the PUBLIC FORUM - Homophobia
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Alan Hevesi

Leon Hoffman: Alan Hevesi, Comptroller of the City of New York -- one of three city-wide elected officials -- has long been an active proponent in promoting the civil rights of gay and lesbian individuals. We are very grateful to Mr. Hevesi and his staff for sharing their directory of gay and lesbian services and resources, which allowed us to notify a large number of people about this event. Mr. Hevesi has been Comptroller since January 1994, distinguishing himself with his expertise on budgetary matters while ensuring the integrity of professionals and of city programs. Prior to this time, Mr. Hevesi represented Queens in the legislature for 22 years, and in 1994 he served as Grand Marshall of the Queens Gay and Lesbian Pride March. It is a great personal honor to introduce to you Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi.

Alan Hevesi: Dr. Hoffman, thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted and honored to be here. It is important that we are all here to address, in all of its components, a terrible blight on our society which is the bigotry that is focused against gay men and lesbians.
I assume that a substantial proportion of you are trained academicians and/or clinicians, health professionals, experts in psychoanalytic and other psychological treatments. I have a little bit of an academic background, completely and totally unrelated to your experience. I have no expertise in the science of treating people or in the science of generalizing about populations of people and what motivates them. I come at this issue from the point of view of public policy, but I do not believe my total lack of expertise is terribly relevant in terms of how society should be responding to issues of bigotry.
So let me tell you where I am coming from on these issues. One: bigots are stupid people, ignorant people, sometimes led by people who are neither stupid nor ignorant, but are exploiting the underlying feelings of hatred and anger that bigots express. This is sort of a grand oversimplification and yet in the public policy debate, such broad oversimplifications have great power.
Number two: If bigotry was only stupid, then we would have to deal with it on an academic level and, maybe in individual cases, as part of a treatment pattern. But bigotry is not just stupid, it is dangerous. It translates individual feelings and needs to target some other group in a negative way, to stereotype, to ascribe negative characteristics to another group and then sometimes to act on those negative feelings. The grand example, of course, was the bigotry of Nazi Germany against Jews where the generalized attitude expressed an appreciation for the notion that Jews were something less than human. If your target group is less than human then it becomes easy to translate individual feelings of anger or hatred into public policy which injures that group and into excess which allows for physical violence and riot and theft and murder and genocide.
The underlying crime, the underlying motives of genocide are often the feelings of one group that have been historically reinforced by political leadership to target some other group. Croatians hating Serbians who hate Moslems who hate Croatians, making it easy to slaughter, to massacre captured members of the target organization.
America has been more successful than most societies in labeling bigotry for what it is, the evil that it is, the stupidity, the ignorance, the anger, the hatred, and ultimately the violence that flows from it. In institutional American life, it is no longer acceptable for the most part for people to be overtly anti-Semitic or overtly racist or overtly sexist or to express, in a generalized way, negative feelings about the disabled. The one bigotry that remains acceptable in large portions of American society is the bigotry against gay men and lesbians.
It is acceptable for a variety of psychological reasons that you will be more expert in defining than I am, and it is acceptable institutionally. It is part of the ideology of many political groups and religious groups. Social organizations and people are comfortable saying I am better because they are perverse or because they are sick or because they are evil. Stereotyping a group, targeting them, and allowing conditions that lead to injury, results in all kinds of injury. It seems that this one acceptable bigotry permeates the society. New York City is the most tolerant city in the history of cities. Its ethnic diversity is unprecedented in the history of the human race. One hundred and seventy four languages are spoken by children in our public schools who did not speak English first. We are so mixed and so diverse, yet there are people in this city who are overt in expressing their hatred for gays and lesbians. Frank Bolselieri is a leading white racial bigot who is an elected school board member in school board 24 in Queens. He has no problem expressing his bigotry and hatred. So what is the injury? The injury, number one, is that our law reflects this tolerant attitude for this bigotry. If I apply for a job and I am perceived to be Jewish, I cannot be denied that job because I am Jewish. I cannot be denied that job because I am a woman or because I am black or because I am in a wheelchair. But if somebody perceives that I am gay, he or she is legally permitted to deny me that job --a professional job, a teaching job, medical care. Whatever it is, it is permitted.
