“Can I Wash Your Windows?”

I met a guy at a gas station tonight. I can’t stop thinking about him.

I work in the West End of downtown Dallas and live in Fort Worth, about 35 miles away. I usually can get away with filling the gas tank once a week, on Sundays, but I did just enough extra driving this week that my little Subaru was thirsty this afternoon. I tried the 7-Eleven on Ross and Field, but it was packed, so I pulled in a few minutes later to the Valero station at I-30 and Sylvan. Last stop before the westbound express lane home. 

This is a big station — something like 24 pumps, a store, a taqueria, and usually an elotes (Mexican corn) stand/cart outside the main door. It’s always busy. I’ve stopped there dozens of times over the years, and it’s a hive of activity every time. Tonight, around six, I pulled in, found a pump, popped the tank, got out, locked the car, and went around to slake the Subie’s thirst with some 87 octane. 

I paid at the pump with a credit card and filled the tank with thirteen gallons of gas. As I was putting the nozzle back in the pump, I turned toward the station store, and a man standing by the door caught my eye and gestured. “Can I wash your windows,” he asked, though I couldn’t really hear. He came closer, and repeated the question. My car’s windows weren’t dirty — at least, not unduly so — but that wasn’t the point.

“I’m just trying to get my mom a hotel room for the night,” he said. He was about my age, I’d guess, dressed in a t-shirt and work pants. “We got caught in the rain earlier.” Part of that, at least, I knew to be true. A strangely monsoonal rain came through the area about 3:00. It poured for 20 minutes, then went away, but it would have been a shitty 20 minutes to be outside.

Mom was nowhere to be seen, but I hadn’t even registered that, or anything else, when I said, reflexively, “I’m sorry. I really don’t have anything. I don’t have any cash at all.” In response, he said thanks anyway, and told me to “be safe.” I got in the car and drove away. I don’t carry much cash. Everyone takes cards, so it’s just easier to carry a card. But I do always have a couple of emergency $20 bills tucked in my card holder. To tell him that I didn’t have any cash at all was a white lie, I guess, but it was a lie for sure.

Why did I do that? Why did I lie and say I had nothing, instead of just telling him I couldn’t help, or — on the other extreme — actually giving him some cash? I don’t know. It was reflexive. I suppose that I assumed, subconsciously or otherwise, that his story was bullshit. But why? I’ve got no basis for that, and anyway, is someone whose life is going swimmingly really going to stand in front of the Valero station on the West Freeway, telling tall tales about his mother’s homelessness, just to scrounge a few bucks? Probably not. Whatever the full truth is, life ain’t grand.

So, I started thinking about these things on the way home, and have kept on turning them over in my mind tonight. If I had a do-over, would I do anything differently, upon reflection? Does it really matter if his mother is without shelter, or if “only” he is hard up enough to be offering to wash car windows at a dumpy gas station on a rainy Friday afternoon for a few bucks? I’m not made of money, but I could have given him some without any lasting worries, and despite what I told him, I did have it. Should I have given him $10? $20? Would I, in version 2 of this story? Or would I demur again?

I don’t know. I’d like to think I’d help him. Perhaps I would, and perhaps I will, next time. What I do know is, I don’t like the default mode of distrust that I found myself in today. Maybe he really needed money to help his homeless family. Maybe he was just looking for an easy mark to score some beer money. Probably, it was somewhere in between. But I assumed the worst, and I wish now that I hadn’t. Which is why I’ve been thinking for a few hours about the man I met at a gas station tonight. I think he deserved better.

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TBT to Antarctica

Three years ago today — March 24, 2013 — was my favorite day of possibly the very favorite of all the trips I have taken. The M/V Plancius took us to Petermann Island and Vernadsky Station on the far northwest tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Petermann Island is home to an enormous penguin colony and some spectacular mountains. Vernadsky Station is a former British research base and home of “Wordie House,” named after Sir James Wordie, a member of Shackelton’s original team. I’m proud of these photos, but even they don’t do justice to the beauty of the place. I was accompanied by the great explorer Sir Richard Sawyer (pictured) and all of the new friends I met on that trip — Melissa, Victor and Britt, Josh, and many more. In every way, a lifetime memory.

