After Orlando, time to recognize that anti-gay bigotry is not religious freedom: Neil Macdonald

After a gunman reportedly professing allegiance to ISIS went hunting gays in a Florida night club, could there be a better time to have a conversation about organized religion and the pain inflicted on gays in the name of god?

Will targeted nightclub shooting begin an overdue conversation about religions' attitudes toward gays?

Women kiss as anti-gay protesters taunt people Sunday at the 46th annual Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood, Calif. following the attack at a gay night club in Orlando, Florida. (David McNew/Reuters)

In December 1989, Marc Lépine armed himself with a Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatic rifle and headed off to Montreal's École Polytechnique, hunting women.

He separated male and female students and ordered the men to leave. He then killed the women, execution-style.

By the time he turned the weapon on himself, he'd slaughtered 14 young women for the offence of being women, earning himself a place at the apex of misogynistic violence.

Lepine's suicide note read, in part:

"I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker … The feminists have always enraged me." 

The atrocity, and its stated motivation, immediately triggered an angry and overdue conversation in Canada about misogyny and collective male guilt.

Men who'd never as much as lifted a hand to a woman in their lives were told that even so, if they'd ever smiled at a sexist joke or tolerated discrimination against a woman, they'd done their bit to shape a culture that culminated with the funerals of those 14 women in Montreal.

It was hard to swallow, but only a dullard could reject the logic outright.

And, at least partially as a result, open sexism and misogynistic humour became far less okay after Polytechnique, at least in polite company. It was a transformative moment.

The Orlando gunman has been identified as Omar Mateen, of Fort Pierce, Fla. Police say he was killed in a shootout with SWAT team members. (Omar Mateen/MySpace)

Now, after Omar Mateen armed himself, reportedly professed allegiance to ISIS and went hunting gays in an Orlando night club, could there possibly be a better time to have the same conversation about organized religion, and what responsibility it bears for the pain and misery and death inflicted on gays for so many centuries in the name of god?

And not just the Muslim god. That is happening now because of Mateen, and deservedly so, but restricting the discussion to Islam is far too easy.

Islam may be more overt about its homophobia than the other major religions — anyone who's worked in the Middle East has heard some fool in high office declaring that there are no gays in Islam, and therefore no AIDS — but the fact is, conservative iterations of all the monotheistic faiths are deeply and actively and systemically anti-gay.

The sacred monotheistic texts contain prohibitions that would by just about any legal definition be considered hate speech in the modern secular world.

The Old Testament Book of Leviticus 20:13 states: "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them."

The Qu'ran proscribes sex between Muslim males, and mandates punishment, although it does sometimes allow for leniency. Elsewhere, though, it cites the destruction of Sodom, held as divine punishment for homosexual sex, as a lesson.

And the Hadith, the Qu'ranic commentaries, contain references to punishing the "abomination" of gay sex with stoning or immolation.

Such prohibitions could be dismissed as antediluvian anachronisms, not to be taken seriously in the modern world.

But of course they are taken quite seriously. Deadly seriously.

Rights and religious freedom

Fundamentalists and traditionalists of all three faiths not only regard such passages as divine instruction, they actually portray their homophobia as a matter of religious freedom; something noble, protected by constitutions and essential to democracy, when in fact they are working to oppress and deny fundamental rights to people based solely upon the sexuality with which they were born.

California's Proposition 8 to overturn the state's legalization of same-sex marriage passed with the support of major churches in 2008, but was later overturned in the courts. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

A perfect example is Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative whose purpose was to block the advance of same-sex marriage, on the grounds that it would somehow harm or invalidate heterosexual marriage, and would result in schoolchildren being taught that gay sex is normal and acceptable.

Prop 8 proponents included the Roman Catholic Church, the Knights of Columbus, the California Catholic Conference of bishops, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), the Union of Orthodox Jewish Organizations of America and assorted evangelical Christian groups. Together, they poured a fortune into the campaign. Mormons alone provided $20 million.

They won, then immediately lost when the initiative was vacated by secular courts.

Since then, organized religions have continued their anti-gay activities, often going to court to ensure their right to discriminate against gays in hospitals and schools and other religiously affiliated institutions.

Yes, it is true that Pope Francis has softened his church's line on homosexuality. But his tolerance is only remarkable in contrast to his hardline predecessor, and church doctrine remains unchanged.

Kelvin Cobaris, a local clergyman, consoles Orlando city commissioner Patty Sheehan, right, and Terry DeCarlo, an Orlando gay-rights advocate, as they arrive on the scene near where a mass shooting occcured in Orlando, Fla., Sunday. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via Associated Press)

It is also true that the Reform and to an extent the Conservative streams of Judaism have moderated their tone where gays are concerned.

Not so Islam. That religion remains largely hostile to gays, and anti-gay sentiment is woven into the laws of many Muslim countries.

Sheikh Farrokh Sekaleshfar, a British-born physician and imam, has spoken at public venues in the United States, softly and diffidently asserting that as a matter of compassion, homosexuals should be put to death.

There are many, many other sheikhs like Farrokh Sekaleshfar.

And while evangelical Christians don't seek the death penalty for homosexuality, many do want it punished. In 2004, Dr. Richard Land, the Oxford-educated former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told me on camera he thought gay sex should be outlawed. 

In any event, this much is singularly true: the worst mass murder in American history was directed at one group, and it was done by some one who had sworn allegiance to a fundamentalist religious group.

If casual misogyny and sexist humour helped create Marc Lépine, then organized religion must reflect on helping shape a culture that will this week have led to 50 funerals in Florida. It's not just the extremists who want to deprive gays of human rights.

People of faith might ask themselves this: even if they've never so much as lifted a hand to a gay person, have they smiled at a homophobic joke? Or overlooked mistreatment? Or nodded during an anti-gay sermon?

And if so, wouldn't this be a good time to speak up?

Rachel Henry, from left, Selene Arciga, Nicolette Gullickson and Joanna Lamstein join members and supporters of the LGBT community at a candlelight vigil in front of the White House in Washington, Sunday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)


  • This story has been edited from an earlier version to clarify that $20 million in support of Prop 8 came from Mormons and not the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints itself.
    Jun 17, 2016 2:01 PM ET


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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