I am a 52-year-old gay man with a beautiful husband, an amazing career, and a large, loud, supportive, and loving Greek family. Like so many of my generation, I have lived through the darkest hours of the AIDS epidemic, the terror attacks of 9/11, and the loss of both of my parents. With such life circumstances and experiences, I have developed a fortitude, which some call grit, and which psychologists call resilience. Yet despite this resilience, which often buffers me against adverse life events, l find myself injured and dejected because of the hateful words and actions of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis.
Since the landmark SCOTUS decision of June 27th, 2015 bestowed all the same rights of marriage to gay and lesbian couples that heterosexual couples in our country have been granted for hundreds of years, Davis, fueled by her venom, has refused to issue marriage licenses in her county (to all couples) citing her religious beliefs as the basis for breaking the law and denying same sex couples in Rowan County the same right that they too-long have been denied.
The inflammatory words and incendiary actions of Davis may seem insignificant now that SCOTUS has rejected an emergency appeal filed by Davis and imprisoned this bigot who refused to issues marriage licenses even after the appeal was denied. (In fact, on September 3rd, William Smith Jr. and James Yates became the first same sex couple to receive their marriage license in Rowan County.)
Despite these judicial actions to protect marriage equality in Rowan County (and ultimately across the nation), Davis’ behavior imparts harmful and long-lasting effects on the well being of all sexual minority individuals in our country. Perhaps most vulnerable of all are teens and young adults who are coming of age, negotiating their sexuality and/or gender identity, grappling with the confusion and uncertainty so many of us faced, only to have their processes made all the more challenging because of the prejudice and stigma fueled by the illegal events in Rowan County—a prejudice and stigma fueled by many of our nation’s Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobbi Jindal, Rand Paul, and Scott Walker.
Throughout the course of our country’s history, LGBT individuals have experienced endless attacks, both physical and emotional, from many of the other citizens of our nation, mainly from religious zealots, who continue to view homosexuality a frivolous choice and an abomination of god, and consider the marriage of two women or two men, as disgust akin to bestiality. The social conditions fueled by such misguided beliefs, the ongoing state-sanctioned discrimination faced by millions of LGBT individuals in employment and housing, and the endless experiences of bullying to vulnerable LGBT youth, continue to burden our population, diminishing our overall health and well being.
In 2010, the Institute of Medicine issued a historic report on the health of the LGBT population. The report noted the many and unique health disparities faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and was a call to action for a deeper understanding on the health of these populations. The report noted that chronic stress experienced by LGBT individuals, due to the experiences of stigma in our society, undermines our health. Moreover, the report indicated that our health is shaped by our social contexts–negative and stigmatizing experiences within our families, communities, nation, and society negatively impact our health. This is why the words and actions of Davis are so powerful and perpetuate the conditions that undermine our well being. On the other hand, marriage equality, serves to protect our health as I argued in a 2014 editorial of this very publication.
This is not to say that the social conditions that LGBT people face are are not somewhat improved than they were for me when I came out in 1981, or for those who fought the battles before and during the Stonewall Riots. But our battles are not over. Now, more than ever, we must be even more proactive. It is not the time to rest on our laurels. For every step we take forward in acquiring our rightful place in society, the attacks from those whose lives we seem to somehow threaten become even more insidious. The latest approach, nested in the cloth of religious freedom granted by the First Amendment, is perhaps the cleverest yet most despicable tool these bigots have developed. Such attacks will continue for decades. It is for this reason that we must keep up the fight. (In his new book, Michelangelo Signorile discusses this idea beautifully.)
There is a lesson to be drawn from the history of women’s reproductive rights. For decades religious zealots have attempted to undermine Roe v. Wade, and 42 years after this landmark decision, which gave women control over their own bodies, these rights have been all but eliminated in states like Texas, and leading GOP candidates are espousing policies that would make an abortion illegal even in the cases of rape or when the mother’s life is in jeopardy. Lesson learned. We must not let down our guard.
While the actions and words of Kim Davis undoubtedly have a harmful effect on the well being of our population, we can ameliorate their impact. We must understand these attacks as those of a small-minded, hateful person, whose actions are quite contrary to the teachings of the god she worships. We must engage in discussion with each other, especially with teens and young adults who are just coming, about these events to help them understand that what Davis has chosen to do does not in any way diminish who we are or the sanctity of our lives. We must morph Davis’ Kentucky fried hate into our resilience. And collectively we must use the venom spewed by Davis as a call to action to continue our ongoing battles for our rightful place in society—the place promised to us by the Constitution