lawsuit and spending time in jail! After all, most litigation is settled out of court.

Seattle's Michael Taylor-Judd, President of the statewide Legal Marriage Alliance, said if a newspaper writes that a given same-sex marriage wasn't really a marriage, "it is certainly in the realm of possibility for someone to bring a (libel) suit, and quite possibly to be successful." Kososky agreed: "I would be sympathetic to some damages. They need to be slapped publicly."

Second point of clarification: Does Benkof understand what libel is? The Oxford Modern English Dictionary defines it as 1) a published false statement damaging to a person's reputation, or 2) the act of publishing such a statement, or 3) a false and defamatory written statement. The entry goes on to say that this defamatory falsehood must be motivated by malice. That's a huge burden of proof to satisfy!

If someone voices his sincere belief that same-gender marriage is illegitimate, and a newspaper publishes it in the form of an editorial, a letter to the editor, or a quote from a news article, then that person has expressed his opinion. Expression of personal opinion is well-protected under our Constitution's right to Freedom of Speech! If such belief forms part of a religious conviction, then it's also protected under the Freedom of Religion clause. What's more, there's a vast difference between "the realm of possibility" and likelihood. How likely is it that lawyers would take on libel cases with such tremendous burdens of proof, especially given the conservative bent of our American judiciary? Most, if not all lawsuits of this type wouldn't even make it to court! They'd sputter out of existence in the planning stage.

Sharon Malheiro, a lawyer and LGBT activist from Des Moines, Iowa (who is) affiliated with the state's Gay marriage lobby, One-Iowa, told me if a teacher in a marriage-equality state taught that marriage is between a man and a woman, "then it becomes a job performance issue," and the school district should take appropriate action.

Third point of clarification: I wasn't aware that a course called Definition of Marriage was part of any public school curriculum in this country? When was it added? If public school teachers take it upon themselves to teach what Ms. Malheiro describes in their classrooms, disciplinary action should result. They are proselytizing their students, and that's forbidden by law. It's just as inappropriate to encourage opposition to same-gender marriage in a secular educational setting as it would be to encourage support for it!

"Is Uncle Tom A Gay Man?" concludes with Part Two.

Is Uncle Tom A Gay Man? (Part Two)

David Benkof
A fool to himself and his kind . . .

My analysis of David Benkof's mean-spirited op-ed "Why Gays Shouldn't Celebrate State Court Ruling" continues:

Now, nobody Gay in history has lost his assets, his job or his freedom for writing, teaching and running a business guided by his belief that marriage is a union of any two individuals who love each other.

Fourth point of clarification: So there are journalists, teachers and business owners who chose their respective career paths because of opposition to same-gender marriage??? That’s news to me! Seriously, no Straight bigot will ever be bankrupted or jailed for holding bigoted beliefs! What may subject such people to penalties is violating anti-discrimination laws, but those penalties won't be catastrophic like those historically visited upon Lesbians and Gay men who agitated for basic human rights. Benkof only mentioned adverse consequences for marriage equality advocates who are homosexual, so I won’t talk about the Rev. Jimmy Creech and other heterosexual clergy who’ve been defrocked for performing Holy Unions; but if he’s looking for an example of a Gay man who lost assets, employment and freedom as a result of defending Gay love, I've got a name for him: Magnus Hirschfeld!

The German sexologist was not only fined but beaten for his work on behalf on those he called "The Third Sex". Hitler's Brown Shirts fractured his skull and left him bleeding in the street; later, during a lecture, he barely escaped being shot to death! In 1933, the Nazis destroyed his Institute for Sexual Science, cutting off his main livelihood and driving him into exile.

Even earlier, in 1924, a group called the Society for Human Rights, the first documented American Gay Rights organization, was forced out of existence after all of its members were jailed. We can safely presume that some, if not all of them, lost their jobs as a result, and maybe their homes and families, too; that’s what happened during most of the 20th century when Gay identity was exposed!

Homophile activists suffered this kind of persecution as late as 1959; that year, the Denver chapter of the Mattachine Society expired after police targeted its members for public exposure and arrest. My source for these incidents is Neil Miller's excellent book Out Of The Past (Alyson Books, 2006). What do you bet that some of these pioneering activists supported marriage equality? Don't believe for one second that the desire of Lesbians and Gay men to marry their life partners is a recent development! What you can believe is this: David Benkof doesn't know sh*t about Gay history, and his bug-eyed speculations are absurd!

So why do Gay activists support limitations on the Freedom of Speech, the media and religious expression for anyone who disagrees with them?

Fifth point of clarification: The three Gay activists Benkof has quoted, and whose statements he has taken out of context, cannot and do not speak for Gay activists in general. There is a great deal of disagreement, not only about the ramifications of legal marriage, but also about whether it should even be pursued (check out the website www.beyondmarriage.org the next time you surf the Web . . . not that I'm recommending it)! More important, none of the quotes he used call for limitations on religious expression. What Benkof defends in his alarmist op-ed isn't religious expression! It's religious fascism, the "right" to impose Fundamentalist Scriptural interpretation not only on believers, but on non-believers, too! He either doesn't know the difference, or he's pretending not to know.

There are real and injurious issues the Gay community could be focusing on, such as the distressing rates of HIV/AIDS among African-American men who have sex with men, the FDA's unnecessary ban on Gay blood, and Florida's heartless prohibition of Gay and Lesbian adoptive parents.

