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Most Arkansas newspapers didn’t talk to trans people in coverage of anti-trans laws

Only about 38%, included the perspective of a trans or nonbinary person

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Media Matters Graphic by Molly Butler

By Casey Wexler | WASHINGTON – Arkansas recently passed three discriminatory laws targeting transgender people, particularly trans youth, including measures denying them health care and banning them from sports. Local print coverage of these laws was often lacking, as journalists rarely talked to trans people they impact and largely failed to push back against bigotry and anti-trans misinformation.

A Media Matters review of local media from February 2 — when the first legislation was introduced — through April 7 — the day after the third law was passed — found that Arkansas newspapers printed 32 articles on one or more of these laws and only 12, about 38%, included the perspective of a trans or nonbinary person. About 56% of the articles came from one paper, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 

The Medical Ethics and Diversity Act was passed in late March and allows medical professionals to deny nonemergency health care to people, including members of the LGBTQ community, based on “religious, moral, or ethical objections.” This covers a broad swath of common medical issues; according to the Human Rights Campaign, it is now legal in Arkansas for doctors to refuse to maintain hormone treatments for trans people in inpatient care and for pharmacies to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control, the HIV-prevention medication PrEP, and antiretrovirals used to manage HIV/AIDS. 

The Fairness in Women’s Sports Act was enacted on March 25 and bans transgender girls and women from joining female sports teams at school. Over 30 other states have similar bills working their way through their state legislatures, with Mississippi and Tennessee joining Arkansas in actually signing them into law in 2021. 

The so-called Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act bans best practice, gender-affirming healthcare for transgender children and has been called “the single most extreme anti-trans law to ever pass through a state legislature.” The title of the law itself is misleading anti-trans disinformation, as gender-affirming health care is not experimental at all. In fact, such care is safe, effective, and can save lives, and it is widely accepted by medical professionals including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Endocrine Society. The Washington Post’s Samantha Schmidt explained:

Medical guidelines do not recommend performing gender-affirming genital surgeries on transgender people before they turn 18. They also do not recommend any medical interventions before a child reaches puberty. But once transgender children reach the early stages of puberty, medical guidelines say they can consider puberty blockers, which are reversible treatments that pause puberty and give children time to decide what to do next. Later in their teenage years, transgender adolescents can consider hormone replacement therapies, such as estrogen for trans girls and testosterone for trans boys, which create more permanent changes to their bodies.

These treatments can lower rates of depression, anxiety, and even thoughts of suicide among trans youth. But despite doctors’ opposition to the premise of the law, it was passed over the governor’s veto on April 6. 

The LGBTQ rights organization GLAAD recommends always citing a trans person in reporting on trans issues, as they are experts on their own lives. However, citing actual trans people in articles about policies that impact them has been a consistent problem for national media; in the week surrounding the passage of the Arkansas bill blocking trans youth from accessing necessary medical care, most TV news networks failed to host a trans guest in their coverage (although CNN and MSNBC have both recently brought on trans activists to debunk some of the misinformation spread by those who support medical care bans). And in January, many national outlets failed to talk to trans people in news pieces about the Biden administration’s repeal of the Trump-era trans military ban. 

Articles about the new anti-trans laws from Arkansas newspapers often included quotes from state legislators but seldom featured any trans people to give perspective on how these laws would impact their lives. Instead, these outlets often included claims like this one from a March 23 article in the Van Buren County Democrat:

State Rep. Richard Womack spoke against the assertion by one member of the public who spoke against SB354 at Thursday’s meeting and said the bill endorsed bullying and exclusion.

“If bullying is truly a concern, I would submit to the committee that using [laws] to allow [transgender women] who are clearly and physically dominant to dominate in sports against a weaker sex would be bullying,” Womack said.

Womack’s claim has no basis in fact, as trans women are not dominating in school sports — and the article notes that one of the bill’s co-sponsors later admitted that “she had no knowledge of any instance in Arkansas where transgender women had competed in women’s sports.” In fact, a March 3 Associated Press report on more than 20 states considering bills to ban trans students from competing found that “in almost every case, sponsors cannot cite a single instance in their own state or region where such participation has caused problems.” Yet the Van Buren County Democrat failed to mention this fact or push back on Womack’s statement, which was followed by another state legislator’s claim that they know a transgender person who supports the bill (that person is neither named nor directly quoted). Instead, the article cited a statement in support of anti-trans legislation from the Alliance Defending Freedom, an extremist organization dedicated to opposing LGBTQ rights. 

