Sex Addiction: What the Tiger Woods Story Forces Us to Confront

Anna Clark

The term “sex addiction” is used to describe a pattern of frequent, progressive, and often secret sexual behavior, even when the behavior jeopardizes a person’s time, employment, financial stability, relationships, and reputation. While often conflated with adultery, sex addiction does not necessarily mean cheating—or even intercourse. Rather, it can manifest as a dependency on pornography, masturbation, phone or Internet sex, and other related behavior.

From Tiger Woods to Lifetime movies, there has been no small amount of conjecture about the slippery concept known as ‘sex addiction." 
But does such a condition really exist?

Finding out requires sweeping aside the presumption,
dismissiveness, and shame that clouds the subject.

The phenomenon didn’t have a name until 1983 when
psychologist Patrick Carnes published the influential book, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual
Addiction
. Prior to that, the behavior was described as “hyper-sexual
arousal.” In short, the term “sex addiction” is used to describe a pattern of
frequent, progressive, and often secret sexual behavior, even when the behavior
jeopardizes a person’s time, employment, financial stability, relationships,
and reputation. While often conflated with adultery, sex addiction does not
necessarily mean cheating—or even intercourse. Rather, it can manifest as a
dependency on pornography, masturbation, phone or Internet sex, and other
related behavior.

People who struggle with sex addictions are of varying ages,
genders, and sexual orientations. The Society for the Advancement of Sexual
Health estimates that 3 to 5 percent of the American population wrestles with
addictive or compulsive sexual activity.

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Re-framing compulsive sexual behavior has led the
therapeutic community to look at it through the lens of addiction for the last
twenty years, noting how the behavior activates the same pleasure centers of
the brain, releasing the same chemicals as drug use does, and providing the
addict with the same kind of euphoric high, and numbed escapism that addictive
substances cause.

Maureen Canning treats sex addiction both in her private
practice and as a consultant at The Meadows, a recovery center in Arizona.
She said the therapeutic response to sexual addiction parallels that of
chemical addiction. Its diagnosis uses the same assessment tool, gauging, for
example, whether the behavior progresses over time and has negative
consequences on the person’s life.

If an addiction is assessed, Canning said, the treatment she
provides hinges on listening.

“We listen to what they’ve been doing, how they’ve been
doing it,” Canning said. “We listen for the story around their childhood, how
they were influenced sexually, both overtly and covertly. Sometimes they were
abused, or exposed to something traumatic.”

She added that treatment guides people into stabilizing
their lives—they often begin recovery while in chaotic circumstances—and then
helping the individual learn to manage their feelings, set boundaries, and find
healthy coping mechanism. The process can be painful.

“For many sex addicts, they’ve been acting out for most of
their lives and (treatment) is like a death—this was the one thing they could
count on to make them feel good,” Canning said.

She also noted that there is an anorexic cycle to sex
addiction, where an individual compulsively avoids sexuality. Others, she said,
especially women, can become addicted to the process of seduction rather than
the sex per se.

Especially with the advent of the Internet, there have been
more and more diagnoses of sex addiction.

“We called (the internet) the crack cocaine of sex
addiction,” Canning said. “It’s affordable, accessible, and anonymous. People
who have addictions are likely to experience them more intensely, and those who
might not have had them (without the internet) develop them.”

Dean W., who asked that only his first name and last initial
be used in this story, said that he was addicted to pornography and phone sex
for more than ten years; he continues to be actively engaged in therapy. While
he spent 30 to 40 hours a week acting out, he said, sex addiction is “much,
much easier to conceal” than other addictions—which is why very successful
people, such as CEOS, can find themselves struggling with it, and why he
believes the disease is still not well known.

“When I’ve told
people, they think it’s funny, not true, or that I’m a pervert,” Dean said.
“The biggest thing that hurts as a person is that (sex addiction) is so
misunderstood.”