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Shooting at Each Other

Lots of presidential politics on my timeline tonight, so I’ll offer some thoughts. I like Bernie Sanders. Not that I need to justify my opinion, but I think his focus on economic inequality is appropriate and important, I trust him to defend my civil rights not just as a gay man but as an American, and I think it’s okay to vote for an “aspirational” candidate, even if he’s not certain to push his whole agenda through, unchanged.

But you know what? I also like Hillary Clinton. A lot! Just a little bit less than I like Senator Sanders, because they’re focused on different issues and I think Sanders has his eye on more pressing matters. If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, you can bet your bottom dollar and your ass that I’ll be out in force for her. I hope everyone who is committed to Sanders right now feels the same way, and it’s for that reason that I’m upset by some of what I’m seeing from Sanders’ other supporters (who I count among my friends). Don’t insinuate that Clinton didn’t legitimately win Iowa, and don’t get offended when someone suggests that New Hampshire was always going to be in Sanders’ wheelhouse. Of course it was. No shame in that. We’re winning. Onward. Quit being nasty. 

By the same token, I’d very much appreciate it if Clinton’s many supporters would drop the “Bernie Bros” meme. If you know me, you know that I’m not supporting Sanders because I can’t stomach the idea of a woman in high office. I did, after all, spend several months working full time as a volunteer on Wendy Davis’ campaign. I know I’m not alone; I know, instead, that I’m in the majority. I like Sanders on the merits, not because I’m threatened by Clinton in particular or women in general. Please stop taking seriously the sophomoric crap spewed by anonymous sub-Reddit trolls. That goes for Ms. Steinem and Secretary Albright, too. Please also put an end to telling me that I’m not supporting a serious candidate, or that I’m throwing my vote away. Give me some credit, and change my mind if you can by selling your candidate instead of belittling mine. We’re in this together. 

We’re choosing between two strong and worthy candidates. Let’s act like it. I don’t want some cancerous divide to develop that would allow a buffoon like Donald Trump or a zealot like Ted Cruz to steal the election in November because Clinton’s primary backers won’t go all out for Sanders, or vice versa. We can win and we must win, and we must keep all of our eyes on that prize. Please.

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Politics is (are?) Dumb

When news of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino broke on Wednesday, “liberals” (like me!) immediately began calling it exactly that — terrorism. It self-evidently was terrorism, so why not?

Without skipping a beat, the entire crowd of GOP presidential hopefuls, joined by a chorus of others, accused liberals of “politicizing a tragedy” to advance their/our “perverted” (Cruz) anti-gun agenda. Liberals were further accused of “prayer shaming,” when they/we had the temerity to suggest that perhaps we as a nation might think about doing something a bit more concrete than that, in light of the number of terror attacks carried out this year alone using legally-purchased weapons of war. And yes, we spoke up right away.

Then the GOP group found out that the terrorists were Muslim. Okay, now it’s okay to call them terrorists — “Muslim Terrorists,” as the New York Post splashed across its front page.(I guess the passing of Wednesday night into Thursday morning meant that enough time had passed so that conservatives weren’t politicizing a tragedy.) Now “liberals” like President Obama stand accused by the GOP and many of its supporters in the press and the punditry of not doing enough to prevent the sort of terror attack carried out on Wednesday.

In the view of the GOP leaders, as expressed in their own words and actions over the last 48 hours, if a terrorist is a Christian terrorist (like the Colorado Springs terrorist, or the terrorists who attacked a church in Charleston, and a movie theater in Aurora, and a f*cking elementary school in Connecticut), then proposing laws to reduce access to weapons of terror is an anti-gun agenda. But if a terrorist is a Muslim terrorist, liberals are incapable of keeping the same weapons out of the terrorists’ hands, and the grown-ups in the GOP need to step in and get tough.