More than half the articles in this study either misgendered transgender individuals or allowed trans people to be misgendered without pushback, such as quoting someone calling trans girls “biological boys.” Misgendering is a form of harassment that stigmatizes trans people and also goes against journalistic standards. One article from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote about trans girls as “students,” “participants,” and “athletes” without acknowledging their actual identities as women:

A bill aimed at deterring Arkansas’ schools from allowing transgender athletes to participate in girls’ and women’s sports won the approval of the Arkansas Senate on Wednesday.

Supporters of the bill and of national efforts to keep transgender participants out of girls’ and women’s sports said it’s unfair for cisgender girls and women to compete against athletes who were assigned the male gender at birth. 

More than three-quarters of the pieces reviewed by Media Matters, or 25 articles, framed the issue of rights for trans people as a topic up for debate, with anti-trans perspectives pitted against trans people’s lives — usually without asking a single transgender person. Each of these new laws in Arkansas restrict trans people’s freedoms in some way, whether by denying them health care or athletic opportunities. But most articles on the subject treat those seeking to enshrine discrimination in law as people with legitimate points of concern. Others, as in the case of this Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, presented an anti-trans position along with a pro-trans one without properly debunking the factual inaccuracies of the anti-trans position: 

Senate Bill 289 by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, called the “Medical Ethics and Diversity Act,” would allow providers to opt out of procedures they don’t agree with based on their religious or moral beliefs.

Co-sponsor Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, said the bill gives a remedy to those providers to defend themselves and emphasized that the legislation is procedure-specific, while opponents of the bill say it’s unnecessary and will lead to discrimination.

“Why do you need a remedy for something that’s not happening?” House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said. “There will be some that will use this to discriminate or to make folks feel uncomfortable in a lot of ways. To take one of our liberties, religious freedom, to believe as you wish, and to twist it to infringe on other’s rights, even medical rights, is reprehensible.”

Not all of Arkansas media covered the issue as poorly as some of the print newspapers. Max Brantley, editor of The Arkansas Times, frequently wrote pieces on the magazine’s blog affirming trans identities and directly criticizing the new laws as a form of “persecution.” Weeks after the passage of the SAFE Act on April 6, Brantley’s blog has continued to cover new attacks on trans rights that are working their way through the Arkansas legislature. This includes another bill that would restrict trans athletes even further; a proposal that would require teachers to use a child’s dead name, or birth name, in the classroom even if a student requests otherwise, which can be psychologically harmful; and a bill that would allow people to sue public agencies that let trans people use the restroom corresponding with their gender identity. 

Arkansas outlets owe it to their readers and the trans community to be more responsible in covering the potential harms of this upcoming legislation. 

Methodology

Media Matters searched print articles in the Factiva database from local newspapers in Arkansas for any of the terms “trans,” “transgender,” “transphobe,” “transphobic,” “transphobia,” ““gender identity,” “gender nonconforming,” “gender fluid,” “nonbinary,” “transsexual,” “biological boy,” “biological male,” “biological man,” or “biological men” from February 2 through April 7, 2021.

We included the following newspapers: Arkansas Business, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas Medical News, Arkansas Times, Baxter Bulletin, Booneville Democrat, Charleston Express, The Courier, The Daily Citizen, Hot Springs Village Voice, Jonesboro Sun, El Latino, Newport Independent, The Paragould Daily Press, Paris Express, The Pine Bluff Commercial, Press Argus-Courier, The Sun Times, The Times Record, and Van Buren County Democrat.

We then coded articles for whether they included perspective from any trans person, misgendered any trans person, acknowledged that these laws violate human and civil rights, framed anti-trans talking points as equal to trans perspectives, referenced real trans athletes, uncritically repeated conservative framing of trans medical care as “experimental” or “child abuse,” or noted that the bills are a direct response to President Joe Biden’s pro-LGBTQ policies.

Casey Wexler is a researcher at Media Matters. She previously worked as a freelance producer for NBC News Channel and as a desk assistant for NBC News.

