Bethel and North State Republicans Have Queer Obsession

The way I like to count it, there are roughly 1 million people in our little corner of northern California. Statistically speaking, about 5 percent of those people, 50,000 or so—friends, co-workers, family members, neighbors, students, etc.—identify as LGBTQ.

I’m what the kids these days call a cisgender straight white male, so my only gauge on the level of acceptance shown to our 50,000 LGBTQ fellow citizens is what I see around me in society.

What I’ve witnessed is a higher level of acceptance than one might expect given our region’s conservative reputation.

This has been particularly true with my stints substitute-teaching in local public high schools. It’s not unusual to encounter one or two openly gay students on each gig, and they’re unconditionally accepted by their peers, as far as I can tell from outside appearances. It has been heartening to see.

This is called progress. LGBTQ youth coming of age today in California arguably enjoy more acceptance and endure less bullying than in the past. The benefits to their physical and mental well-being are obvious.

But for the north state’s right-wing Christian evangelicals and the Republican candidates they’ve helped put into federal, state and local government office, this progress is an abomination, as the Bible literally says. Blurring the line separating church and state, they’ve become fixated on turning back the rights of LGBTQ citizens.

Call it a queer obsession.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, confirmed anti-LGBTQ politician.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa is a case in point. Our 1st Congressional District representative has opposed any civil rights for LGBTQ individuals since his days as a state assemblyman. Earlier this year, he voted against renewing the Violence Against Women Act, after Democrats added LGBTQ individuals to the list of domestic violence victims protected by the legislation.

Last month, LaMalfa joined 52 right-wing Republican representatives and senators who signed on to a U.S. Supreme Court amicus brief that argues LGBTQ employees aren’t protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s Title VII provisions against discrimination by “sex.”

The amicus brief concerns three cases the court will hear in early October in which LGBTQ employees claim they were fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Co-authored by Ken Starr, the infamous inquisitor of President Bill Clinton, the amicus brief argues that employers who have a sincerely held religious beliefs that LGBTQ people are immoral abominations in the eyes of god have a 1st Amendment right, via the free-exercise clause, to fire LGBTQ employees.

If the court decides against the plaintiffs, firing people because they’re gay could become a constitutionally protected activity.

Redding Mayor Julie Winter, conversion therapy proponent.

Then there’s Redding Mayor Julie Winter. The degreed nurse practitioner is also a Bethel Church elder but was wearing her mayor’s hat when she endorsed a petition condemning Assembly Concurrent Resolution 99 last month.

ACR-99 is a non-binding resolution passed by the Assembly in June that promotes community-wide acceptance of LGBTQ individuals and warns about the harm caused by conversion therapy. The resolution reads:

“This measure would call upon all Californians to embrace the individual and social benefits of family and community acceptance, upon religious leaders to counsel on LGBTQ matters from a place of love, compassion, and knowledge of the psychological and other harms of conversion therapy, and upon the people of California and the institutions of California with great moral influence to model equitable treatment of all people of the state.”

Apparently, this modest proposal—not an enforceable law, but a suggestion—that the state’s religious leaders acknowledge the evidence-based consensus of every major medical and mental health association in the country was so over-the-top, members of the faith-based conversion therapy industry felt compelled to respond en masse.

According to David Cary Hart at the Slowly Boiled Frog website, the author of the petition condemning ACR 99 is Russell Willingham of Fresno New Creation Ministries, which offers conversion therapy services to adults. In California, it has been illegal to practice conversion therapy on youth under 18 since 2012.

Some 1500 individuals endorsed the petition. Winter was joined by her fellow Bethel Church elder Dr. Andre Van Mol, who belongs to the American College of Pediatricians, a group of anti-LGBTQ doctors who’ve been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Also signing the petition from Redding were Robert Baker, executive pastor of Trinity Alliance Church; Barry Byrne, executive director of Nothing Hidden Ministries; and the Rev. James Howe from the First Presbyterian.

The petition begins:

“People should have the freedom to pursue what brings them true happiness and joy. ACR 99 is trying to cut people off from their own pathway to happiness.”