If I apply for housing and I am in any of those other categories, the law is clear. If somebody denies my access to housing on the basis of my race, creed, gender, religion, national origin, the offender can be punished in the civil and sometimes criminal courts. But if they perceive me as gay -- it does not even mean I am gay -- I am allowed to be denied that housing. That is called bigotry and it extends further.
The City of New York leads the nation in the reduction of crime. Most of the really extraordinary new policing techniques from zero tolerance to fare jumpers to the Crimestat computer program we’ve developed here. Although every city in America has a dramatic reduction in crime rates, ours is dramatically better. You know what the category of increased violence and crime is? Crimes against gay men and lesbians.
More than fifty percent of gay men and lesbians experience some kind of incident, verbal or physical or otherwise, because of the perception of their sexual orientation. Nine percent of gay men and lesbians have been assaulted with a weapon and the rates are going up, not down. Every other category is down, but crimes against gays and lesbians are going up and that means people are being killed. Matthew Shepard was not an isolated case. People being killed because of the perception of who they are. Bigotry towards gay men and lesbians has been reinforced in institutional America with a variety of rationales. Some are based in theology, which for me has as much legitimacy as for example the justification of apartheid by the theology of the Dutch Reformed Church which rationalized racial bigotry.
I have participated in debates in the New York State Assembly where I was warned that if we passed gay rights legislation and gave to this community special benefits by recognizing them, by adding them into the Civil Rights Law as a category, we will be endorsing a life style contrary to the value system in our society that the heterosexual, nuclear family does not want to endorse this perverse life style. I thought to myself, if that is true then I guess when we prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, we are endorsing blindness and if we are prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion, we must be endorsing the Theravada Buddhism. This is nonsense.
It is a kind of clever camouflage for the inherent feelings that underlie these public policy debates. It is ugly stuff, and because this bigotry is part of our society, people die, they get killed, they get denied, they get discriminated against, they get injured in any number of ways and those of you who are clinicians deal with the injury regularly and consistently.
But I also have to add in my expertise. My sense is that being gay, lesbian is not a choice. It is not a selection of a lifestyle, it is not a sickness that can be cured. I now read about programs to cure by the religious right. They are going to cure you. But I know that venom, I mean Trent Lott, the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, can denounce the gay lifestyle as an evil, and then maintain that he has caring and compassion for other human beings. For me, it does not matter what the source is as a matter of public policy. It is not a sickness as far as I am concerned, but if it were, that means you do not get a job? That means a law-abiding citizen does not get housing because it is a sickness, because it is a choice of a lifestyle?
These are the absurd arguments that underlie a profound fundamental bigotry. My attitude on these issues, on bigotry in general, is the following. Sometimes when I talk about this in communities who feel the grief themselves as target communities, they become a little bit uncomfortable, but it is really true. It is not sufficient, particularly in New York, not sufficient any place, not acceptable any place, but certainly not in New York, to be a militant against the bigotry that is focused on you and tolerate the bigotry from your friend, neighbor, brother and sister sitting next to you against some other target group.
It is not acceptable to rail against anti-Semitism and expose it and fight it and crush it militantly and then accept the racism of the person sitting next to you. It is not acceptable to talk about civil rights on the basis of race, creed, color, gender, disability and accept bigotry against other people because of their sexual orientation. That is just wrong and there is no way to overcomplicate it, it is wrong in principle.
So, the obligation for all of us is not to shy away from this dispute. You as health professionals have a particular world view, a particular method of analysis, of seeing the world, of seeing your profession, of seeing your patients and you have to deal with all of that complexity. But in the larger arena of public policy, this is not a complicated issue. Bigotry is wrong, bigotry is stupid, bigots have to be exposed, they have to be humiliated, they have to be defeated, they have to be crushed, and the government has to be an ally in that fight, and the end result has to be legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, as well as all of the other categories. If someone commits a crime of violence, an assault, because of the perception that the other person is gay, he or she should have tacked on as a message from society that this bigotry merits some extra penalty because of the evil that this act represents. This is an obligation for all of us, and I really believe that no one should shy away from it. Let us all participate in the fight. It is the right thing to do. Thank you.


Copyright, 1999, The American Psychoanalytic Foundation. All Rights Reserved.
all photographs by Mervin S. Stewart, M.D.