The preceding article was previously published by Media Matters and is republished by permission.

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Chicago youth theatre fires gay teacher then lies-staff acted immorally

Mahan wants the world to know CYT just changed policies to formally exclude LGBTQ staff, students, and family

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Andrew Mahan (L) in a personal photo taken while working at the CYT

By James Finn | CHICAGO – When I was a tormented gay teen, I took refuge in the world of theatre Many of my gay peers did. I know that’s a stereotype, and I can’t know exactly why queer people, especially gay men, feel drawn to Broadway-style theatre, but many of us really do.

Acting in high school plays and musicals became critical to my mental health and self worth. After college, I even did some community theatre, returning to a world I had experienced as a loving oasis. Later, my partner Lenny introduced me to Broadway for real, to his world of queer friends who made professional NYC theatre happen — actors, directors, producers, singers, dancers, and choreographers.

Beloved actor, mentor, choreographer Andrew Mahan fired because he’s gay

None of what I just wrote would surprise Andrew Mahan, who for a decade taught and mentored teenagers in Chicago’s Christian Youth Theater, part of the national Christian Youth Theater network that calls itself the largest after-school performing arts program in the country.

I was heartbroken to see the company I had poured so much love into, simply turn its back on me and pretend they didn’t get rid of me.

Mahan mentored many students, some of whom say he was the first person they ever found the courage to come out to. He didn’t hide being gay. In fact, since he wondered if an organization with “Christian” in its name would be cool with him, he was upfront from his first interviews. For the decade he worked at CYT, he never hid his sexual orientation.

He didn’t think he had to.

His experiences with staff and parents were mixed. He enjoyed his job but says he says he often had to put up with bigoted comments about how gay staff might be sexual threats to children. His students adored him, though. He was by all accounts an excellent teacher and positive role model.

Then one day in 2018, a parent saw Mahan’s face on a poster advertising a drag show, and all hell broke loose. The parent went to the board of directors, and soon Mahan’s supervisor presented him with an ultimatum: Resign or be fired. He chose to resign, and was shocked to learn what CYT did next.

Mahan wants the world to know CYT just changed policies to formally exclude LGBTQ staff, students, and family

In a post on Facebook, Mahan says, “CYT then crafted a lie that I got a performance contract in Chicago and they were very excited for me on this new venture. I was heartbroken to see the company I had poured so much love into, simply turn its back on me and pretend they didn’t get rid of me.”

Although all this went down about two years ago, Mahan says he’s coming forward now because of a new contract CYT just introduced — a contract that applies to staff, students, and family specifying that LGBTQ people are barred from participating in CYT programs.

Many of Mahan’s former students and colleagues are supporting him personally on Facebook as they condemn the homophobic policies of the people who lead CYT.

Families need to know what they’re getting into with CYT, which is not transparent about its anti-queer policies

On its own Facebook page, CYT Chicago presents itself as fun, wholesome, educational, and nondenominational. Like this:

CYT Chicago is the premier youth theater for Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin. With 10 different locations, there is sure to be a location near you!

CYT Chicago is a non-profit, educational theater program for kids ages 6–18. With dozens of high octane classes make learning both educational and fun! With disciplines ranging from dance, drama, and voice to stunt combat, makeup, and puppetry, there is an exciting class for everyone.

CYT Chicago does not advertise anti-LGBTQ policies

Other than the word Christian in the name, CYT Chicago’s Facebook page doesn’t even MENTION religion. Instead, they stress training in the theatre arts, which is probably what families expect from a youth theatre program, especially a well funded one like CYT that mounts several elaborate, expensive Broadway-style shows every year.

If you search out CYT Chicago’s web site rather than their Facebook page, you WILL find mention of Christianity in their values statement:

– Treat each individual with respect and significance

– Develop character traits including discipline, self-confidence, and integrity

– Bring families together through the use of individual talents and abilities

– Share the love of Christ in word and deed

I think few people could disagree that the values statement is generally positive. But it is not wholly truthful. My Christian friends and colleagues certainly don’t equate “sharing the love of Christ” with firing gay people and barring gay students and families from educational programs. That’s not a leap anyone would automatically make.

This is probably a good place to point out that Andrew Mahan identifies as a Christian and believed he WAS sharing the love of Christ with his students.

