A Republican committee in Virginia yesterday voted unanimously to censure Congressperson Denver Riggleman. They say his officiating a same-sex wedding ran counter to Christian beliefs and betrayed Republican values. They effectively drummed him out of the Republican Party over the wedding last spring, but now they’re twisting the knife.
From yesterday’s censure resolution —
In July 2019, Denver Riggleman officiated a same sex wedding which in turn goes against the values and principles of the Republican Party betraying and disregarding the concerns for the many Conservative and Christian voters in the 5th district who elected Denver Riggleman to the United States House of Representatives.
More details about homophobia and racism inherent in the committee’s behavior in a moment, but first let’s first take a brief detour into the state of LGBTQ acceptance in the U.S. and talk about how certain assumptions don’t hold up in the face of data.
Lots of commonly held ideas are wrong —
I thought a lot about that this morning as I read articles by Elle Beau ❇︎ and Chitara Smith on Medium. Elle says that “we, as a society, are still bought into old concepts of how the world works that are demonstrably off-base.” She says when she challenges those ideas with data, she often takes flack.
Lots of ideas about LGBTQ acceptance are wrong
Adding to Elle’s important observation, plenty of newer concepts are demonstrably off base too, even when advanced from a place of good will. That’s where Chitara’s powerful story comes in. She says coming out to her mother as bisexual was “like throwing a vase into a ceiling fan.”
Everything was raw and shattered — painful, confusing and disappointing.
Chitara’s story is ordinary in the contemporary queer experience
LGBTQ youth in the United States often face trauma when they come out to their families or live as their authentic selves. Data bear this out powerfully. New research shows lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens are reporting less support from parents than two decades ago. While this counterintuitive trend may be explained by earlier coming-out ages, the data point to an entrenched problem that isn’t getting better.
Data about LGBTQ youth homelessness, bullying, and suicide attempts indicate that the adolescent queer experience is as fraught today as it was decades ago, and that transgender kids are at the highest risk of all.
Family rejection — either instant and outright, or slow and subtle — is an ordinary expectation for LGBTQ people coming out or living out today. As with Chitara, religious ideology is the most frequently cited reason for family opposition to queer identities.
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
People in the U.S. by and large take religious opposition to queer people in stride. Progressive and moderate folks don’t like it much, but they rarely do anything about their dislike. One doesn’t sees crowds of people demonstrating outside neighborhood Catholic or Evangelical churches that spread poison as baseless and toxic as the racism preached by the Ku Klux Klan.
Riggleman, racism, and homophobia
Speaking of the Ku Klux Klan, it’s instructive that the wedding Riggleman is taking so much flak for was both same-sex and mixed-race. He officiated the marriage of two young men- one white and one Black — who fell in love while working to get him elected to Congress.
Riggleman is a conservative Republican, by all reports gregarious, generous, and well liked in his district. He owns a craft whiskey distillery and campaigned on traditional Republican values of lower taxes and business-friendly legislation.
When his staffers asked him to bless their wedding, he didn’t hesitate. When the Republican establishment objected, he issued the following statement:
My real belief is that government shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all, but if it is, everybody has to be treated equally before the law. That is part of our Republican creed. And it also comes down to love is love. I’m happy to join two people together who obviously love each other.
— Denver Riggleman
He apparently has no problem recognizing the human worth and civil rights of LGBTQ people, and no problem observing separation of church and state. Marriage in the U.S., despite common belief to the contrary, is entirely a matter of civil law.
A shameful Virginia history of unequal marriage
Riggleman could have noted that equal treatment under the law is a principle Virginia struggled with for decades until the Supreme Court struck down a racist law in 1967’s celebrated Loving v. Virginia.
In 1958, Virginia Judge Leon M. Bazile convicted Richard Loving, a white man and Mildred Loving, a Black woman, sentencing them to a year in prison for marrying one another. He wrote, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which criminalized marriage between “white” people and “colored” people, was based explicitly on Christian theology, and as you can see from Judge Bazile’s ruling, its Christian basis was overt. When the high-court justices struck the Act down, they affirmed that religion must play no role in civil government.
The democratic principles affirmed in Loving v. Virginia feel obvious to people today. Of course government has no right to criminalize interracial marriage, especially not on religious grounds. But it wasn’t obvious then. The decision was controversial, and conservative Christians complained bitterly that the court had overstepped its bounds.
Virginia Republicans are privileging religion and entrenching anti-LGBTQ hatred
The Virginia Republican Party went to extraordinary lengths to get rid of Riggleman, just as furious today about same-sex marriage as people used to be about mixed-race marriage. Riggleman is leaving Congress in January, but not because he lost an election.
He’s popular back home, polls showing he would have won re-election easily.
Virginia Republican leadership were so afraid he’d win his primary that they executed an arcane party rule that allowed them to select an alternative candidate at the statewide convention.
Leaders chose an administrator from the infamously anti-LGBTQ Liberty University and ran him instead of Riggleman during the November general election. He’ll take Riggleman’s seat in the next Congress.
The Virginia Republican Party has got a lot wrong here
They’re encouraging the mingling of religion with politics. They’re asserting baselessly that LGBTQ equality is anti-Christian, and they’re making LGBTQ issues a litmus test for running for office in Virginia.
They’re subverting democracy. Could anything be more undemocratic than cancelling a primary because a popular candidate doesn’t hate gay people enough?
But as I hope I’ve demonstrated throughout this article, many Americans hold common ideas about LGBTQ issues that happen not to be true. I hope we can all think about these matters carefully.
Three commonly held wrong ideas —
- Marriage is a religious institution, and religious people have a stake in how marriage functions. Not true — Civil marriage in the U.S. has nothing to do with religion and never has. People of all faiths and no faiths marry all the time, and no Church has a legitimate interest in how that works.
- LGBTQ people, especially LGB people, are enjoying more and more acceptance, to the point where being LGB is no big deal, and maybe even fashionable and cool. Not true — While some LGB people live privileged experiences in certain circles, data indicate that most LGB people face serious challenges because of their identity. Trans people have things even worse. Religion is most of the reason why.
- LGBTQ people enjoy the support of friends and allies who have their backs and will not tolerate homophobia and transphobia. Not true — Religious ideology that demonizes LGBTQ people is pervasive and well tolerated in the U.S. Cis/straight people almost never speak out about it or condemn it. They almost never treat overt homophobes and transphobes with the same social shaming and shunning they reserve for overt racists. They casually tolerate homophobic institutions in their neighborhoods.
U.S. values of pluralism and secularism must trump religious hate
The Republican Party of Virginia in this instance is an extreme example but a compelling one. If our unmet ideals of pluralism and tolerance are ever to be fulfilled, we must reject ideologies of othering like racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
We must reject the idea that loving and respecting our neighbors in all their diversity is somehow un-American or anti-Christian. Denver Riggleman stood up for respect and tolerance and got cut off at the knees.
Americans of all political persuasions need to stand up as one and reject the toxicity that led to his downfall. We must insist that the right to practice religion does not include the right to hurt people.
We must examine our common beliefs and identify which of them are wrong, toxic, or dangerous.
James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.