To underscore the reality of his situation, Dean points out
to the addictive patterns that played out in his life—twelve to fourteen hours
of looking at pornography at a time, he said, and extended phone sex binges.
One of his phone sex binges lasted 36 hours, in which Dean neither ate nor
slept, and which cost him $2000. In all, Dean estimates that he spent more than
$150,000 on phone sex over the course of his addiction.

The addictive pattern, Dean said, was a way to escape
feelings of low self worth and loneliness. These deep feelings had roots in
both his parents and his grandfather being alcoholics; his brother has a
gambling problem. Dean said that he was emotionally, physically, and sexually
abused as a child. His steep investment in his therapy—he has been through many
intensive programs and has been in a weekly program for more than two years,
most of which is not covered by his health insurance—is in part an effort to
ensure that his own child is not affected by his addiction.

Elle can attest to the pain that sexual addiction can cause
a family. The Canadian mother, who asked that her real name not be used, never
heard of sex addiction until her husband confessed to her that he was seeking
recovery from it.

“I was floored. (Sex addiction) …  what the hell was that?” Elle said. “I worried that it meant
he was a pervert. The very next morning (after he told me about it), we had a
conference call with his counselor who helps set up treatment programs for sex
addiction. Thankfully he laid out the facts, assured me it was treatable,
explained to me that my husband was doing very well and desperately wanted to
put his past behind him.”

That past involved betrayal that Elle said nearly destroyed
her. What she initially thought was one affair turned out to be a pattern of
secrecy that was difficult for her to accept.

“I had a very hard time with it. Felt very, very lonely.
Felt duped. Ripped off,” Elle said. “My perfect world wasn’t so perfect after
all.”

Elle and her husband didn’t discuss the details of the sex
addiction with their young kids, but Elle said that the process of recovery has
made it possible for her husband to reconnect with his whole family by spending
more time together; his addiction had led him to detach from the family.
Recovery, she said, “involves a lot of soul-searching, a lot of reparations,
total disclosure, total transparency.”

There remains, however, a strong segment of the population
that believes that sex addiction is merely a manufactured phenomenon. John
Wilder is one of them. A retired Baptist minister from Newcastle, Indiana who
serves as a marriage and relationship coach, Wilder contends that sex addiction
is so much “pop psychology.” A true addiction is distinguished by a chemical
dependence, resulting in painful physical withdrawal, he argues. While many
people have obsessive-compulsive patterns of sexuality, often out of a need to
be soothed, Wilder said, it is misleading to call it an addiction.

“There’s simply no physical (withdrawal) component with
so-called sex addiction,” Wilder said.

In the most recent version of the American Psychiatric
Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders
(DSM-IV), published in 2000, “sex addiction” is
not listed as a diagnosis

Nonetheless, Canning said that in the last ten years, public
awareness about sex addiction has developed—though it has a long way to go. In
no small part, this is because American culture itself is sex-addicted, she
said.

“As a sex-addicted culture, we carry a lot of sexual shame,”
Canning said. “We haven’t really been able to accept it, we like to act out, and
we objectify people sexually. This all reinforces the belief that sex is the
most powerful thing.”

It is a point where she and Wilder actually seem to agree.

“This society teaches people, especially girls, that sex is
a nasty, dirty thing,” Wilder said. “Sex is a great gift from God, but you
never see that taught in churches or Sunday school. … Most of us get stuck in
an adolescent mode: ‘Hurry up, get it
over with before someone catches us
.’ … There’s very poor communication
about sex.

Canning added that, “oftentimes as a culture, we confuse
intimacy for intensity.

“We think the goal is to have the most intense kind of
experience—that’s where the high is, the power, the excitement. We need to
shift our paradigm of what healthy sexual experience is. When we make someone
an object, we depersonalize him or her. When we depersonalize them, there can’t
be intimacy.”

Both Dean and Elle were able to relate to the idea of objectification.

“I learned (in therapy), even though its still difficult,
not to objectify women,” Dean said. “Objectification in our culture is just
rampant.”

