J.M. Sorrell: The human right to live
NORTHAMPTON — If you believed that an entire class of people in your midst was responsible for rape, murder, genocide and recruiting children to do such acts, what would you do? Would you want to make it so those people could not do such things? You would want to help, right? You would want to crush evil.
Imagine that your political and spiritual leaders rouse you with righteous rhetoric and ask you to join them in eliminating these dangerous perpetrators. The leaders pave this normative path as you work together to undo evil.
However, there is one small problem. The entire plan is all wrong. What is actually occurring is a propaganda machine to prey on your worst fears and to distract you from enormous socioeconomic problems.
Is it Nazi Germany? Or is it present-day Uganda?
Last Monday I sat in federal court in Springfield to hear and see the opening arguments in the case known as Sexual Minorities Uganda v. Lively.
Scott Lively, that is. He is a person who recovered from a life of addiction and downward spiral to “find Jesus” to work to criminalize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy in countries vulnerable to bias and scapegoating.
We now wait to hear the judge’s decision about proceeding with the case or dismissing it.
Either way, history was made Jan. 7, as this is the first time the United States’ Alien Tort Statute has been used to protect the human rights of LGBT people. The implications are immense.
I am the director of an older adult advocacy group for LGBT people in western Massachusetts. If our organization was in Uganda, we would be viewed as deviants who deserve to suffer violent acts, imprisonment and even death.
We would meet carefully and we would be aware of the audacity of our very existence. Our bravery would be a daily transcendent practice.
There were supporters for each side in the courtroom. The first two rows on the plaintiffs’ side were filled with Ugandan and other international human rights activists. One person wore a button that read “Lively is Deadly.”
The other two rows were filled with people (me included) who feel the profundity of the situation where our sisters and brothers are literally fighting for their lives and to be understood as good, principled citizens in their own country.
Behind the defendant were people who seemed average. I kept looking over to them as I was struck by how banal evil is. No one looked like a monster. Scott Lively appeared to be cordial and well-groomed. How could these people believe that LGBT people should be shunned and punished in unimaginable ways? How has their religious compass led to this point?
Prior to entering the courtroom, I happened to be near many of Lively’s supporters. It took me a while to figure this out because, as I said, everyone appeared average. There was talk of parish priests and fundraisers and holidays as though this was a social event. Then I saw the handout. It talked about our “God-fearing nation” and why this fight to stop the gay movement is righteous.
When we write this off as ignorance or lack of exposure, we underestimate this crusade. These are people who actually think they are doing God’s work.
I am convinced that righteousness of all kinds — left, right, center — impedes human progress. As with bullying, righteousness works because of the absence of empathy. In any scenario, if “those people” are not like “us,” then we have the right to oppress, convert or kill them.
The attorney from the Center for Constitutional Rights represented Sexual Minorities Uganda with skill and restraint despite the absolute urgency of their plight.
Are we not responsible for violence including words that inspire others to fear and hate people?
Ending the cycle includes not reacting with provocation despite the temptation. Today, we offered no harsh words for the defendant and his supporters.
We felt sorrow and grief. Mostly, there was love and light for our Ugandan friends.
J.M Sorrell is the director of SAGE Western Massachusetts.