Oklahoma state Rep. Sally Kern’s hateful words have echoed around the world a few hundred thousand times thanks to this file posted at YouTube by the Victory Fund. Despite the heat she is taking for her extreme comments that she thought would only be heard by a small group, she hasn’t shown any sign of apologizing. 

What are we to make of this rant that accidentally made its way into public discussion?

Unfortunately, it’s not just a problem for the GLBT community in Oklahoma. It has resonance here in Tennessee. And it shows the two-fold way that political discourse works in America—one kind of direct language for subgroups and a coded words for the public. 

A prime example includes a little noticed part of Rep. Kerns’s speech. Towards the end, she discusses a bill she introduced in the Oklahoma legislature to inform parents of the school clubs their children are joining. This is how she explains the rationale for her bill: “One of the things I deal with in our legislature, I tried to introduce a bill last year, that would notify parents, uh schools had to let parents know what clubs their students were involved in. And the reason I did that bill, primarily, was this, we had the Gay-Straight Alliance coming into our schools. Kids are getting involved in these groups, their lives are being ruined, their parents don't know about it.”

If that bill sounds familiar, it’s because a similar one was introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly last year. The legislators supporting the bill never mentioned Gay-Straight Alliances in public. Instead, they shrewdly talked about the need to increase “parental involvement” in education. Fortunately, the bill hasn’t moved since last year, but because the supporters were so careful with their words in Tennessee, it was an uphill battle getting it stalled. After all, who doesn’t support more parental involvement in schools? 

The example illustrates perfectly the strategic way that the far Right uses one set of words to fire up its political base and another set of words to appeal to the public’s “moveable middle”--those who either haven’t made up their minds about GLBT issues or those who don’t even see the connection to our rights in the first place. 

Another example is the adoption battle we’ve been facing in Tennessee since 2005. In 2005 the attack was out in the open. Bills were proposed that explicitly attempted to ban gays and lesbians from adopting. Fortunately, those bills were defeated. The strategy has changed in 2008. The current bill seeks to ban unmarried, cohabiting couples from adopting. One of the sponsors of the bill told The Tennessean recently, “I have friends in that community [the GLBT community], and it is not targeted to them.” The public explanation runs something like this: Married couples offer the most stable environment in which to raise a child. Again, the words are carefully chosen. Of course, everyone wants children to be raised in a stable home.

But what kinds of things are being said in private? What is really being said to justify the bill when those on the far Right think they’re talking amongst themselves? We don’t have to imagine.   All we have to do is go back to March 2006 when one Tennessee legislator’s thoughts about adoption accidentally reached the public’s eyes. In an email to a graduate student, the lawmaker cited research that “shows that most homosexual couples have numerous emotional dysfunctions and psychological issues that may not be healthy for children.” 

Although not as inflammatory as Rep. Kearns’s speech, these words are still poisonous. So we have good reason to be suspicious when we are told, “This bill isn’t about you.” When the rhetoric of discrimination flourishes in sub-groups in our society, we have every reason to be watchful.  We only have to scratch the surface of some legislation to find the real motivations. 

Bringing the hate behind these bills to light is tricky. Because the strategy of open discrimination is running out of fuel, those who label us “the biggest threat” are developing new ways to advance their agenda of limiting our rights. We can’t expect that audio recordings and emails of our attackers’ private thoughts will always find their way to the public. But through vigilant monitoring of their efforts and vigorous questioning of their reasoning, we can find opportunities to show the public’s moveable middle what is really at work in such seemingly innocent legislation. 

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

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