The 48th State

Friday 7 March 2014 by

Gay rights, Arizona, Protestors

Wednesday 26th February 2014. The governor of the 6th largest state in America decided that a bill, allowing lawful discrimination of gay people, will not be made law. Although a victory, this decision was not based on any moral or compassionate reasons, but rather the effect it would have on their economy. As the controversy surrounding this ruling grows, and my initial anger has dispersed, I think it’s important to assess why the bill was proposed in the first place, the reasons behind Governor Brewers ruling and what the future holds for the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual & Transgender) community living in America’s ‘Red States’.

The plight of the LGBT community has received a lot of media attention in recent months, with the Russian Olympics and Uganda’s ‘Kill the Gays’ bill at the forefront of these headlines. America itself is no stranger to controversy regarding gay rights, from the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (The start of the Gay Rights movement) to the passing of ‘Proposition 8’ in 2008 (The proposition overturned the California Supreme Court’s ruling, from the same year, that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry). The most recent struggle comes from Arizona. Late Thursday evening last week, legislation was passed in Arizona that allowed business owners in the state to discriminate against people who identify themselves as gay. The business owner could refuse service to a gay person and not fear any legal repercussions if their ‘Sincerely Held’ religious beliefs were compromised by being hospitable or providing a service to a gay person. For example, a restaurant owner could refuse service to a gay couple or gay family or even a family with a gay son or daughter. A pharmacist could even refuse to prescribe HIV or hormone replacement medication to anyone who identified themselves as gay. Similar legislation has also be introduced in several other states in the US, but Arizona was the first to take it this far, potentially amending its constitution. Arizona has long been a ‘Red State’ which means the majority of its population votes for the Republican Party. Its last ‘Blue State’, when the majority voted for a Democratic president (Obama is a Democratic President) was 1996, and before that? 1948. The Republican Party closely resembles our British Conservative Party, its core beliefs compromising of ‘family values’ and religion. It’s no shock then that equal rights aren’t their top priority. Arizona (having never had the privilege of experiencing their hospitality) is apparently a state with a higher population of older people, thus explaining their Republican Views. This is only an explanation mind you, not an excuse.

Jan Brewer, Governor, Arizona, Gay rights

Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer

For the next week, the news of Arizona’s legislation spread around the world to the surprise of the very people who put it there. Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, was in Washington when the news broke out and her visit became a daily exercise in defending her state against accusations of homophobia and discrimination. In the end, it would be her decision whether the bill would pass. She assured the people of Arizona and everyone watching around the world that she would take every consideration in coming to her decision. How kind of her.

The fact that somebody has to ‘consider’ a group of people’s human rights, really disturbs me. My thoughts about this first section of the story have frustrated me for many years. The same arguments against equal rights are brought forward again and again, and ultimately they are the direct cause of a person’s religious beliefs.

I will start by saying that I’m not religious. My God is Meryl Streep, and she’s looked after me pretty well so far. Being gay is not a choice; religion is. If you believe people choose to be gay, than ask yourself when you decided to be straight. You aren’t born a Christian/Muslim/Catholic/Jedi, (delete where applicable) at some point you choose to a let a religious organisation guide you through your life. With that, you adopt a certain set of principles, morals and ethics that have been decided for you. So far, so good. You have the right to choose your faith and to practise freely. Why then, do some people start expecting the rest of the population to adopt their beliefs? First of all, America is run by the State, not the Church. I don’t understand why a government would even consider legislation based on a single religious belief, especially in a country that promotes freedom. Religion has become regarded as sacred and untouchable by law and this needs to change.

The problem starts when a society allows religion to become the basis to excuse behaviour that would otherwise be considered unethical or even unlawful.

The argument for this bill was based on protecting the rights of citizens with ‘Sincerely Held’ religious beliefs. To accomplish this though, the rights of any person who identifies themselves as gay would be compromised. If a business owner refused service to a black person, or a woman just because of how he regarded them, would that be tolerated? Under no circumstances. You also can’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible you wish to enforce on everyone else. The Bible says that you must isolate the menstruating woman, stone the adulterer to death, and that divorce is not permitted. How many menstruating women, adulterers and divorced people will be refused service by Arizona businesses if this bill became law? None. I believe this Bill to be nothing but homophobic. Yeah, I said it.

Arizona, Gay rights, Protestors

Protesters at the Arizona Capital Building

My second issue here is, what does a person’s sexuality have to do with a business transaction? Unless paying for sex (each to their own) sexuality doesn’t come into it. A person’s sexual identity is just that: who they choose to sleep with. I still can’t find a connection between sex and buying a loaf of bread at the supermarket. What somebody does in the privacy of their own bedroom is their business and as long as it’s legal and consensual, should have no repercussions. There is also no way to legally determine someone’s sexual identity if they refuse to tell you. How would this Law have been consistently enforced? “There’s a penis and a vagina, in a tent, and the tent’s on fire. Which do you save?”

The way the LGBT community are treated in some American states, I can’t imagine them being overly enthusiastic to share that information with any bigot who was looking for an excuse to publicly humiliate them. Also what effect is this going to have on the gay youth of Arizona? Growing up believing it is acceptable to be treated differently to their straight counter-parts? That they are not worth the same rights and privileges just because they are gay? Any child that grows up believing that they are not good enough, made to feel like a 2nd class citizen and that they don’t deserve love or acceptance has been failed by a government that is there to protect them. LGBT teens and young adults have one of the highest rates of suicide, attempted suicide and self-harm. Bullying because of this new law would increase and potentially skyrocket those suicide statistics even more. If this law were to pass, the people that put it there and the church would have blood on their hands.