CYT’s national staff aren’t transparent about LGBTQ matters either

Kara List is CYT’s national director. This is what she has to say about why she loves CYT: “God continues to use the work of this organization to unify communities and families.” No mention of firing queer people and barring queer students and families.

National administrator Karen Smith says, “CYT provides a safe, loving family environment where through the arts, kids can learn more about the Creator who created them and loves them.” She leaves out, unless you’re LGBTQ.

Design lead Paul Stine says, “I joined CYT over 20 years ago and I love it because it has transformed me into, not only the performer I am today, but the person I am today. I hope to continue to help transform performers and people in the future of CYT.” He leaves out that CYT offers artistic transformation only to and via straight/cis people.

What is Christian Youth Theater? Well, scouring their web site, this is what I find:

CYT stands in the forefront in its commitment to the highest ethical, moral, technical, and artistic standards of excellence. Instructors are professionals, qualified in teaching and/or performing, who understand our mission statement, values, objectives, and goals.

You know what I don’t find? A single word about discriminating against LGBTQ people. Maybe the staff are ashamed of that part of who they are? That would certainly explain why Chicago staff lied about firing Andrew Mahan for being gay. It’s not like they were protecting his reputation. He’s a flamboyant gay man not in the closet by any stretch of the imagination. They were trying to protect their own reputation, because they know most Americans strongly disapprove of firing people for being gay.

Christian Youth Theater is not safe for LGBTQ people and is not a wholesome environment for young people

With its recent contract change, CYT staff have formalized and made explicit what they used to do on the downlow — discriminate against LGBTQ people and model homophobic bullying. CYT Chicago taught Andrew Mahan’s students two powerful lessons.

  1. If you’re LGBTQ, you don’t qualify for Christ’s love and you deserve to be fired and otherwise mistreated.
  2. If you’re not LGBTQ, Christian love means it’s OK to hurt and bully gay people.

Those are profoundly immoral lessons to teach children. It’s hard to imagine theatre people behaving this way, especially given queer people’s traditional contributions to the theatre arts and the world of Broadway. In one way, it’s hard to imagine Christian people behaving this way, not with what I know about Jesus’s teachings. Sadly, in another way, it’s easy to imagine. I was raised in an evangelical Christian world, so I know all too well the extent to which conservative Christians hate me and queer people like me.

Christian Youth Theater may be breaking the law

The Supreme Court ruled in June of 2020 that firing people or refusing to hire them because of their LGBTQ status violates the US Constitution. They have not yet ruled on the specifics of exemptions for churches, but (critically) CYT says it’s not a church. Nor are they part of any church.

Over and over again in promotional material, they define their primary mission to be theatre arts education. If that’s the case, they might very well not qualify for a religious exemption even after all the legal dust settles about how exemptions should work.

Additionally, CYT accepts significant government grant money, including federal taxpayer dollars, which means they must comply with Title IX anti-discrimination requirements. Since Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex, CYT’s new contract may represent a violation of federal law.

Christian Youth Theater needs to decide who they are and then exercise transparency

If CYT had been around when I was a tormented gay teen, I would have jumped at the chance to be part of their afterschool and summer programs. I would have researched, read up, and applied — thinking I was about to enter an oasis of acceptance and love.

Nothing in any of their promotional material would have warned me that the CYT world actually hated me and other gay people. I would have jumped head first into homophobia without having any idea what I was getting into.

Parents, families, teens…be warned. Unless and until something changes, Christian Youth Theater is not healthy for children and other living things.

James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

The preceding piece originally appeared at Prism & Pen, ‘Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling,’ and is republished by permission.

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A fiend is convicted, kudos to activist who never stopped seeking justice

“The lives of Black gay men matter — no matter if they’re homeless, survival sex workers or escorts — Our lives, our community matters.”

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26-year-old Gemmel Moore, convicted killer Ed Buck, and 55-year-old Timothy Dean (Photo montage via Jasmyne Cannick)

LOS ANGELES – A federal jury deliberated Tuesday and then in short order convicted a sexual fiend, a predator, a deviant murderer who literally got his thrills at the suffering of other human beings-suffering that he directly inflicted.

