A Family Business
For the Rev. Lou Sheldon And His Daughter, Marriage Means Only One Thing
By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2004; Page C01
Those pictures from Massachusetts -- men hugging men, men holding roses, jubilant women in garlands -- put the Rev. Lou Sheldon in a military frame of mind: "Pearl Harbor," he says, surveying Tuesday's front pages. "What Pearl Harbor did to American patriotism, May 17 should do to the Christian level of awareness."
"As my dad says, it's D-Day," says his daughter, Andrea Lafferty.
Then: "Two minutes to midnight," they both say, smiling at the single mind they've become.
Opposing the "homosexual agenda," as it's known in their circle, is on the priority list for most Christian conservative groups. But for the Traditional Values Coalition, founded in 1980 by Sheldon and based in Anaheim, Calif., it is a singular obsession.
"They're the most active anti-gay group there is," says Chris Anders of the American Civil Liberties Union. "They're the one group out in the trenches, doing door-to-door knocking, hounding members of Congress."
This calling has consumed Sheldon since 1972, when as a Presbyterian pastor he learned that a gay rights group had introduced what he calls the "Homosexual Manifesto" at the Democratic National Convention. It was "all in there -- domestic partners, teaching in public schools, they wanted it all," he recalls. "That's when I realized I had to wake up."
Back then it was "not believable," he recalls. And then elements of that plan started to happen -- universities embracing transgender students, adoptions by same-sex couples, and then May 17: the day gay couples could marry in state-sanctioned services for the first time. "Open season on our children," Lafferty calls it, envisioning a future of kindergarten teachers in beards and skirts, propping pictures of their "spouse" by the shiny red apple.
Many evangelical leaders saw May 17 as a kind of Armageddon. James Dobson of Focus on the Family said, "Barring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble." R. Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Convention compared the day to Sept. 11, 2001, and called it a "moral disaster."
As usual with apocalyptic imaginings, once the day actually arrived, it came as somewhat of a disappointment. Christian leaders were not out yelling themselves hoarse in Massachusetts. Sheldon's phones were not ringing off the hook. "The fact is, enough people haven't awakened," he says. "But maybe that's not surprising. When 'homosexual' comes up, people are hesitant. It's not easy table talk. And heterosexual men don't like to discuss it. They have to be on guard. They know these men are predators. Add up all these factors and you get some reluctance."
Sheldon, 70, is not a booming preacher. He is a small, unprepossessing man with blue eyes and white hair combed back. His daughter, who runs the five-person Washington office, looks more like a Republican convention delegate with her cheerful demeanor and love of sherbety colors.
The benign appearance of the Sheldon family does not impress gay rights groups. "Their opposition is deep," says Winnie Stachelberg of the Human Rights Campaign. "They're out there every day supporting discrimination against gay people on nearly every issue, and you don't see that so much from other groups."
The traditional values crusade as a family business makes for an unusual life. The reality of it is, Lafferty spends a lot of time looking with her dad at pictures of semi-naked men. Sheldon never misses an issue of the Washington Blade, the area's weekly gay newspaper. ("Was that in last week's issue or this week's?" he asks, looking for a particular ad for a group that "meets frequently to socialize," with "refreshments, music and videos." "You know what that means," he says. "Group sex. Just sex, sex, sex.")
At one point they quibble over the proper slang terms for various sexual acts (both options are unprintable in this newspaper). Lafferty says she is unfazed by such conversations. "It's like growing up in a medical family," she says. And indeed, her father does sometimes stray into anatomical explanations: "Males find a female mate and that allows the hypothalamus to activate the attraction juices," he says by way of explaining how he views the God-given order of things.
Sheldon was in Washington this week to organize a news conference on Capitol Hill of prominent African American preachers who argued that gay marriage is not a civil right. The pastors are considering starting a boycott of businesses that support gay rights.
The Traditional Values Coalition has paid attention to the details all along. With its claimed 43,000 member churches, many of them African American and Hispanic, the group has pressured state legislatures and Congress for limits on HIV funding, domestic partnership benefits, sodomy laws -- pretty much every issue associated with gay rights.
Recently the House and Senate held hearings on President Bush's proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. But for now the efforts seem to be fizzling. A hearing planned for this week featuring Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was canceled. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said he supports the bill but hasn't collected the votes to bring it to the floor. The House bill is stalled as well.
Most of the usual Christian conservative groups have stopped showing up at hearings or, if they do attend, send lower-level staff. But Sheldon and his daughter are always there in the front row, nodding gravely, taking notes. "That's not something I would send some intern to," Sheldon says.
If there are generational differences in their views of homosexuality, they are in style only. Sheldon tends to quote Scripture or digress into a treatise on the Sheldon family's roots at the "first Republican convention under the oak tree in Michigan," from which Lafferty gently cuts him short.
Lafferty, trained in more anodyne Washington sound bites, searches for more digestible explanations for why gay marriage makes no sense. "Let's say we go and play tennis and you show up in your short little tennis skirt and your racket and I show up in my cleats. You'd say, 'We're supposed to be playing tennis, not golf!' " she says. "They can have any other arrangement, but marriage is between a man and a woman."
Lafferty insists her father is not a "stern, sexually repressed" person, that for her and her three siblings, growing up in Anaheim was not only "normal" but quite fun in an endless Beach Boys summer way. She spent her afternoons shopping at the Westminster Mall or hanging out at Huntington Beach with friends. "A bikini and short skirts were okay."
She never smoked or did drugs but she was able to date and dance. Once, coming home from a church party, she sped by a police station and got stopped by a cop. She was a cheerleader and homecoming queen at Magnolia High, her father reminds her. She kept a pink miniskirt pinned on her bedroom wall and told her mom it would be her wedding dress one day.
As it happens, she lived the life of a Washington workaholic, working for then-Rep. John Hiler (R-Ind.) and later for the Reagan administration. She married Jim Lafferty, a former press secretary to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) five years ago. Now 43, she and her husband have an adopted 8-month-old boy.
She'd begun lobbying for the Traditional Values Coalition in 1991. By then it had a growing list of church members and a reputation for fighting mostly losing causes: trying to criminalize certain consensual sexual acts and ban gay teachers from California schools, then with slightly more success combating pornography and promoting abstinence. During the Clarence Thomas hearings, Lafferty organized a group of African American clergy who became some of Thomas's most prominent supporters. Last month, Washingtonian magazine named her one of the city's top lobbyists.
After this week, gay civil rights groups feel history moving their way. "Their increase in shrill vitriol means they're becoming more and more desperate," Stachelberg says about the conservative groups. "We may have our good days and bad days, but the march toward equality is on our side."
Lafferty and her father feel the pressure, but they are confident. He guesses that 5 percent to 10 percent of Americans are engaged in this issue. But polls show 56 percent are opposed to gay marriage. So once gay couples start coming home from Massachusetts and demanding recognition of their marriages by their own states, Sheldon figures America will wake up.
"It's a sleeping giant out there," he says. "We're talking about tens of millions of people. And when they wake up I feel bad for the homosexuals."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company