There are over 7 billion people sharing this world, tolerance is not something that is negotiable.

As the media and social media attention grew around Arizona’s proposed bill, the spotlight fell onto the politicians that allowed the bill to go through. Many stuck by their opinion that the LGBT Community should be discriminated against; after all they were only protecting religious freedom. Consensual same sex has only been legal in Arizona since 2001, so some argued that this change was happening too fast and the people of Arizona needed time to adapt to change. Some politicians though began to see the error of their ways and claimed they had voted incorrectly. “We were uncomfortable with it to start with and went along with it thinking it was good for the caucus,” Senator Steve Pierce told the Associated Press news agency on Monday. “We really didn’t want to vote for it. But we made a mistake, and now we’re trying to do what’s right and correct it.”

All the while, Governor Jan Brewer was discussing the potential implications with Church leaders, business owners and her constituents, weighing up the pros and cons, hearing both sides of the argument. “I have a history of deliberating and having an open dialogue on bills that are controversial, to listen to both sides of those issues, and I welcome the input and information that they can provide to me,” Brewer said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday. “And certainly I am pro-business, and that is what’s turning our economy around, so I appreciate their input, as I appreciate the other side.” Not once were her comments aimed at ensuring human rights or delivering compassion for the LGBT community. She never once reassured anybody but the religious community that she understood their concern.

As the hours began ticking away and a decision was understood to be imminent, some major American corporations began to lend their support against the bill. American Airlines, AT&T, Delta Airlines, Intel, Marriott, PetSmart, Starwood and Yelp all publically asked that the bill be vetoed. Many of those companies had headquarters or large factories in Arizona and argued that the new law would go directly against their own non-discrimination policies. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker wrote in an open letter to Governor Jan Brewer. “I can assure you that this proposed legislation is causing tremendous concerns for our employees, particularly those who live and work in Arizona”. Even Apple weighed in, apparently calling Jan Brewer directly to discuss their concerns, although never publicly asking for the bill to be vetoed. The company recently announced plans to build a new glass plant in Mesa, Arizona and bring 2,000 new jobs to the state. Another big concern to the Arizona people was next year’s Super Bowl (again, not about their LGBT Family and friends). The Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee said it did not support the legislation. “We share the NFL’s core values which embrace tolerance, diversity, inclusiveness and prohibit discrimination,” the committee said in a statement. “We have heard loud and clear from our various stakeholders that adoption of this legislation would not only run contrary to that goal but deal a significant blow to the state’s economic growth potential.”

Major League Baseball also spoke out against the measure.

In 1989, Arizona voted down recognition of the Martin Luther King holiday, and as a result, conventions and tourists boycotted the state. The NFL moved the Super Bowl to Pasadena. This decision resulted in an estimated $500 million dollar loss to the Arizona economy. Governor Jan Brewer wasn’t about to make the same mistake again.

On Wednesday 26th February, Governor Jan Brewer held a press conference at the State Capitol building where she addressed the bill, known as SB1062.

“I sincerely believe the Senate Bill 1062 has the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve…” and, she explained, it “could result in unintended and negative consequences” and “I have not heard of one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberty has be violated.” She eventually stated: “After weighing all of the arguments, I have vetoed Senate Bill 1062.”

At this, her final opportunity to reassure the LGBT community on these issues, she once again returned her concern to the religious community and issued the following reassurance. “To the supporters of this legislation, I want you to know that I understand that long held norms of marriage and family are being challenged as never before. Our society is undergoing many dramatic changes, however I sincerely believe that Senate Bill 1062 has the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve… Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value; so is non-discrimination.”

As the announcement was broadcast, cheers and celebrations began with the protesters outside the capital building and quickly spread around the world via news outlets and social media.

This is a victory and I don’t want to take away from the progress that has been made, but this was a “win” for all the wrong reasons, based on what was best for the economy of Arizona, not its people.  Do I think this Bill would have passed in a time of economic prosperity? No. I like to think we’re past that point where in a western civilised country, a government would lawfully discriminate its people, but what scares me most is that not once were the concerns or needs of the LGBT people addressed by the government. They do not have a voice in Arizona’s government. There are plenty of passionate, religious senators that managed to get their argument across, but no one was willing to examine the effect on the LBGT community. Even if the senators didn’t believe this bill would pass, knew there would be uproar and wide public interest, they have still succeeded in getting their message across. I feel so sorry for the gay youth in Arizona, growing up, feeling like outcasts and with a government who is not willing to support them.

So what’s next for Arizona and other ‘Red States’? Idaho, Georgia, Mississippi and Missouri have all recently introduced a similar bill, asking for protection from the law if they discriminate against the LGBT community based on their religious beliefs. This clearly isn’t an issue that’s going away any time soon.

America itself has the answer. They have had the answer all this time. They even created the answer themselves. They answered this question many years ago based on their own ideals and morals with no influence from the church and protecting their religious freedom that they hold so dear. If only someone had told the people of the 48th State and its Governor, Jan Brewer.

“All men are born free and equal, in dignity and in rights, and, being endowed by nature with reason and conscience, they should conduct themselves as brothers to one another.” — American Declaration of The Rights and Duties Of Man

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