In what can be viewed as irony or better yet poetic karma, those twelve jurors comprised of seven women and five men found Ed Buck guilty on all nine federal counts on what is the fourth anniversary of the death of one of the dozen or more victims of his disgusting perverse hunt of Black men to fulfill his sick need for ever escalating sexual ‘kicks.’

Instead of celebrating that the killer of 26-year-old Gemmel Moore and 55-year-old Timothy Dean has been found guilty, and will likely find himself spending the rest of his perverse life in prison, the community needs to reflect on the fact that without one Black woman’s relentless determination to seek justice for the families of Gemmel and Timothy, Ed Buck may have gotten away with his crimes and more defenseless Black men would have suffered or even died at his hands.

She orchestrated and led a grass-roots effort to get the criminal justice system of Los Angeles to listen to Gemmel’s mother LaTisha Nixon’s plea for justice. She used Gemmel’s own words, written in his journal to alert authorities to the depths of the debauchery occurring inside that second floor flat in West Hollywood. She pleaded with law enforcement including the District Attorney for the County of Los Angeles to take action.

Her activism and fueling the rage of the greater community finally received the attention of Federal law enforcement and action that culminated in Buck’s arrest and the trial.

She stood by the families even as to the horror of many another Black man died nearly two years after Gemmel (2017) in January of 2019 and like that young life snuffed out too early, Timothy Dean was found deceased on the trash strewn floor of what arguably could be described as drug den.

“The lives of Black gay men matter — no matter if they’re homeless, survival sex workers or escorts — this is a case that transcends race, class, wealth. Our lives matter, our community matters, and just because someone is unhoused, an addict, may be a survival sex worker, or an escort, or HIV positive does not mean their lives don’t matter and we should look the other way when they show up dead in a white Democratic donor’s home.”

Those are the words of that powerful voice, political strategist and journalist Jasmyne Cannick.

The LGBTQ community of Los Angeles, especially those of colour owes Cannick a debt of honor and gratitude for her unceasing devotion to bring Buck to justice. Her writings, her interviews, her relentless pursuit of getting the law enforcement community to act, all resulted in today’s convictions.

In her owns words Cannick writes, “It’s been a long four years on this road for justice–justice that a guilty verdict would be but one small part off.  Real justice is making sure that this never ever happens again.  We can’t do that with the enabling parties still acting like Ed Buck didn’t happen”

She adds, “Ed Buck only got away with it for so long because he was white and because we still don’t believe Black victims–even when they tell us what happened to them.

Gemmel Moore told us in his diary, “Ed Buck is the one to thank, he gave me my first injection of chrystal [sic] meth. It was very painful.”

There is a bitter truth that needs greater exposure in Cannick’s words. Buck indeed got away with his crimes and depravity for years because of the colour of his skin and his perceived ‘status’ as a so-called wealthy player in the local Democratic party apparatus.

Turns out Buck was not all that he was portrayed as in the media and wealthy certainly he was not. But he parlayed his influence, funneled through donations from others, and did ingratiate himself into the party in California over the years. There is plenty of photographic evidence to substantiate those claims to fame showing Buck rubbing elbows with politicians from all quarters.

Worse though was that rumours of Buck’s fetishes were well known and yet even after the death of Gemmel Moore there seemed to be a collective shrugging of shoulders and zero calls for accountability. Cannick however, wasn’t having it.

“Former district attorney Jackie Lacey was sitting on a mountain of evidence and still did nothing to prosecute Ed Buck for the deaths of Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean,” she said.

“As much as this case is about Ed Buck, it’s also about our housing crisis, and what it makes people feel they have to do — play Russian roulette with their lives just to have a roof over their heads,” Cannick stressed.

One is safe to point out that the ‘former’ in front of the title Los Angeles County district attorney Jackie Lacey is due in no small part to Cannick’s grass-roots activism.

Cannick is not just a gadfly community activist, in fact far from it. She is a powerful voice for those who have had no voice and she reminds all of us that Ed Buck happened because the community allowed him to happen.

In her own words she points out, “Paul Koretz, a candidate for Controller in 2022, who is backed by the Black Democratic establishment and has taken thousands from Ed Buck, told a group that Buck’s victims were all “disadvantaged Black hustlers.”

So while this fight is as much about getting justice for Ed Buck’s victims it’s also about calling out all of the people and entities along the way who failed them and enabled Ed Buck. Not doing so ensures a repeat of this situation because Ed Buck isn’t the only Ed Buck.