It’s all terrorism, and it’s all domestic terrorism, and it’s all abhorrent and it’s all frightening. I am firmly of the belief that we should fight terror wherever it threatens us. I am also firmly of the belief that no private citizen needs access to arms like the four legally-purchased weapons used this week, and that no private citizen should be able to stockpile the arsenal that these people had. I believe that we should do everything we can to prevent exactly that, including writing much stricter gun laws and standing up to the gun lobby and its fraudulent (former Chief Justice Warren Burger, quoted below) interpretation of the Second Amendment. And I think that’s true no matter the religion of the terrorists. Keeping terrorists from having weapons is a pretty good way of fighting terror. And I’ll somehow be accused — indeed, I have already been accused — of politicizing a tragedy for saying that.

And that’s dumb. I’m so very tired of politics this year, and particularly this week. So now that I’ve vented, I think I’m going to have a drink. Surely I can get bipartisan support for that.

Chief Justice Burger’s quote is from 1990, when the then-retired, rather conservative Nixon appointee wrote:

“The Gun Lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American People by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.  The real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies – the militia – would be maintained for the defense of the state.  The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.”

He was right. Still is.

 

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Our Leaders Lied, and HERO Died

Al Franken once wrote a book called “Lies, and the Lying Liars who Tell Them,” or words to that effect. He might as well have been describing the driving forces behind last night’s resounding defeat of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, for make no mistake: the only reason the measure lost was because of outrageous lies spun by our state’s highest officeholders and a cabal of bigots willing to stop at nothing to perpetuate their right to discriminate. I am disgusted. You should be, too.

There is no national or statewide law prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, or public accommodation against LGBTQ Americans. It is legal to fire a gay employee for being gay, and to hang a “no lesbians allowed” sign on the door of your restaurant, hotel, or shop. You can’t refuse to rent your apartment to an African-American, or a woman, or a Christian. You can refuse to rent it to a gay or transgender person without breaching federal or state law.

So it’s left to the cities. Every major city in Texas has a non-discrimination ordinance of some sort. Even Fort Worth — the reddest big city in the reddest big county in the state. My home town has had an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting people on the basis of sexual orientation for fifteen years, and in 2009 adopted an ordinance expressly prohibiting discrimination “based on transgender, gender identity, or gender expression,” because “Fort Worth’s vision to be Texas’s ‘Most Livable City’ cannot be realized without providing equal protection in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation to all members of the Fort Worth community.”

Houston was late to the game, but last year the City Council adopted the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance — HERO — without a lot of controversy. A noisy minority raised questions about whether the ordinance was of a type required to be put to a vote, and the Texas Supreme Court ultimately agreed, leading to yesterday’s up-or-down vote. HERO’s purpose was simple: afford protection in employment, housing, and business services to all Houstonians without regard to sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity and pregnancy. It doesn’t say anything about bathrooms.

But that isn’t what you’ve heard about HERO, is it? You’ve heard that the purpose of HERO is to create some sort of unisex bathroom rule. Former Houston Astros first baseman Lance Berkman distorted the ordinance in a widely-aired ad, in which he said:

“No men in women’s bathrooms, no boys in girls’ showers or locker rooms,” Berkman says in a new radio ad. “I played professional baseball for 15  years, but my family is more important. My wife and I have four daughters. Proposition 1, the bathroom ordinance, would allow troubled men to enter women’s public bathrooms, showers and locker rooms. This would violate their privacy and put them in harm’s way.”

“Troubled men?” Transgender women like actress Laverne Cox, or tennis star (and pioneer) Renee Richards, or Olympic hero and professional famous person Caitlyn Jenner are just “troubled men” who want to sneak into women’s bathrooms and “put them in harm’s way?” Hardly. The “troubled men” trope has its origins — or some of its origins — in a lurid fantasy that Mike Huckabee likes to talk about:

“Now I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE,” Huckabee said in the February speech. “I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today.’”

If that were a real problem, you’d probably have heard about the rash of guys sneaking into women’s bathrooms in Dallas, or El Paso, or San Antonio, or Fort Worth, for the opponents of HERO would surely have used real-world examples if they existed. They don’t, of course. Transgender men and women have been allowed to pee in peace for many years without encouraging little Mikey Huckabee to “find his feminine side.” Undeterred by this basic truth, our lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, among others, helped fuel the fire with more lies:

Mayor Annise Parker “ought to be embarrassed” by the ordinance.

