These days, with TV shows like “Jersey Shore,” “Girls Gone Wild” videos and young “role models” like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, it’s easy to be concerned about the next generation.
Fortunately, plenty of young people are interested in more than just drinking and sexting. There are whole flocks of them flying under the radar, trying to make a difference in the world and concerned about the state of politics today. This week, we spoke to Trevor Powell, a 22-year-old volunteer with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, whose mission is “dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure religious freedom for all Americans.”
PGN: Where are you from? TP: I was born in a little town in South Jersey and I currently live in Voorhees.
PGN: What did your parents do? TP: My dad worked at Temple’s radio station and my mom was a manager at The Home Depot.
PGN: Did they swap gender roles? TP: They’re divorced now — she’s in Florida and I live here with my dad — but yes, my mother did most of the typical “man’s work” around the house. [Laughs.] She wore the pants in the family!
PGN: Any siblings? TP: Yes, I have an identical twin brother who is a straight ally and an older sister who is in Paris right now for grad school and two older half-siblings.
PGN: Did they dress you alike when you were kids? TP: Oh yes, my mother loved to dress us up with matching clothes, little sailor suits, etc. We’re totally different now, I’m more conservative-looking and he has a much more radical look with his hair grown out and a number of tattoos and piercings, the whole 9 yards.
PGN: Did you have any weird twin phenomenon? TP: Absolutely, we read each other’s thoughts and we used to have the same dreams. I’d wake up and say, “Wow, I dreamt about such and such,” and he’d say, “I had the very same dream.”
PGN: What were you like as a kid? TP: I was a bookworm. I was really into history and spent a lot of time at the library. I still am a history buff: I have a dual major, political science and history.
PGN: Tell me about coming out. TP: I’ve probably known that I was gay since the onset of puberty, but didn’t really come out until about three years ago. I was working for a small restaurant in my hometown and the family that owned it was conservative Christian. They were Southern Baptist and I used to go to church with them on occasion. One night, the pastor started making really homophobic remarks; it really upset me, kind of sent me over the edge. I walked out of the church and had a small breakdown: I went home and came out to my dad. I don’t know where I got the courage, but I was so disturbed by the comments I heard, I had to talk to someone. Fortunately my parents were very supportive.
PGN: And your twin? TP: He was too, I think he already knew.
PGN: So did your experience with that church get you involved with Americans United? TP: Partly. I was working for Garden State Equality for a year-and-a-half and at one of the events I met a woman who worked with AU. She invited me to one of the meetings and I was interested in what they had to say. I’m not anti-religion, I’ll go to services at Christmas with my mother and I go to a Unitarian church just for the spiritual element, but I don’t agree when religious organizations try to impose their view on others, especially in government or school settings.
PGN: What are some of the problems with blurring the lines between church and state? TP: Well, for LGBT people, it can be frightening. The religious right and groups like the Traditional Values Coalition and the Family Research Council are very antigay. The Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson once said that being gay is “a sickness, and it needs to be treated” and that “many of those people involved with Adolf Hitler were satanists, many of them were homosexuals. The two things seem to go together.” We don’t want these people involved in government and school decision-making. I was disturbed at all the testimony given during Prop. 8 from “religious leaders” speaking about homosexuality being a sin. That’s a religious concept that has no place in government. It’s a violation of the wall of separation between church and state. There was a lot of money behind repealing the rights of LGBT people to marry in California that came from religious organizations. And a lot of the money they make comes from our tax dollars being paid to them for the new “faith-based initiatives.” During the Bush administration, Pat Robertson received $1.5 million in federal faith-based subsidies. And being religious organizations, many of them are exempt from nondiscrimination policies. It’s twisted. PGN: Like what we’re going through now with the Boy Scouts, Cradle of Liberty Council. They don’t accept gay Scouts or leaders but want to use government property for their headquarters. TP: Yes, it’s crazy, and there are a ton of real cases where these religious groups taking taxpayer money are allowed to make their own rules. In Kentucky, there was a lesbian who had excellent performance reviews and yet got fired from a Baptist-run publicly funded home for troubled youth after she was seen taking part in an AIDS walk. In Minnesota, a taxpayer-funded social-service program run by a Lutheran church refused to help a transsexual, saying it conflicted with church doctrine. They are free to do and think what they want, but not with our tax dollars. Another problem is the censorship campaigns that they’ve been doing in schools. A national organization called Family Friendly Libraries lobbies to have books about LGBT topics removed from public libraries or placed in restricted access areas. Just a few months ago, a little girl was denied admission to a Catholic school because they found out her parents were lesbian. How sick is that to discriminate against a child because of who her parents are? With the new conservative governors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, we really have to be aware of what’s going on before they start blurring the lines even more.