Entities like the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department who many of Ed Buck’s victims said didn’t take their complaints about Ed Buck seriously.”

Yet she also points out the fallacy of a system that is rigged against people of colour, especially sex workers and others who live on the fringes of society. She wrote;

“But even though Ed Buck’s crimes have been made public throughout his trial, not much has changed.  The silence in Los Angeles’ is deafening.  If I wasn’t sitting in the courtroom myself, I probably wouldn’t know the trial was happening.  

There’s been no mention of the trial or justice for Ed Buck’s victims from the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, California Democratic Party, Stonewall Democratic Club, or any of the dozens of elected officials he gave his money to.”

As a community, as a city and county, in fact as a country and as a people we need to take heed of Cannick’s words and we need to act on her words to prevent another Ed Buck. That said, we need to thank Jasmyne Cannick for bringing justice for Gemmel, Timothy, and all of Buck’s victims.

Brody Levesque is the Editor of the Los Angeles Blade.

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Powerful anti-LGBTQ priest caught on gay sex app at work

Grindr is a sex app. Men use it to meet other men for sex. Journalists at the Catholic news site The Pillar legally purchased Grindr data

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Jeffrey Burrill addressing the USCCB Fall 2020 General Assembly. (YouTube screen capture.)

By James Finn | WASHINGTON – Last autumn as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops actively lobbied Congress to kill a proposed national suicide hotline because it directed help to suicidal LGBTQ people, the Conference elected Jeffrey Burrill as their general secretary. He had worked as a high-level staffer since 2016. His promotion made him the highest-ranking, most powerful Catholic priest in the United States who is not a bishop.

On Inauguration Day, Burrill remained general secretary as the Conference’s senior bishop chastised President Biden for supporting LGBTQ equality, claiming the president’s policies “advance moral evils.” Many lay Catholics rolled their eyes, having long since rejected the Catholic clergy’s relentless homophobic hate speech.

Burrill said nothing.

Nobody expected him to. His colleagues knew him as a conservative and staunch traditionalist who was “all in” with Church teachings that gay people are “depraved” and “disordered” and that transgender people “annihilate nature.” He had been an enthusiastic participant for years advancing institutional homophobia and transphobia.

He continued to administer the day-to-day work of the Conference and lead its staff as the bishops took steps to religiously punish President Biden for refusing to enforce Catholic doctrine about abortion, for refusing to make abortion a crime for all women and doctors, including those who are not Catholic.

Burrill again said nothing.

The U.S. bishops are notoriously conservative, and they chose their man well, grooming him for more power and influence in the Church as he executed their homophobic policies, including promoting an official Catholic organization called Courage that claims homosexuality is a result of mental illness and that encourages conversion therapy, a practice every major mental health association in the world acknowledges is intensely harmful and likely to result in suicide attempts.

Then Burrill’s other shoe dropped. He’d been using Grindr at work. Constantly. For years.

Grindr is a sex app. Men use it to meet other men for sex. Journalists at the Catholic news site The Pillar legally purchased data Grindr sells to third-party vendors. The data included unique mobile-device ID numbers and geo-time stamps that allowed investigators to identify Burrill’s mobile phone as he used Grindr in his office, his homes, family members’ homes and on his travels.

They say that information is non-identifiable. This is another example of how it’s an utter lie.

— Professor Ari Ezra Waldman

The general secretary of the US Bishops Conference was using Grindr practically every day. He was spending time at gay bars and at The Entourage in Las Vegas, an upscale bathhouse where wealthy gay men meet one another for casual sex. He often used Grindr before and while driving to private residences he never visited again.

Three disturbing stories pop out in this scandal about a homophobic gay priest

The first implicates Grindr and other tech companies that behave recklessly as they betray user privacy. The second centers around a continuing Catholic tendency to conflate gay men with pedophiles and sexual abusers. The third is the hypocrisy of homophobic Catholic clergy pushing official Church anti-LGBTQ hate speech. Let’s break each of these stories down.

1.) Privacy implications are dystopian in scale

This story is at least as worrisome as the Pegasus spyware scandal that also rocked the privacy world this week. But while Pegasus is sold to governments for tens of millions of dollars, the techniques that outed Burrill don’t require expensive software and are available to almost anyone.

