Queer Nebraska

Let's face it. Some states beg to be called backward.

Take Nebraska for instance, where last Tuesday residents voted to affirm the intolerant reputation their state holds in the national consciousness.

Initiative 419, the ballot measure by which they did this, reads "Only marriage between a man and a woman shall be valid or recognized in Nebraska."

The initiative, a pre-emptive strike against legal measures that would force Nebraska to recognize gay marriages if legalized in another state, shows how far conservatives are willing to go to deny gays and lesbians equal protection under the law.

At issue wasn't whether gay and lesbians should adopt children or receive legal protection from discrimination in the workplace. This wasn't the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, hate crimes or even separate but equal civil unions. It wasn't even about Nebraska. Rather it was the possibility that another state might legalize gay marriage, and that in due course Nebraska would be forced to recognize the requisite civil rights and legal prerogatives associated with marriage licenses from that state.

As if the ballot language didn't spell out what was at stake, commentators everywhere, including the editorial boards of the state's three major newspapers, made it abundantly clear the proposition was a referendum on the decency of Nebraska itself. Even the football coach came out against it. Was Nebraska going to keep an open mind on the question of gay rights or define itself as absolutely intolerant?

The result was unambiguous.

Seventy percent of a state's voters rarely agree on anything, but when it came time to pre-emptively disenfranchise gay and lesbian Americans from a civil right they already lack, the state that endorsed a candidate claiming to be "a uniter not a divider" united to divide. Of all issues or people voted on, only one candidate attracted a higher percentage of state-wide support than did Proposition 419.

This is the politics of hate, and in Nebraska it is overwhelmingly popular.

Because of its increasingly Republican tilt, Nebraska offers a glimpse of what conservatives would do nationally if they could, and how they would go about it. In America respect for religious freedom often translates into an illogical deference to anything termed religious, allowing intolerance to run under the banner of religious belief. Anti-gay bigotry in Nebraska is no different. Prominent among its supporters, Nebraska's Mormons, evangelicals and Roman Catholics rallied around the flagpole to pass Proposition 419.

"We gave Jesus Christ honor and glory," said the organizer, whose subsequent move to take a job with a prominent ex-gay ministry begs the question of what is the radical Christian right's final solution.

Even the state's three Catholic Bishops, who are usually more reserved than their evangelical brethren, couldn't resist taking an early and forceful stance in support of the initiative. In addition to their public support, they mailed pictures of the Pope with biblical quotes about marriage to all of Nebraska's Catholics, who voted 3-1 in favor.

A group of nine black ministers representing more than 40 congregations was less subtle, pledging at a press conference that gay marriage "is straight out of hell and we need to send it back where it came from." Turning to an automotive metaphor to disparage the idea that love between gay people is even possible, one of them said, "Look in your car, a battery is no good with two positive posts or two negative posts."

The religious proponents, of course, don't consider themselves anti-gay. Nor do the black pastors see any parallels to the church's opposition to interracial marriage 30 years ago. Instead, victory is spun by organizers as mark of "progressive thinking" that respects the "boundaries that need to be retained for the continuation of civilization as we know it."

What about the 30 percent who opposed Proposition 419? Most were young, but they're leaving. According to a recent Omaha World-Herald survey, one-third of Omaha residents younger than 35 said they definitely or probably would move from Omaha within five years. "It's still got the whole hick, backward national impression," one of them said.

With what little money they managed to raise, opponents crafted an ad to air during the Nebraska-Oklahoma football game. Because it featured a swastika, TV stations refused to let it run, thereby adding censorship to the list of legal discriminations gays in Nebraska share with Jews (and gays) in Nazi Germany. The spot opened with the state's motto, "Equality before the law."

All this comes at a time when the Greater Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau is planning a $750,000 advertising campaign to define the city's national image. No need to do that now. Nebraskans have done it for themselves,.

Christopher M. Kirchhoff '01 is a history and science concentrator in Winthop House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.