Sixth point of clarification: I would use the word "heartless" to describe someone who campaigns against Gay people legitimizing their love as hard as David Benkof does, wouldn't you? And if you're foolish enough to believe that so ardent a foe of same-gender marriage could really support Gay parenting and adoption, then you'll believe anything! But I digress.

I've said this before: There is no hierarchy of issues that Gay activists should address in a predetermined sequence! We have a number of pressing issues facing us, all of which warrant immediate attention. Individual activists can and do determine which issues are most urgent in their own lives and communities. For some, the primary issue is HIV/AIDS education; for others, open military service; for others, safety in school; for others, marriage equality and/or adoption rights; for yet others, something else entirely.

We are far too scattered, diverse and opinionated a people to ever agree on priorities! A top-down, my-agenda-is-more-important-than-your-agenda strategy is a surefire way of getting absolutely nothing done! That may be exactly what Benkof has in mind, too. At least it wouldn't threaten his "traditional" marriage-minded friends on the Religious Right!

No Lesbian ever died a painful death because the government called her relationship a domestic partnership instead of a marriage.

Seventh point of clarification: I beg his friggin' pardon, but I would think that when a Lesbian dies in the hospital after her life partner has been denied visitation rights, the death is quite painful indeed! That’s what happened last year to Lisa Pond, whose mate Janice Langbehn was banned from Lisa's hospital room after she suffered an ultimately fatal brain aneurism. After a Catholic priest intervened on her behalf, Janice was granted just five minutes to administer final rites to her beloved spouse. Later, the grieving widow was denied access to Lisa’s death certificate. That’s not painful?

Benkof’s callous statement adds insult to injury! These injustices have happened and continue to happen in the absence of marriage equality, most notably in the case of terminally ill AIDS patients. They’ve been well-documented by the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, attorney Evan Wolfson’s Freedom To Marry organization, and other marriage equality crusaders.

Gays and Lesbians should put away the champagne, work to overturn this ruling, and start focusing on LGBT issues that actually matter.

Eighth point of clarification: This closing line reveals what David Benkof is really all about: He's about setting the LBGT agenda himself, and defining for all Gay people what issues should and should not matter to them. When an Uncle Tom exhibits dictatorial tendencies, it's just too pathetic, isn’t it? Marriage equality activists will abandon their crusade for justice in his dreams, and nowhere else! His syndicated op-ed ended with this blurb:

David Benkof is a columnist in several Gay newspapers around the country and blogs at GaysDefendMarriage.com.

This is how I learned that David Benkof was an LGBT person. All I could do was shake my head in disgust! Why would a Gay man want to take a positive development like the California marriage decision and portray it as a threat to the Bill of Rights? Is dude crazy, or what? Sure, he's crazy . . . crazy like an Ann Coulter clone!

His is the modus operandi of the Right Wing "stealth" journalist, the latest incarnation of Uncle Tom! He cherry-picks the most provocative statements he can get from little-known Gay activists, and presents them as representative of the entire Gay Rights movement. He slants interview questions, distorts the meaning of responses, exaggerates the impact of court decisions, ignores context and manipulates fact in order to paint Gay Rights advances as corrosive to the moral order. His goal is to fuel the fires of ultra-Conservative opposition by any means necessary! Yet, at the same time, he has the nerve to masquerade in print as someone concerned about the welfare of Lesbians and Gay men! Dude gives new meaning to the Yiddish word chutzpah! I daresay the Jewish community might have to invent a stronger word to describe the kind of chutzpah he practices!

Looking down his nose, David Benkof scolds us "uppity n*ggers", exhorting us to stay in our place and stop daring to believe ourselves equal to Straight folk. He shamelessly kisses the reactionary power structure's ass; panting like a lapdog underneath their table of political largesse, he's ever so eager to catch the crumbs as they fall!  Better life options for the Gay people he feigns concern for may have some small appeal for him, but it vanishes as soon as he starts contemplating the rewards he can derive from parroting Dominionist talking points!

He is a glaring example of what journalistic ethics not to aspire to. The man is an affront to personal integrity, a Judas bent on sabotaging the equality struggle, and just an all-around wretched specimen of humanity! Shame on him! And shame on his enablers, too! Why any self-respecting Gay periodical would publish the rantings of such a person is beyond my understanding. There are dozens of Right Wing publications which are more than willing to give him space. That's where his putrid brand of "advocacy journalism" belongs!

I’m told that at one time, David Benkof called himself a Gay man. In his current blog profile, he says he’s now Bisexual. Well, you can't prove he’s either one by me, sugar! From where I sit, being a same-gender-loving person means more than wanting to have sex with someone of the same gender.

It means you know that you're essentially neither male nor female, and therefore can't be judged by binary gender standards. It means that you know you're more than what heterosexual society, in its ignorance, says you are. It means that you want more than what heterosexual society, in its selfishness, says you deserve. It means that you understand that religious restrictions on male and female behavior don’t apply to you. It means that you don't allow imposed self-hatred and shame to control your behavior. It means that you won't settle for anything less than your basic rights as a human being! It means that you have integrity that can't be bought or sold. Most of all, it means you have enough pride in yourself not to become an errand boy for people who hate your kind!

The answer to the question posed by this post’s title is an emphatic no! Uncle Tom ain't Gay! Uncle Tom ain’t Bisexual, either. Nor is he Transsexual, Straight, Black, White, Asian, Latino, indigenous, multi-cultural, rich, poor, young, old or anything in-between. Uncle Tom ain’t nothin’ but a shame!