The Pillar investigators were able to legally buy aggregated Grindr data from third party sources and use it to identify Burrill based on his movements. This should trouble anyone who uses a mobile device. Grindr routinely sold highly granular location and demographic data to advertising networks and analytic firms.

Pretty much every social media app on the Internet does this.

Grindr defends its privacy policies by pointing out they “anonymize” data before selling it, meaning they strip out names and phone numbers. But that didn’t help Burrill. Pillar investigators bought the data, observed that somebody was using Grindr on a unique mobile device just about every day at USCCB offices. From there, checking to see where else that unique device popped up in their data set was trivial. They correlated the device to Burrill’s homes, his family’s vacation home and to his publicly available travel records. They had their man for the nominal price of a data set.

Experts have long warned of the potential for this sort of tracking. Some say they’re surprised privacy violations like this haven’t already become common.

They warn that this is just the beginning.

“There’s an entire multi-hundred billion dollar industry of companies you’ve never heard of,” Northeastern University Professor Ari Ezra Waldman told Slate. “Their business model is collecting info from all corners of the internet and selling it to people so they can make general conclusions about a population and advertise to it. They say that information is non-identifiable. This is another example of how it’s an utter lie.”

Indeed, The Pillar suggests they have more stories on tap, more gay priests to out.

2.) Religious news sources are falsely framing this story as a fight against pedophilia and sex abuse while morally condemning LGBTQ people at large

The Pillar story itself is rather breathless, making one illogical leap after another to correlate consensual gay sexual activity with risks of predatory abuse. The authors describe Burrill as having engaged in “serial and illicit sexual activity” immediately after writing “he is widely reported to have played a central role” in coordinating the U.S. Church’s response to the ongoing clerical child sex abuse scandal.

Their plain implication is that sexually active gay men are incapable of protecting children from predators and present a heightened risk of being predators themselves.

The authors are not not coy about linking Grindr to the risk of child sexual abuse. They cite three examples of priests using Grindr to meet teenagers for sex but fail to make any case that Burrill himself is attracted to minors or has any track record of predatory behavior. Instead, they write, “There is no evidence to suggest that Burrill was in contact with minors through his use of Grindr. But any use of the app by the priest could be seen to present a conflict with his role in developing and overseeing national child protection policies.”

They quote Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary, to make their point more directly: “When it becomes evident that a cleric is regularly and glaringly failing to live continence, that can become only a step away from sexual predation.”

This assertion, repeated by many other Catholic publications in the past two days, shocks the conscious of LGBTQ people everywhere, many of whom work with children as teachers, social workers and community leaders — overseeing child protection policies without the least conflict with their private adult sexual lives.

Religion News Service jumped on the gay-bashing wagon fast, Steven P. Millies opining, “I am a sinner. So are you. So is Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill. Not one of us has a personal life that would withstand the sort of scrutiny The Pillar has applied to Burrill. Every single one of us has had a shameful moment we regret, and I suspect most of us must be caught up in cycles of sinfulness that we repeat less because we want to than because we are sinners and cannot help being sinners.”

Notice how Millies appears to defend Burrill even as he heaps hate speech on gay people, calling us shameful and sinful while implying that our sexuality is regretful.

I choked on story after hateful story like his while preparing this piece, both in nominally liberal and more conservative religious publications. The Burrill scandal has prompted a tiring and toxic wave of overt homophobia from religious writers who seem more interested in targeting gay people for moral condemnation than in focusing on the hypocrisy that should be the center of this tale.

3.) Jeffrey Burrill is a hypocrite who worked to hurt LGBTQ people while living his off hours as a sexually active gay man

First, let’s shoot down a disingenuous liberal Catholic talking point. The accusations The Pillar printed are not innuendo. They are not mere gossip. Look, I’m angry Grindr sold private data, but the data is out there now and it’s clear. Jeffrey Burrill used Grindr for years, often every day, for its intended purpose — to have sex with other men.

Gay men don’t use Grindr to talk about the weather. We don’t use it to idly chat. We use it to have sex. That’s what it’s for. Gay men don’t go to The Entourage and other bathhouses to have a steam and a cup of tea. Gay men go the Entourage for only one reason — to have sex with other men.