Elle said that she was particularly surprised about one
woman her husband had an affair with because she was someone he typically would
find unappealing. But as she learned about addictive behavior, she realized
that this woman was ‘safe’ because her husband knew he’d never have an
emotional connection with her.

“Sex addicts usually—not always but usually—seek out
partners they can objectify. That are really nothing more than sexual
partners,” Elle said. “My husband feels a lot of shame that he treated people
that way—that he didn’t even really see them as human beings, but as objects.”

Elle added: “Believe me, there’s nothing sexy or passionate
or exciting about (sex addiction). It’s generally two sick people feeding off
each other.” 

The public reaction to Tiger Woods’ personal struggles has
ignited this sex-addicted culture. The top athlete is reported to have sought
treatment for sex addiction at a recovery center in Arizona.

Canning said that while the publicity of his treatment
provides an opportunity for discussion, which can ultimately normalize struggles
with sex addiction, she’d like to see the conversation about it be more
educated—and less joking.

“I think if we are more educated about it, there’s less
shame for an individual to reach out for resources and help when they need it,”
she said.

In his support communities, where he connects with about forty
people each week who are seeking treatment for sex addiction, Dean said that
there is almost unanimous hope that Woods will speak out about his experience.

“There’s a glimmer of hope (in the therapy groups) and a
sense of understanding,” Dean said. 
“I hope he gets the help he needs.”

Dean said one of the most important things that could happen
for sex addiction would be the emergence of a spokesperson like Tiger Woods, as
well as active support from the National Institute of Health and coverage from health
insurance companies. He added, though, that he knows that recovery takes many
years of reducing shame and guilt—and he suspects that Woods will probably not
go beyond making a public statement indicating, “everything’s taken care of.”

Elle too hopes that the conversation about Woods leads to
more public understanding. While emphasizing that there’s no clear confirmation
that Woods is indeed receiving treatment for sex addiction, she admits that the
signs seem to indicate that it’s so.

“I would hope that (the Woods story) might bring sex
addiction to the public arena and perhaps educate more people, particularly
those who know their sexual behavior is causing them pain, but don’t have a
name or understanding of it,” Elle said. “And I would hope that maybe, just
maybe, we might become more compassionate about it.”

Elle added, “My husband isn’t the least surprised that his
background is similar to Tiger Woods. The domineering father who demanded
perfection, the high pressure career… the false sense of invincibility. … I
ache for (Woods’) wife, who has to be witness to her pain being played out on
the world stage.”

Resources:

  • Sexual Addicts Anonymous, which models the
    Twelve Steps principles of recovery from Alcoholics Anonymous, offers a network
    of in-person meetings around the world—single gender or mixed, open or
    closed—as well as tele-meetings and online meetings.
  • The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health is
    a membership organization founded in 1987 “dedicated specifically to helping those who suffer from out of control
    sexual behavior.”
  • Dean uses
    Safe Eyes for Internet access. Costing $40-50 a year, Safe Eyes is one among
    several tools that blocks sexually explicit websites. Dean, who struggled
    particularly with pornography, said it has “helped a lot.” He added that he
    looks forward to the day when sex addiction is no longer so taboo that people
    feel like they can’t have it installed on their work computers.

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

Analysis Law and Policy

The Issue of Trans Student Rights Inches Closer to the Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

With several cases in the legal pipeline, it's becoming a question of when—not whether—the Roberts Court will step into the fight over transgender rights and bathroom access.

On August 29, the Gloucester County School Board in Virginia will file a request asking the U.S. Supreme Court to step into the fight over whether transgender student Gavin Grimm can use the bathroom that aligns with his gender identity. Grimm’s case is not the first of its kind, but it has become one of the most high-profile.

At this point, it’s not a question of whether the Roberts Court is likely to take a case concerning what rights transgender students have under Title IX. It’s more a question of when.

