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."
Elsewhere in the debate, he explained that "marriage is a sacred thing to tens of millions of people. Why all at once should I be able to take that word and apply it to this situation and the heck with what all these other people have understood it to be? . . . I mean, homosexuals have high incomes; they have high levels of education; they're owners of major credit cards. There was a survey done. So you're not talking about poor people, homeless people living under a bridge. We're just trying to protect what is ours and has been ours."
Several frustrated law students pressed for a meaningful answer. "Love is between, uh, there is [sic] three kinds of love, and it can only go so far with a same-sex gender," said Sheldon. "It can't produce children—unless there's artificial insemination. You cannot have grandchildren, you see. It just doesn't add up from that standpoint. So this is what this is all about."
Toledano, who is gay and heads Orange County's No on Knight campaign, dismissed Sheldon's answers. He pointed out that under current law, government confers upon married heterosexuals 1,049 federal benefits. "Every single convoluted answer we get from the supporters of Prop. 22 means exactly nothing," Toledano said. "We're coming to the understanding that when two people love each other and care for each other, the interests of the state should support that. Healthy people don't care about other people's sex lives. . . . A marriage that needs protection from the happiness of other people is not a marriage at all."
Current state law already limits marriage —and all its attendant benefits—to heterosexuals. That didn't stop Sheldon from selling Prop. 22 as the only thing standing between civil society and Sodom. If Prop. 22 fails at the polls, Sheldon warned the audience, its defeat would represent "a major change" that "would have to be reflected in textbooks that would advocate that homosexuality is a very viable life alternative," he said. "So this would be one very clear point that would happen to our children."
One student questioned the stark hypocrisy of denying decades-long, stable gay couples marriage licenses when heterosexuals flaunt their ability to marry under the wildest of circumstances, say, on the TV show Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? or Dennis Rodman's on-again-off-again 1998 marriage to Carmen Electra in the wee hours of the morning after a wild night of partying and gambling in Las Vegas. Sheldon merely shrugged his shoulders. Apparently sensing he hadn't won the audience, the diminutive white-haired reverend glanced around the auditorium, gently massaged his hands together, and tried one last time. He said slowly, "Two men cannot bond like a man bonds with a woman."
"How do you know?" Toledano fired back.
The students burst into laughter but never got their answer.
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That Sheldon could not provide a clear, logical explanation for Prop. 22 at Whittier Law School was not surprising. After all, this is a man who is accustomed to uttering colorful, chapter-and-verse sound bites without having to intelligently answer pesky follow-up questions. When asked by a student why he had tied homosexuality to molestation during his speech, the reverend vehemently denied doing so. Mere minutes before, Sheldon had said, "Gender-identity conflict arises out of molestation of little girls and boys at young ages."
That's not Sheldon's only striking contradiction. Though he adamantly rails against abortion and gambling, the Weekly reported two years ago that the reverend officially endorsed racetrack-gambling legislation proposed by one of the Republican Party's major contributors, an Orange County abortion doctor named Edward Allred.
And the contradictions don't end there. For years, Sheldon has argued that same-sex relations were "unnatural." It was, therefore, fascinating to watch the reverend make the case—albeit inadvertently—for homosexuality.
"I remember very clearly when I was in elementary school and girls were just downright icky. You got cooties from them. You didn't want to touch them," said Sheldon, who has claimed that as much as 25 percent of adolescents "experiment" with homosexuality. "And I can remember when I was in junior high when I could hardly take my hands off [girls]. In fact, that attraction is what must—is part of the beast. It [homosexuality] has to be refined, tamed, and brought into commitment and brought into love. . . . Homosexuality is only an underdeveloped stage of heterosexuality.
According to the reverend, humans have not a genetic predisposition but a "propensity" for homosexual behavior. Same-sex relationships are apparently so appetizing that exposure risks not just tolerance or acceptance but also full-blown participation. That is why Sheldon and the other Prop. 22 advocates so strenuously reject anything other than complete public repudiations of homosexuality. Their position is the ultimate back-handed compliment to the potential attractiveness of gay marriage. "You know, there's an old saying," the reverend said. "Monkey see, monkey do."
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Of course, we're not talking about monkeys but humans, adult American citizens who are entitled to equal rights, equal legal protections, and the freedom to decide for themselves who they love and want to share their lives with. Sheldon and the 43,000 churches he claims to represent have every right to decide whom they will marry. But the question remains: What overarching interest does the government have in denying homosexuals full citizenship rights and the right to state-recognized civil marriages?
Sheldon thinks he has the answer.
"We believe all men are created equal," he said confidently. "All homosexuals can get drivers' licenses."