In Patrick’s TV ad, set to begin Tuesday airing on cable and network stations, he tells voters that “no woman should have to share a public restroom or locker room with a man.”

“This is absurd. Years ago, a decade ago, we would laugh at even thinking about that the people would cast a vote to keep men out of ladies rooms.”

So a bunch of straight, cisgender men think that because other straight, cisgender men can’t be trusted not to sneak into the girl’s locker room to get their jollies (something that’s already illegal and would very much remain so if HERO became law), transgender Houstonians aren’t entitled to basic civil rights? That’s the story voters heard:

“The equal rights ordinance?” the Uber driver said, making eye contact in the rear view mirror. “The only thing that I have heard is that it allows men who dress up like women going into the ladies room. I heard commercials that said it would increase crime. If a person woke up one day and said, ‘I identify as a woman,’ he could just go into the bathroom to see titties or booty.”

“What else could it do?” he asked.

To be honest, the good people working with the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Texas didn’t do a great job getting the message out that opponents of civil rights made up an untrue story about Peeping Toms to persuade credulous voters into supporting their discriminatory world view. Instead, they let our governor have the last word.

The day before the election, Greg Abbott lent his hand and his office to the anti-HERO campaign and perpetuated the lie about “men in women’s bathrooms.” Transgender discrimination is a “Texas value,” apparently:

Screenshot 2015-11-04 07.42.39

And so HERO went down to defeat, by a substantial margin. The Governor’s successor as attorney general (at least until he is convicted of securities fraud, when he will lose his bar card) reveled in the defeat:

Screenshot 2015-11-04 07.47.28

Dan Patrick released a statement last night that added another level of dishonesty:

“I want to thank the voters in the City of Houston for turning out in record numbers to defeat Houston Prop 1 – the bathroom ordinance. The voters clearly understand that this proposition was never about equality – that is already the law. It was about allowing men to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms – defying common sense and common decency.

“The supporters of this proposition brought in movie stars and elites from Washington, DC and Hollywood to try to force their twisted agenda on the good people of Texas. It didn’t work and advocates of this ridiculous proposal are on notice tonight that the voters of Houston will not stand for this kind of liberal nonsense.”

Equality is “already the law?” Not for LGBTQ Houstonians it isn’t. Not at all.

No wonder the ordinance was defeated. The holders of the three highest-profile statewide offices flat-out lied about the state of the law and the content of the ordinance. They turned a non-discrimination ordinance into a “bathroom bill.” They and their supporters made up fantastical stories about straight men slapping on dresses and walking into the women’s room like they have a right to be there. And because voters believed those lies, LGBTQ Houstonians are left without equal rights.

Disgusting. And it’s about to get worse. These three and their cronies want to call a special session of the Texas Legislature to pass a state law that would make it illegal to pass municipal ordinances that give more protection than national or statewide laws. That’s right — it would be illegal for Fort Worth not to allow discrimination against LGBTQ Texans. I suspect they’ll try to cast that as a “bathroom bill,” too. It won’t be.

When is enough, enough? When will the good people of Texas tell their leaders that they don’t want bigotry enshrined in the law? When will lifelong GOP voters turn their backs on candidates who tell the sort of lies we’ve seen in Houston?

This isn’t a liberal or conservative issue. Conservatism shouldn’t naturally lead to intolerance, and I know for many people it does not. But it’s time for all Texans — liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat — to demand change. There aren’t two sides to this coin. Just because “Hollywood liberals” are for it, doesn’t mean that everyone else has to be against it. It’s okay to agree sometimes.

The politicians aren’t going to change until they hear from their constituents. They’re going to keep up the type of behavior that led to the defeat of HERO, because they think it’s what their supporters want them to do. Did you vote for these guys? Take a minute and tell them they’re wrong, and that they won’t have your support next time. If you’re considering supporting our junior Senator for President, you might drop him a note, too.

[Abbott campaign] [Abbott office] [Patrick office] [Paxton campaign] [Paxton office] [State Legislators] [Ted Cruz campaign]

If not now, when?

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National Coming Out Day

Hi!