That’s not innuendo. It’s reality. It’s truth.

So let’s stop playing silly games, liberal Catholic press. Jeffrey Burrill, the highest ranking Catholic priest in the United States who is not a bishop, has been having sex with men for years, on purpose, on a regular basis, and often while traveling on the Church’s dime.

He did this while working for The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, arguably the most cruel homophobic organization in the United States. You don’t get more cruel, more immoral, than trying to stop a suicide hotline because it reaches out to queer people in crisis. American Catholics and Americans in general reacted with shock and horror when they learned of the moral depravity of the U.S. Catholic bishops in that episode.

But LGBTQ Americans have long understood the Conference’s moral depravity. The fact that the USCCB website (under Burrill’s direction) actively promotes Courage International’s conversion therapy is just another example of moral depravity. PFLAG and ILGA, respected LGBTQ human rights organizations of long standing, group Courage with extremist anti-LGBTQ hate groups.

Rightfully so!

Conversion therapy hurts people. Badly. It causes suicide. Which makes the USCCB’s effort to stop suicide-prevention outreach to LGBTQ people even more despicable.

That all this morally despicable behavior happened under the watch of a sexually active gay (or possibly bisexual) man is jaw dropping. The English language has words for vicious hypocrites like Burrill, but I won’t use them here. I already have in private, and I’ll leave the color and depth of my vocabulary as an exercise for the reader.

Can we stop feeling sorry for this homophobic gay priest, please? Patheos suggests we should “feel bad” for Burrill given he was doing nothing illegal and nothing to feel ashamed of. But this overlooks the critical fact that Burrill was complicit with oppressing and persecuting LGBTQ people, including working to pass laws to hurt gay and transgender people. (LGBTQ Nation has published a summary of the USCCB’s recent homophobic track record.)

No, there’s no shame in using a gay hookup app. There’s nothing shameful about visiting gay bars and bathhouses. That goes without saying. Anyone who suggests otherwise is indulging an ancient human habit of reviling and hurting members of gender and sexual minorities.

The shame here lies in Burrill’s complicity with evil.

He IS a member of a reviled sexual minority and he chose to climb into the highest ranks of an ancient organization that has been making life hell for LGBTQ people for centuries. He lived well. He enjoyed a luxurious (rent free) residence in Washington DC while maintaining a luxury apartment in Wisconsin and jetting around the world on Church business.

His shame lies in his fronting for a Church that pillories gay people for engaging in the very “acts of grave depravity” he indulged in all the time. His shame lies in living with one foot in a Catholic clerical world that constantly flings hate speech at LGBTQ people even as his other foot danced in a world of gay men who know the Church is dead wrong in its baseless moral condemnation and scientifically absurd diagnoses of mental disorders.

I’m glad The Pillar exposed Burrill. It needed to be done.

I’m not happy that Grindr and other tech companies make privacy invasion easy. I’m deeply troubled by the probability that meaningful privacy is no longer possible in today’s high tech world.

I’m equally troubled by the motivations of the conservative Catholic journalists at The Pillar. I know they are engaged in a witch hunt. I know they printed their story to hurt gay people and to strengthen the false notion that gay men are likely to be predatory.

But nobody in their right mind is buying that nonsense, not outside Catholic clerical circles and small numbers of extremist lay Catholics.

Lay Catholics in the United States as a group are fed up with the hierarchy’s homophobia. Unlike members of the clergy, U.S. lay Catholics are slightly more likely than the average American to support LGBTQ equality measures like equal marriage and the proposed federal Equality Act.

It’s a mystery to me why lay Catholics keep funding the Church as it works so hard to stop equality and so hard to hurt queer people, whether those queer people be Catholic or not.

This exposure of extreme hypocrisy elegantly underlines how out of step the all-male, toxically homophobic Catholic clergy are with the flock they say they lead.

American Catholics are good, decent, moral people who don’t put up with injustice. The same cannot be said for their nominal leaders. This episode of hate and hypocrisy underlines that perfectly well.

Isn’t it time for the flock to fight back against the morally depraved shepherd? Isn’t it time to end the Church’s extremist anti-LGBTQ hate speech? If not now, when?

James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

The preceding piece originally appeared at Prism & Pen, ‘Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling,’ and is republished by permission.

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