PGN: I’m an agnostic. I do, however, get upset at atheist organizations that are just as extreme as the right. I don’t have a problem with people wishing me Merry Christmas or celebrating Passover with friends. If people are using religion for good purposes, I don’t have a problem with it. TP: I agree: AU is not anti-religious. We just believe that people should be able to worship who they want, if they want and that government should not be involved. It’s a benefit for smaller religions in this country as well, whether it be Judaism or Buddhism or some other group: Some of them get just as pushed around by some of the big religious entities that want to make everyone toe their line. The executive director of our organization is an ordained minister for the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Barry Lynn. In his book, “Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault On Religious Freedom,” he writes about the agenda proposed by the religious right and shows that they are not really pro-freedom at all. They want to control what everyone does and they are more than willing to influence the government to further their own agenda. Part of what we do is to defend the freedom of all religions as protected by the Constitution and we oppose any effort to use government power to force anyone to support, take part in or fund any religion. We also oppose efforts by the religious right to impose its theological views on the public by governmental action. According to Rev. Lynn, the religious right’s attempt to force all Americans to accept its religious doctrines as law is one of the greatest threats to religious freedom today.
PGN: So back to you ... you’re a political-science major: Will we ever see you in office? TP: I don’t know. After working for Garden State Equality, I think I’d be good as a lobbyist for LGBT causes. I spent last fall in Bowling Green, Ohio, working on nondiscrimination issues in employment and housing. We got two ordinances passed — it was exciting!
PGN: OK, since your other major is history, what’s an era you’d like to go back to? TP: Probably the Renaissance era. There were so many new ideas and innovations — new belief systems being formed — it would have been amazing to be a part of it. PGN: Ever have a near-death experience? TP: I don’t know about near-death but I injured my skull when I was young. We were at a shore house and I was on a bunk bed. My twin was on the bottom and he called me for something, I poked my head out to see what he was saying. There was a ceiling fan going full tilt and as I leaned out, it took off the top of my scalp. I had to have surgery at the nearest hospital.
PGN: Ouch! Let’s go to something tamer. What book would I find on your nightstand? TP: “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn.
PGN: Hobbies? TP: I love to draw and do artwork and I run about 6 miles a day.
PGN: What sports have you played and what was your best moment? TP: I did cross-country track and soccer in high school. Best moment was in fourth grade when I scored the tie-breaking goal that won us the championship in soccer.
PGN: You’re in college: What food are you surviving on? TP: [Laughs.] Ramen noodles and microwave pizza! It’s a very, very unhealthy diet! PGN: A favorite cartoon? TP: I’d have to go with a classic: “Peanuts” with Charlie Brown and Lucy and Linus.
PGN: What’s your sign? TP: Taurus. I just had a birthday in April.
PGN: You engage in the two subjects that you’re never supposed to discuss, politics and religion. What subject puts you to sleep? TP: Oh God, math. Definitely, definitely.
PGN: If you had to describe your personality as an animal, what would you choose? TP: Maybe a racehorse. Last semester, I was taking 15 credits — five classes — while working 40 hours a week, and I had to get straight A’s so I could transfer to Temple.
PGN: How would someone romance you? TP: Talk about something in politics or history that I could get into or would agree with! That’s my version of foreplay.
PGN: Yeah, I don’t get the James Carville-Mary Matalin, Maria Shriver-Arnold Schwarzenegger thing. I couldn’t be with someone whose core values were so far from mine. [Editor’s note: Shriver and Schwarzenegger announced their separation earlier this month.] TP: I know. I used to model for Abercrombie and Fitch and I dated one of the other models. He was a conservative, evangelical Republican and it was the most awkward, awkward, awkward relationship you could imagine.
PGN: A model, activist, waiter, student ... you’ve done a lot in just over 21 years! Anything else? TP: I don’t want to sound like a boring person, but I don’t think I’ve really done that much. I had an internship with a congressman last summer, Robert Andrews, which was cool, and I currently work as a salesperson in a liquor store. Can I tell you something I am proud of?
PGN: Of course. TP: One of the things that got me involved with Americans United was a course I was taking as a history major at Camden County College. The professor was about 80 years old and he was an extreme right-wing, homophobic, anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, anti-feminist-type guy. He was always ranting about homosexuality being wrong and a sin and gay marriage not being a civil right, and would make comments that women were inferior and Islam was the religion of evil and it caused 9/11. He was rabidly anti-Obama and very vocal about his religious views. I went to the dean’s office to complain and see what could be done about him. I told them as a high-end honors student, I was offended by his hateful statements. The school wouldn’t get rid of him, saying that he had freedom of speech to say what he wanted. I got in touch with AU and was eventually able to have him removed.
PGN: How did AU help you? TP: I got tips from some of the members on ways to start the process. I began taping his classes and the awful things he would say and keep a record of when and what he did, like the fact that if you didn’t agree with him, he would give you a lower grade. I submitted the stuff every week to the administration. In the end, that’s what got him removed.
PGN: That is something to be proud of. Forget the soccer championship, I’d say that was your biggest win!