Today is National Coming Out Day around the world. The purpose is to celebrate coming out and raise awareness of the LGBTQ+ community and the civil rights movement. The notion of coming out as something to be celebrated isn’t entirely new. Harvey Milk gave an impassioned speech in San Francisco during the summer of 1978, imploring gay people to come out not just for their own good, but for the good of the community:

On this anniversary of Stonewall, I ask my gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight. For themselves, for their freedom, for their country … We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets … We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out. Come out to your parents, your relatives.”

I think the last four decades have proven the wisdom of his words. The LGBTQ+ community is much more broadly integrated and accepted into society at large, at least in Western countries. In many parts of the United States, it is no longer legal to refuse to rent a house to a gay couple, or to kick a gay patron out of a store or restaurant, or to fire an employee after discovering that they are gay, lesbian, or whatever else they might be. All of those things remain legal in Texas – in my part of the United States – so the fight is far from over, but the legal landscape today would be unrecognizable from 1978.

The Supreme Court “largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda,” in the words of Justice Scalia, when it threw out a Texas law making private sexual conduct a crime – in 2003! Two years ago, the Defense of Marriage Act died an ignoble death, and this summer came the wonderful and long overdue affirmation gays and lesbians have the same right to state-sanctioned marriage as everyone else. It wasn’t a universally popular decision, but it was possible in a way it would not have been a generation ago.

I believe that coming out is what forced the change. Not me, and not any one person in particular, but one by one and all together we have changed the world. The CEO of Apple Computer is gay. So is the mayor of the biggest city in Texas – and she’s been elected three times. A straight man has won a bunch of Emmys for playing half of a gay married couple on the most popular sitcom on TV. Bruce Jenner was the most famous athlete in America when Harvey Milk gave his speech; Caitlyn Jenner won the Arthur Ashe award this year. Ellen is the new Oprah. The most remarkable thing is that so much of this isn’t remarkable at all, anymore.

It isn’t easy. I didn’t come all the way out until my 38th birthday, in an essay I wrote while I was halfway around the world on a trip I took after quitting my job to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. (Still a lawyer, it seems. But a happier one.) If I’d been born in 1995 instead of 1975, I might have come out at eighteen. I don’t know. I can’t presume to say that it’s easier now for younger people to come out, because all I know is what I felt at that age, and I certainly wasn’t ready. At least, I didn’t think I was ready. I wish I had been. I do know that there are so many more role models in the public eye, and I hope gay kids – gay people of any age, really – see that the culture in this country has changed for the better, and rapidly so. But I can’t get inside the head of anyone currently in the closet.

What I can do is offer resources, starting with myself. I’m here for anyone who wants to talk about any of this, at any time. Please reach out. The Human Rights Campaign has a great “Coming Out Center” and tons of other resources on their website. The Trevor Project – which is a wonderful charity worthy of anyone’s support – is a confidential crisis support hotline for LGBTQ+ teens. Their primary mission is suicide prevention, but they offer good printed and online resources that can help anyone navigate their own unique coming out experience. The Huffington Post has a very helpful collection of links on a page it published for National Coming Out Day two years ago.

So there you go. Whether you’re out and proud, closeted and questioning, or just someone who wants to be an ally and a friend, happy National Coming Out Day. If you’re ready, go for it. It really does get better.

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Ted Talks

With my coffee this morning, I read a story in the paper about Ellen Page confronting Ted Cruz on LGBT rights. And, while the specter of two Canadians arguing about American public policy at the Iowa State Fair is strange enough, that isn’t what prompted me to write. No, it was Ted. I’ve never been a fan, as anyone who knows me will know, but what he said yesterday made me mad. What he refused to say made me even angrier. Let’s vent, and maybe learn.

It is the established law of this country that many businesses open to the public — “public accommodations,” including hotels, restaurants, and places of entertainment (there is some debate over the scope of the term) — cannot discriminate against a potential customer on the basis of the customer’s race, color, religion, or national origin. Forty-five states have similar laws (Texas doesn’t), and many of those are broader than the federal law and explicitly cover all businesses. All of these laws also make an exception for religious organizations and private clubs.^ They can refuse service.

