LGBT Rights vs. Religious Freedom Looms Large at #AtlanticLGBT Summit

Welcome to the minefield that is discussing sexuality and gender issues circa 2015.


Atlantic Live/Twitter

During a lunch break at The Atlantic LGBT summit Thursday, attendees were invited to watch an informal panel discussion on transgender civil rights. Panelists included several transgender activists, as well as several non-trans panelists included for their expertise on legal issues (such as Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Chai Feldblum) or proximity to the conversation (such as an Atlantic staff writer who covers social justice). This, it turns out, was problematic. 

On her first turn speaking, a trans woman named Allyson Robinson started by criticizing the fact that less than half of the nine panelists were transgender. Good cisgender allies would have declined the invitation to participate, she suggested, because they were taking up space that could have gone to trans people. The audience and other panel members nodded along enthusiastically. 

Erasing marginalized people from discourse about their own communities has long been a problem, of course. But the fact remains that, at the moment, there are no trans EEOC commissioners. There is no trans executive of the American Civil Liberties Union D.C., or on the White House outreach team. Considering that this was not a panel on the trans experience per se but a dialogue on legal barriers to equality, the inclusion of cisgender people who work directly on these issues hardly seems a mystery or a microaggression. 

Commissioner Feldblum and moderator Steve Clemons pushed back slightly, defending the inclusion of non-trans panelists on these grounds. No good. Before long, those who thought having cis people on the panel was OK were branded complicit in the fact that trans people are often the targets of physical violence. Once again, nods and murmurs of approval from the audience. 

Welcome to the minefield that is discussing LGBTIQ* issues circa 2015. By the time panelists had sorted out who was micro- or macro-agressing against whom, there was little time left for the planned topic of the panel, trans civil rights. (Unless the right to be on an Atlantic panel is at the forefront of the trans agenda.) 

It was one of many mind-boggling moments during the summit, an event filled with both thought-provoking speakers and brain-numbing PC platitudes; heartwarming displays of how far society has come on LGBT issues mixed with troubling signs of where the wind is blowing. It's important to note that the summit was organized by centrist publication The Atlantic and underwritten by big businesses such as Deloitte, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and the American Federation of Teachers. It featured federal employees, former and current legislators, and one Sex in the City star. Nothing about this event could be described as remotely "fringe." 

Those who stuck out most during the day's sessions were figures like David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, and writer and pundit Andrew Sullivan. Boaz and Sullivan are both gay and have long histories of gay-rights activism. But their belief in religious freedom set them apart from most of the crowd and speakers gathered yesterday. One of the biggest cheers of the day, in fact, came after an audience member accused Boaz of being "on the wrong side of history."

Boaz had been discussing "Identity in the Workplace" with EEOC Commissioner Feldblum. (Watch the whole thing here.) Both touched on the historic alliance between libertarians and the LGBT community when it comes to political activism. But with this community's main focus shifting from repealing discriminatory laws—like those that prohibited sodomy, same-sex marriage, or 'don't ask, don't tell' in the military—to enacting discriminatory laws, the area of common ground seems to be shrinking. 

Scott Shackford pondered this "libertarian-gay divorce" in Reason's November 2015 issue. "Now that government discrimination is largely tamed, gay activists are going after private behavior, using the government as a bludgeon," wrote Shackford. "After a long alliance with libertarians, the two camps could be settling into a new series of conflicts."

After yesterday's summit, I'm pretty sure we should start drawing up the divorce papers. Again and again, people scoffed at the ideas of religious liberty and of furthering LGBT equality via non-governmental means. 


In contrast, Boaz stated: "I think we have millions of small businesses, and I would like to leave the heavy hand of government out of their relationships with their customers and their employees as much as possible." 

"I think it is an illiberal attitude to say to a person with strong religious views, 'You have to participate in a ceremony like a gay wedding that offends your religious sensibilities," he continued. 

Feldblum, however, dismissed the idea that religious beliefs could ever justify discrimination. "When someone has not been educated [about tolerance of LGBT individuals] and wants to keep discriminating," she said, "there is only one federal government, there is only one state government, one local government that can say: We will not tolerate this in our society." 

The EEOC just brought its first two cases alleging discrimination against a transgender person, she noted, and while one of the employers had already settled, the other, a funeral home, is fighting back.

With a religious exemption to non-discrimination laws, the funeral home owner "could say, 'well, actually, we're religiously based,'" said Feldblum, raising her arms high and rolling her eyes. "It's a funeral home! We do not want to allow that and the only thing that can protect us is a law that doesn't have [a religious] exemption." 