Title IX of the Education Amendment Act of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. Historically, civil rights advocates have used Title IX to guarantee female students access to equal classes, facilities, and educational opportunities. It’s also recently become an important, if flawed tool in addressing campus sexual assault.

“Basically anything distinguishing between boys and girls or men and women is prohibited under Title IX, unless there is a specific exception in the statute or regulations allowing it to happen,” Joshua Block, senior staff attorney with the America Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT & HIV Project and one of the lawyers on Grimm’s case, explained to Rewire in an interview.

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Title IX has some small carve-outs for when and under what conditions schools may discriminate on the basis of sex, Block noted. “The Department of Education has passed very detailed regulations saying when you do and don’t have to integrate a sports team,” he explained. “It’s passed detailed regulations on under what conditions a school [can] offer sex-segregated classes. Those would otherwise be prohibited unless … authorized by the regulation,” he said.

Among the carve-outs for allowable sex-segregation under Title IX is a regulation dealing with restroom and locker room access, which is at the heart of cases like Grimm’s. And it’s that carve-out that has sparked the legal fight over trans rights at school.

“There is a long-standing regulation that says schools can have separate restrooms and can have locker rooms divided by sex,” said Block. “Now fast forward 40 years later and you have school districts saying that this regulation not only gives them permission to have boys’ and girls’ rooms, but it gives them permission to essentially banish transgender kids from those restrooms by saying they can’t use a restroom consistent with their gender identity.”

The legal landscape of trans student rights to access restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity has been shifting well before Grimm’s lawsuit. Since as early as 2009, schools in places like Maine and Illinois have faced lawsuits for prohibiting students from accessing restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. Meanwhile, states like California and Colorado have provided affirmative protections for transgender students in the form of nondiscrimination laws so students can use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. But that means transgender students across the country are subject to a patchwork of legal protections that are not uniform across the country: A trans student in California has, at least in theory, more legal protections against discrimination at school than one in Mississippi. So for many trans students, Title IX is the only legal protection against discrimination they have.

Through a series of administrative actions, the Department of Education (DOE) since 2013 has tried to nudge reluctant school administrators toward understanding the difference between providing for sex-segregated facilities and using those facilities as justification for discriminating against transgender students. It has notified federally funded schools that failing to allow transgender students access to restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity will subject those schools to litigation and risk their federal funding. In other words, the DOE made explicit its interpretation of federal law: Schools may have sex-segregated facilities like restrooms, but they cannot determine on the basis of gender identity which students have access to which facilities.

Significantly, the Obama administration filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Grimm’s case, urging the federal appeals court to follow its lead on interpreting Title IX to protect against gender identity discrimination in schools. So far, both the district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals have listened to the administration, deferring to the federal agency on how best to interpret the regulations that agency publishes. Those rulings have been temporarily put on hold while the Gloucester School Board files its request to have the Roberts Court step in.

This brings us to the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the lawsuit filed by more than 20 states in May arguing that the Obama administration has overstepped its authority on this matter. It’s similar to the argument raised by Gloucester County in the Grimm case and rejected by the Fourth Circuit.

Raising those arguments in the conservative Fifth Circuit, the same federal appeals court that blocked the Obama administration’s executive action on deportations, is a strategic bet by conservatives that they can get a ruling in their favor. Such a ruling would create a likely circuit split, or disagreement, in the appellate courts—which is exactly the kind of situation the Supreme Court is set up to resolve.

Once again, Justice Anthony Kennedy is poised as the swing vote, the justice each side needs to rule in its favor. And while Kennedy has emerged as a moderate but leading voice in the jurisprudential recognition of LGBTQ rights, he has also been critical of some Obama administration agency action. Cases like Grimm’s, or whichever transgender rights case the Court eventually takes up, will present the ultimate test for Kennedy: Which matters more, his desire to see the “dignity” of the LGBTQ community advance in the law, or his distrust of executive authority—even if that executive authority advances LGBTQ dignity?

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