So when you see a sign at the McDonald’s that says “no shirt, no shoes, no service,” that’s fine. That sign probably also says “we refuse the right to refuse service to anyone.” Well . . . yes and no. You can refuse service, but not on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. If I were an innkeeper, then, I couldn’t refuse service to Ted Cruz on the basis that he is Canadian, or Catholic, or Hispanic. I am free to refuse service to him because he is an asshole, and I probably would.

The Civil Rights Act, which is the federal law that extends those protections, doesn’t cover discrimination based on sex. The states have taken care of that; every state with a public accommodation law prohibits public accommodation discrimination on the basis of sex. The Americans with Disabilities Act extends protection to people with disabilities. Many states prohibit discrimination based on a customer’s age. That’s all as it should be, I believe. Nobody should be discriminated against because of the fundamental nature of their being, or because of their religion.

There is no federal law prohibiting discrimination against a customer based on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. Many good people in Congress are trying to change this. Many states have already changed this — twenty-one states and the District of Columbia make it illegal to refuse service to LGBT persons on that basis. One of them is Iowa. The pork-burger vendor where Ms. Page and Sen. Cruz had their argument couldn’t have refused to sell her a pork burger because she’s gay or to Ted because he is, as far as I know, straight. (The asshole rule still applies.)

In twenty-nine states — again including Texas — there are no such laws at the statewide level. Some cities have municipal ordinances. Houston’s city council voted for one a few months ago; you may have seen our Lieutenant Governor’s intemperate remarks about how this is an advancement of the “gay agenda,” and the Texas Supreme Court has held that Houston must put its ordinance to a public vote. Did you know that Fort Worth has a broad public accommodations ordinance?* I am very proud that in my city, it is unlawful for any place of business to deny access to goods and services to anyone on account of his or her “race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and transgender.”

The question Ms. Page actually put to Sen. Cruz was about employment discrimination, but his response was to go on a riff about public accommodation. He says “Bible-believing Christians” are being “persecuted” because of their beliefs, and after telling Ms. Page that he would not have a “back and forth debate on the subject,” told a story about an Iowa business that was “forced” to close after its owners denied service to an LGBT customer based on the owners’ religious beliefs. He tells the story all the time. It’s false. The owners of an art gallery and bistro in a converted church, who sometimes rented a room out as a private wedding venue, decided they didn’t want to rent it out for a same-sex wedding. When they were told that they had to follow the law, they chose to pay a fine rather than accommodate the one customer, and then they decided not to rent it out as a wedding venue anymore. That’s all. Their religious beliefs about gays and lesbians are so deeply held that they made the choice to change their businessNobody forced them to do anything. In Sen. Cruz’s telling, though, the effect of the Iowa non-discrimination law is akin to “forcing a Muslim imam to perform a Jewish wedding ceremony.”

It isn’t anything of the sort, of course. Again, religious organizations are generally exempt from the Civil Rights Act — the one that prohibits public accommodation discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin. In every state-level public accommodation law I’ve read that covers sexual orientation and gender identity, religious organizations are similarly exempt. And you know what? That’s fine. If a church that purports to teach the word of God wants to hang a “no fags allowed” sign on its clubhouse door . . . well, I’m not sure I want to go in there anyway, but the government can’t stop them from doing that. Why? Because the Constitution says that the government can’t make a law that impedes a person’s free exercise of religion. Whatever you do behind the closed doors of that church, or mosque, or temple — so long as it’s not hurting anyone — is no business of mine and, more to the point, none of the government’s business, either. And it shouldn’t be.

But if you throw open your doors to the public? That’s different. If the owner of a restaurant in deepest Alabama still abides by an outdated belief in the superiority of the white race, he’s entitled to that belief, but if an African-American customer comes in and asks to be served, the restaurateur has to stew in his own bigotry but serve the customer. That’s the law. He isn’t being “persecuted” because of his beliefs regarding color or race. He isn’t being prevented from doing anything, and he’s free to believe as he wishes. Likewise, a gas station owner in El Paso can’t refuse to sell gas to Hispanics, or to Mexicans, out of a fear that they might be illegal immigrants intent on having anchor babies just up the road. The station owner is free to worry about border security, and free to think deeply uncharitable thoughts about Mexicans, but he’s not free to discriminate against customers based on their race or national origin. He isn’t being “persecuted” by anyone — but he doesn’t get to persecute others.

Religion is the same way, and the constitutional “freedom of religion” doesn’t change that. If a gun-store owner tried to make his firing range a “Muslim-free zone,” that’s illegal. That is an example of persecuting a customer based on his religious beliefs. The inverse would be equally true. If the atheist owner of a coffee shop wanted to bar all Christians from entering his store and buying his cappuccino, that would be “persecution” of “Bible-believing Christians,” and it is absolutely and unequivocally unlawful throughout the country. As well it should be.

“Religious freedom,” however is a shield from discrimination. It is not a sword. It is not a license to discriminate. A devoutly Catholic Subway shop owner cannot not refuse to sell sandwiches to a Muslim customer because of the store owner’s genuinely held belief that Mohammed was a heretic. That’s fair. Both parties have “religious freedom;” that is, freedom to believe whatever they want to believe without repercussion by the government. If a customer does not wish to patronize a movie theater run by an atheist, or a Catholic, or a Jew, she can. That doesn’t affect the theater owner’s religion one bit. But if a religious person wants to see the latest blockbuster, she can’t be stopped from doing so because she’s religious. That’s the law, and it’s a good one. I’m very sure Sen. Cruz would agree.

Now let’s bring LGBT rights back into the mix and shine the light on Sen. Cruz’s hypocrisy. Senator Cruz claims to believe that if public accommodation laws are extended to include protection for LGBT customers, then “Bible-believing Christians” who want to refuse service to gays and lesbians will be “persecuted.” And in the court of public opinion, perhaps they should be. Others think they should be held up as heroes. But requiring the Mennonite owner of an art gallery with a rental room to rent it to gay people, if they ask, is not “persecution.” His refusal would be “persecution” on the basis of the customer’s sexual orientation. Senator Cruz wants to protect this “right to persecute” non-believers, sinners, and heretics of all stripes, but most especially the right to persecute LGBT Americans.**

That’s horrible, and that’s a large part of what made me mad this morning. But what hacked me off the most is his refusal to actually utter those words. It’s a very simple question, Senator: do you believe that a business should be allowed to refuse service to a gay person because’s gay? Do you believe that a business should be allowed to kick out a transgender woman because she is transgender? Those are yes-or-no questions, Senator. I know you believe the answer to each is yes, and you’ve ably telegraphed that answer to like-minded people. But you won’t say it in so many words. Why? Because you know it’s politically unpalatable. You know a huge swath of voters would be offended. So you cloak your anti-gay beliefs in the guise of “religious freedom,” make up a bullshit story about a business that was “forced” to close, and talk up unfounded worries about “Bible-believing Christians” (why is this always about Christians?) being “persecuted” for refusing to do business with gay people because the Bible tells them so.

I don’t want the government to do anything to take away your right to believe whatever you believe about gays, or women, or Muslims. I don’t care if it’s your religious belief or just your inherent prejudice that makes you think the end times will come if transgender men and women are allowed to have a pee in the right bathroom. You knock yourself right the hell out. But be honest about it. Answer the question. Admit that you think it should be okay for me to be fired by my employer for being gay, whether that employer is Christian, Buddhist, or whatever. Admit that you think it should be okay for me to be refused service at the only inn in town, whether that innkeeper is Jewish, or atheist, or anything else. I won’t stop thinking you’re a bigot and an asshole and wholly unfit for public office. But I might stop thinking you’re a coward.

(P.S. – In my spare time, I’m a lawyer. None of that was legal advice.)

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^So a Catholic church could refuse to admit non-believers, because the people who wrote the Civil Rights Act were careful to protect “religious freedom,” and the local Skeptics Society could probably refuse to admit Ted. Probably, because what counts as a “private club” isn’t entirely clear.

*The Texas Legislature and Governor Abbott want to pass a state law that makes it illegal for cities to have non-discrimination ordinances. Think about that for a minute.

**”Protect” should probably be in quotes, because it’s not actually an affirmative right yet; it’s just that there’s no law against it. It would be an actual “right to persecute” — a right to discriminate, so long as your religion says it’s cool — if the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ever became federal law, as Sen. Cruz fervently wishes.

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