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The Reverend Lou Sheldon of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition has battled what he calls the Satan-inspired "homosexual threat" to America for more than 26 years. Invoking his trademark high-pitched, revival-preacher's choppy cadence, Sheldon paints a frightening, conspiratorial picture. Gay bureaucrats and politicians have "permeated" government with plans to convert unsuspecting heterosexuals. Elementary schools harbor "militant" gay teachers who secretly "recruit" children. The "perverts" even control numerous U.S. corporations whose advertising and nondiscrimination policies desensitize the population to a sexuality that is "a stink in the nostrils of God."
A onetime television-ministry aide to the Christian Coalition's Pat Robertson, Sheldon has no problem justifying his "open warfare" against gays. His goal is to "protect the heterosexual ethic," and he won't rest until gays undergo "reparative therapy" or hide "back in the closet." He says homosexuality is worse than bestiality and is a "bigger threat to society than illegal drugs." In the 1980s, he got nationwide media attention for claiming that gay men were "a tropical island of exotic diseases." Over the years, the reverend has promoted state-sanctioned anti-gay employment discrimination, advocated quarantining AIDS patients in "cities of refuge," labeled professional efforts to thwart disturbing levels of gay-teen suicide "recruitment," pushed tougher laws against consensual-adult sex, called for the firing of gay teachers, and helped block official recognition of gay Republican clubs.
He says he's "just holding the line against sin," but he capitalizes on each fight through a lucrative direct-mail operation. "We've learned to play hardball," said Sheldon, who was born in Washington, D.C., in 1934 to an English Protestant father and an Orthodox Jewish mother. "Jesus played hardball."
The reverend doesn't mind pettiness, either. He has demanded that government ban gay-community parades and festivals. After the Santa Ana City Council declined to block a gay festival in 1989, Sheldon mailed gay pornographic magazines to council members whom he branded "homosexual lovers." His supporters carried signs that read, "Sodomites, Go Back to Your Closet." When gay-community leaders accused him of an unnatural preoccupation with gay sex, his response bordered on lewd.
"I feel sorry for a guy who can't lay [sic] with a woman," the reverend said. "I know who gets my juices going. I know what turns me on."
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If anything gets the 66-year-old Sheldon's juices going nowadays it's the thought of handing gays and lesbians a resounding defeat on Tuesday, when California voters consider Proposition 22, the limits-on-marriage initiative. The proposition simply provides that only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in the state. It was effectively placed on the ballot by Sheldon's pal Palmdale Republican state Senator Pete Knight. Knight is California's version of ornery right-wing U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina).
Numerous fundamentalist churches in Orange County have rallied their followers to vote for Prop. 22. Most Republican candidates in the state support the effort. In hopes of winning, conservatives are bankrolling a costly radio and television ad campaign to woo Latinos—the GOP's previous election-year scapegoats. According to a Feb. 28 Field Poll, the Knight Initiative holds a sizable 13-point lead.
In December, a smiling Sheldon appeared on CNN's Talk Back Live and warned that defeat of the Knight Initiative would create "a very slippery slope, and there would come a case when very definitely you have three people, maybe four, [seeking marriage together]."
The proposition's opponents scoff at such a claim. They correctly note that Prop. 22 mirrors current state law and that, win or lose, the state would still recognize marriage between a man and a woman. A broad coalition of business leaders, clergy, social workers and gay activists claims the measure is nothing more than a divisive wedge issue designed to drive anti-gay religious conservatives to the polls. Nonsense, insists Sheldon, who has close ties to the California Republican Party: "We have no mean spirit. It is a protection of marriage."
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On Feb. 22, a feisty Sheldon appeared at Costa Mesa-based Whittier Law School to debate former local Democratic Party chairman Jim Toledano on the merits of the Knight Initiative. Dressed in his standard uniform—conservative gray suit, white button-down shirt and red power tie—the reverend spent the hour offering the overflow crowd breathtaking non sequiturs.
Sheldon launched his Prop. 22 defense by announcing that "marriage is necessary for life, for those of us who are blessed enough to engage in it." He then quickly turned to talk about George Washington's farewell address and colonial-era morality and ethics. Before it was over, the reverend had referenced Jesus Christ, orgasms, Abraham and the Torah, "cooties," giraffes and elephants, a "little Methodist Church in Michigan," promiscuity, predators, princesses, Timemagazine, Jim Crow laws, artificial insemination, "attraction juices," monkeys, Mars, molestation, AIDS, archaeology, the "n word," Virginia, "icky" girls, "God's plan," science, gay-owned credit cards, dysfunctional families, intercourse, playing with a black janitor's son—and, of course, "the beast."
Exactly how would state recognition of same-sex unions destroy marriage, the family, heterosexuals, children and the country? Sheldon couldn't ansewr. Instead, he rambled.
"Men are analogous to the beast," he said. "All men are basically predators, and in every man, there is a little beast. And this beast can only be tamed and civilized and brought into civility by a princess. And that princess has to do that in the bond of marriage in the marriage bed."