For evidence that praying the gay away is the equivalent to the pursuit of happiness, the petition provides a link to Bethel’s “Changed Movement” website, the church’s effort to rebrand the discredited “ex-gay” movement as the new, improved “once-gay” movement.

Read their stories of alleged transformation here, but be forewarned: none of them can be described as cheerful.

The petition continues:

“This resolution tells Californians of many religions that their faith is unacceptable to the state. Politicians are telling California churches, synagogues, and mosques what they should and should not teach, and claiming Californians of traditional faiths cause health disparities.”

Actually, ACR 99 does none of that. The non-binding resolution is politely asking religious leaders to acknowledge the scientific evidence, but never mind.

The petition endorsed by Winter, Dr. Van Mol and other Redding faith leaders shares many similarities with the Supreme Court amicus brief LaMalfa and noted white nationalist Rep. Steve King signed off on.

Both documents deny the vast body of evidence-based medical research that has established sexual orientation and gender identity are for most people involuntary, whether you’re straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or whatever.

In fact, both documents deny that LGBTQ people exist at all. There is no “gay identity.” It’s all just bad behavior. Mental illness. A lifestyle. Sin.

Religious dogma—gays are fallen individuals in need of fixing—trumps the abundance of scientific evidence that demonstrates sexual orientation and gender identity in humans exist as a spectrum, and that LGBTQ individuals are a normal, to-be-expected result of this variation.

Finally, both the amicus brief and the petition conspiratorially allege every major medical and mental health association in the United States has been corrupted by anti-Christian progressive values. They provide their own pseudo-scientific rationales to support these claims.

Then Assemblyman Brian Dahle praying in Sacramento last year.

Do all north state Christians and Republicans share these beliefs? Most likely not. But there’s no question 1st District state Sen. Brian Dahle has exactly the same anti-LGBTQ sentiments as LaMalfa and Winter.

Like LaMalfa, Dahle reliably voted against any pro-LGBTQ legislation during his three terms in the Assembly, including AB-2943 last year. That bill would have banned charging adults money for conversion therapy as a fraudulent practice under state consumer protection law.

Fraudulent, because no scientific study has proven that conversion therapy, changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity to align with preconceived norms, actually works.

AB 2943 easily passed both houses, but it’s author, 28th District Assemblyman Evan Low, ultimately pulled the bill after conservative evangelicals across the state, including Bethel Church, deluged the capitol with phone calls and emails in protest.

Sen. Dahle credited the bill for waking the “sleeping church” at the Faith and Values Town Hall hosted by Winter that was held in Redding earlier this year.

“God is on the move,” he said, pointing to the election of President Donald Trump as living proof.

Low introduced ACR 99, which does not have the force of law, as a kinder, gentler version of AB 2943. By calling on religious leaders to counsel LGBTQ people from a place of love and compassion, he was merely asking them to do what they already claim they’re doing.

But asking religious leaders to acknowledge the scientific evidence that conversion therapy causes harm was a bridge too far for some right-wing evangelicals.

One can’t help thinking that they protesteth just a little bit too much.

The actions of our anti-LGBTQ Republican politicians and faith leaders stand out to me because I believe most of the 950,000 straight citizens in our region, including many Republicans and Christians, accept their 50,000 LGBTQ fellow citizens for who they are.

But clearly, this is not the view of Bethel Church’s leadership, which is heavily promoting its Changed Movement, comprised of various individuals claiming to be “once gay” but gay no more thanks to immersion in Christianity. Two of them are survivors of the Pulse Nightclub shooting who were scared straight.

Bethel doesn’t claim to practice conversion therapy per se. That requires a medical license. It does offer counseling to “same-sex-attracted” individuals on its Equipped To Love website. Currently, the only counselor available is Ken Williams, one of the leaders of the Changed Movement.

In addition to claiming to be “once-gay,” Williams says he’s a licensed pastoral counselor. I contacted Williams through Bethel and asked for more details about the counseling provided by Equipped To Love, including the number of clients who’ve successfully changed their sexual orientation or gender identity. I haven’t heard back from him.

It’s hard to believe Equipped To Love makes much money, but nevertheless Bethel has made praying the gay away its cause célèbre … or perhaps its bête noire. Bethel apparently triggered every LGBTQ member of its congregation last month with an Instagram post asking, “Can a person leave homosexuality behind?”

The post sparked a social media mini-scandal, especially among LGBTQ Christians struggling to gain acceptance from their faith communities. Bethel was accused of promoting conversion therapy, so it disabled commenting on its post, then it deleted all the negative comments. Eventually it issued a series of clarifications, one of which was “God loves you and so do we.”

That didn’t go over so well either.

But don’t expect public backlash to shame Bethel, LaMalfa, Dahle or Winter into backing down from their anti-LGBTQ positions. LaMalfa and Dahle in particular have formed a covenant with their right-wing Christian evangelical voters, and LGBTQ people are just the canary in the coal mine.

Bethel lead pastor Bill Johnson has a plan.

Bethel lead pastor Bill Johnson revealed the details of this covenant, allegedly taken from the Bible but possibly cribbed from Sean Hannity’s radio show, after the last presidential election, when in a since-deleted Facebook post he compared Trump to a Christ-like figure who had been chosen by God.

If Johnson’s covenant, sometimes called the Seven Mountain Mandate, should somehow become law of the land, here’s what it might look like.

Abortion will be criminalized, even in the case of rape, incest or saving the life of the mother. Rapists will have more rights than their victims.

There will be no open borders, so forget about those hard-working migrants sneaking across the Rio Grande. All undocumented immigrants will be deported.

You can also forget about welfare for the poor, including food stamps. Let them eat glitter.

Socialism will be outlawed. That means no social security, Medicare, MediCal or any kind of meaningful government response to any crisis, including homelessness, opioid addiction, income inequality and anthropogenic climate change.

Globalization will be abolished. (An odd tenet, considering Bethel’s global reach.)

Complete subservience to Israel will become mandatory, no matter how abhorrently it treats Palestinians.

Of course there will be absolutely no civil rights for LGBTQ people. Sodomy will be re-criminalized.

It’s hard to see how this austere vision serves the citizens of the north state in any way, shape or form, yet if you check LaMalfa and Dahle’s track record, you’ll see they’ve faithfully ticked off all of those boxes throughout their careers.

Famously, both have decried welfare for the poor while taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal farm subsidies—in LaMalfa’s case, millions of dollars.

LaMalfa, Dahle and Winter are up for reelection in 2020. Dahle’s wife, Megan Dahle, is running for her husband’s former 1st District Assembly seat against Democrat Elizabeth Betancourt in this November’s special election.

Via email, I invited all the above candidates to comment on their views regarding LGBTQ issues. LaMalfa’s office did not respond. Sen. Dahle’s office said the senator would not comment, but his anti-LGBTQ voting record speaks for itself, which it does.

Megan Dahle and Julie Winter, who share the same campaign spokeswoman, Tenessa Audette, a student of the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, did not reply to the email.

However, Betancourt replied at length, and I offer here an excerpt from her answer to my first question, regarding the current medical science on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Science is the pursuit of truth through continued questions, and is limited solely by our ability to ask questions and the technology available for answering those questions; we undoubtedly will understand more as the future unfolds,” she answered.

“However, what we know now–and what humanity has really known for eons if we go back to the Greeks, Romans, the first people on the American continent, and many, many other cultures–is that sexuality is not binary, but is very much gradations along a continuum.

“The question isn’t my neighbor’s sexual preference, but what my neighbor needs to live a full, fulfilling, respected and respectful life,” she concluded.

I suspect that’s a response our region’s 50,000 or so LGBTQ residents and their numerous allies have been longing to hear from a politician for quite some time. It may even sound pleasing to some Republican and Christian ears.

For those who don’t care about LGBTQ issues one way or the other, remember that’s just one facet of the covenant north state Republicans—not to mention Trump—have formed with the evangelical right.

They’ve boxed themselves in so that they’re totally incapable of doing anything positive for the north state.

This is why we can’t have nice things. Vote accordingly.

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.

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