It's a strange statement for someone who started the session by declaring it a "myth" that those discriminated against by employers because of their sexuality or gender expression have no recourse. The EEOC has ruled that the federal prohibition on sex discrimination (established as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) does indeed extend to gay and trans people. "When you hear that in 29 states there's no recourse if you've been discriminated at work … that's a myth, in terms of current law," said Feldblum. "You can come to the EEOC and file a charge and we'll investigate."

Over the past two years the agency has received about 2,300 complaints from those alleging discrimination because of their gender identity or sexual orientation and has tackled about 200 of those claims, she said.


Live Twitter commentary from those watching the discussion was almost exclusively on Feldblum's side. After calling religious exemptions "nonsense," one user even tweeted (without a hint of irony):

Yo. 'Free Country' does NOT mean freedom to restrict others' freedoms. 

Besides the conviction that someone's right to shop for cake anywhere trumps someone else's freedom of conscience, here's some other conventional wisdom gleaned from the summit: 

  • Being "safe" means not just freedom from actual or threatened physical violence but also avoiding offensive or hurtful language. 
  • Laws that are redundant or practically unenforceable are still worthwhile for their "symbolic" power. (Says Scott Shackford: "I remember when people defended anti-sodomy laws as symbolic."
  • Anything short of unconditional affirmation of minority-activist goals is a form of "erasure." The correct response when talking about politics and policy is to assess who has the most potent victim-profile and then defer to them. By assessing people on things like race, gender expression, and sexuality rather than the content of their ideas, we are showing them proper respect. 

The urge to police people's language at the summit was also strong—comically so, at times. During one Q&A session, an aggrieved audience member suggested panelists watch their use of the word "states" when referring to American land, as it was exclusionary to those who live in U.S. territories.

And it was impossible not to notice a contradictory impulse in so many of those gathered. At the same time as people praised the non-binary "gender spectrum," they reinforced old tropes about masculinity and femininity, and the centrality of biology to both. One speaker said he knew his daughter was trans from a young age because Nicole—assigned male at birth, like her twin brother—liked to dress in pink and avoided boy toys. Another speaker described a man as being "in touch with his feminine side" because "he cries a lot." (Nothing regressive and gender-stereotypical to see here!)

For years, feminists have fought against the idea that there's something inherent in girlhood or womanhood that explains most of the gendered preferences and traits foisted on us. Now this viewpoint gets a pass, as long as it's espoused by the LGBTIQ community rather than the usual old patriarchy.

The saving grace of the summit, for me, was some real talk from Andrew Sullivan. In the final session of the summit, titled "The Paradox of Progress," Sullivan pretty much played the role of Reality in the South Park "Safe Space" episode: 

"I always was engaged in civil rights politics in order not to be engaged in civil rights politics," said Sullivan. But despite the gay rights movement's "tectonic" gains, a paradox common to activist- movements has emerged:

Somehow the more success you have, the remaining things that are not fully done become, in some people's minds, the worst form of oppression they've ever experienced in their lives. You can see this all over these college campuses right now. 

Sullivan fears that young activists will "cling to victimhood and not see the opportunity that they now have, which was built upon by generations of people that have lived through pain and suffering, and a generation that died unbelievably tragic deaths… And not to do that, given what [prior generations of activists] gave, and what they sacrificed—to revert to this sort of whiny, victimhood, constant sense of oppression—is to do a disservice to all the people that made this moment possible."

Sullivan also criticized today's LGBT activists from a tactical standpoint. "What helped the gay rights movement succeed finally was a strategy of pointing out what we have in common with the majority, and appealing to that center ground, and making very strategic arguments about that," said Sullivan.

And avoiding the kind of model where by you instantly accuse the entire society of being bigoted, and constantly frame your position as one of beleaguered victimization that needs to be accommodated at all costs and has no tolerance for any of the in-between stuff that people feel.

[…] Why do we abandon that strategy now? Why do we abandon the strategy of engagement with straight people, explaining our stories, building up that dialogue and that commonality? … The blanket bigotry towards large swaths of this country who may disagree with us right now or have disagreed with us in the past is not just morally wrong, it's politically counterproductive. 

Calling himself more of a "classical liberal" on these issues, Sullivan stressed that "religious freedom is fundamental to this country," and said he is "extremely queasy about any attempt to corral or coerce the religious faith of anybody." Audience members on Twitter branded Sullivan's statements offensive, misogynist, and transphobic. See his whole session here. 

* Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning