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From Thomas to Kavanaugh, what hasn’t changed about sexual misconduct charges

Clarence Thomas being sworn in by Byron White, as wife Virginia Lamp Thomas looks on.

(RNS) — When President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court 27 years ago, I was working as an editorial writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In those days, the AJC had two editorial boards, a liberal one for the morning Constitution and a conservative one for the afternoon Journal. It will come as no surprise to readers of this column that I worked for the former.

Our politics notwithstanding, we had decided to support Thomas, whose up-from-poverty-in-rural-Georgia story appealed to us; and it fell to me to write the endorsement editorial. Then, on the Sunday before the Senate’s confirmation vote, came the Anita Hill story. Broken simultaneously by NPR’s Nina Totenberg and Newsday, it confronted our Monday editorial board meeting with the question of whether to call on the Senate to delay the vote.

We decided not to. The story had come to light so late in the proceedings it seemed just a last-ditch effort to scuttle the nomination. And so I spent the morning writing an editorial urging the senators to vote on Thomas without delay.

Mid-afternoon, Tom Teepen, the editorial page editor, summoned me to his office and said he’d been talking with the editor of the paper, Ron Martin. Martin had seen Hill on CNN, which had broadcast her noon news conference live. “She seemed pretty credible,” Martin said. “Maybe you want to reconsider your editorial.”

So I wrote a new one saying that there must be no rush to judgment, that Hill’s story had to be investigated. The Senate Judiciary Committee proceeded to hold new hearings, during which Republicans gave Hill the third degree. In the end, as I recall, we decided to withdraw our endorsement of Thomas.

So it’s déja vu all over again for me. Once again, at the 11th hour, a charge of sexual misbehavior has been leveled against a Supreme Court nominee. Once again, a nomination hangs in the balance.

Should Brett Kavanaugh be kept off the Court because of something he may have done as a drunk 17-year-old? The Judeo-Christian tradition is big on forgiveness, perhaps to a fault. “Father, forgive them,” said Jesus on the cross. “For they know not what they do.”

But to get off the hook for sinning against your fellow human beings, the tradition is pretty clear that you’ve got to acknowledge what you did and repent of it. In preparation for the Day of Atonement, which begins Tuesday evening, Jews are saying to each other, “If  I have done anything to offend you, I ask your forgiveness.”

Kavanaugh’s problem may be that he has chosen a different route. “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation,” he declared in a statement to the New Yorker. “I did not do this back in high school or at any time.”

If he’s believed to be telling the truth, he will, like Thomas, gain his lifetime tenure on the country’s highest court. But if, in the #MeToo era, his alleged victim is found to be credible, he’s likely to discover, as Bill (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) Clinton did, that it’s not the misbehavior that gets you into trouble, it’s the lying.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • None of it matters. Every last Republican senator will vote to confirm Kavanaugh, including Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, both of whom, like all the rest, have been bought off by the Koch brothers and/or threatened by thugs borrowed by the Trump family crime syndicate from Vladimir Putin’s crime syndicate. One way or another Kavanaugh will be seated. For life.

  • Re: “When President George W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court …” 

    Uh, make that “President George H. W. Bush,” as in the 41st president, not the 43rd. 

  • Kavanaugh has already proven he is a liar. He lied to the Senate during his confirmation hearings to be on the district court of appeals (2003 or 2004). He then lied again in the last two weeks regarding the same email scandal. We should not expect any repercussions from these allegations. He will be confirmed by the gutless the republicans.

  • Kavanaugh may or may not prove a worthy Associate Justice, but the Senate is proving to be a worthless institution. Like the Vatican, but without the hats.

  • It’s symmetrical with “Like the Vatican, but without the hats.”

    But I did not suggest she was “off the reservation”.

  • It’s not symmetrical. The Vatican is an institution, not a person, and has been subject to criticism since, oh, the 11th century. It is fair game, though of course you’re entitled to defend it. But she didn’t criticize you personally. Why be personal? And I’ll say this. I’ve become increasingly bothered by commenters attacking each other personally. My columns are fair game for criticism, and so are the comments of those who respond to them. You are knowledgable and intelligent. The use of this space by a community of RNS commenters, including yourself, to engage in a kind of floating crap game of insult is ugly and depressing.

  • It is symmetrical.

    “symmetrical, adjective”

    “Made up of exactly similar parts facing each other or around an axis; showing symmetry.”

    The fact that you are personally tone deaf to anti-Catholic posts, including by the individual to whom I responded, is an interesting phenomenon, which has not gone unnoticed elsewhere.

    The level of insult is actually LOWER now then it was six months ago.

    When I read you take to task “Like the Vatican, but without the hats.”, thus establishing symmetry in your kvetching, I’ll consider editing my comment.

  • There’s a difference between statements, including my own, that are critical, temperately or otherwise, of a given religion institution, and those that attack individual commenters. I’m glad to have you imply that the level of insult is a problem. I’m not so sure, but I haven’t taken inventory.

  • Hi Mark, it’s good to see you participate in the comments section of your articles, even if it’s to engage Bob A, who thinks his own credentials are unimpeachable. He’s sort of a one act dog & pony show, totally for almost everything Roman Catholic and pretty much against anyone who criticizes said religious organization. I’m sure that he would argue with a billboard if he disagreed with what it said! 😀

  • Both the Senate and the Vatican are currently actively destroying their own and making believe they’re defending virtue. When push comes to shove, we don’t need either institution. Not like this, anyway.

  • Hi David, Thanks for your note but to be clear: I really would like commenters to stay away from the ad hominem attacks. I suppose it’s necessary to recognize that what sites like RNS offer is an opportunity for people who like these kinds of barroom confrontations. On the one hand, if that’s what they like, then let them knock themselves out. But on the other (my hand), vain as it is, it makes me wonder why I devote myself to writing something that (most of) the commenters (on both sides) could care less about engaging, except to beat each other up. Of course, there are lots of readers who don’t write comments and (presumably) find some value in what I write.

  • I agree with you Mark, however, it’s easy to get caught up in it when it constantly happens. I have gotten to the point that when I read an article here, get to the comments and there are over 80 of them in just a couple of hours, I don’t even read them because I know it’s the same folks squabbling over and over making the same drive-by shootings, potshots and similar abuse.

    I should work on a different approach to the comments.


    Article V

    The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.


    Gather up some of your friends and have at it.

    It will probably be helpful if they’re American citizens, registered voters, and living in the United States.

    As to the Vatican, there is no amendment process. You have two choices: leave or not leave.

  • The level of anti-Catholicism at Religion News Service is high enough to have gotten noted in the national Catholic press.

    Bigotry has two prongs:

    Tone deafness – “Like the Vatican, but without the hats.” inserted into a discussion which has zero to do with religion or Catholicism slips right by, but “Just like you’re a Catholic, but without the beliefs.” in response merits a lecture.

    Justification – “It’s not symmetrical. The Vatican is an institution, not a person, and has been subject to criticism since, oh, the 11th century. It is fair game ….” in a discussion about a Supreme Court nominee in which Catholicism is completely irrelevant.

    Had the original comment been “Just like blacks, but without the laziness”, and the response “Just like whites, but without the greed”, the issue would stand out in bas-relief.

    Mark Silk IS sensitive to that sort of bigotry.

    I am extremely familiar with the Catholic Church and have found myself spending an inordinate amount of time correcting misstatements and responding to outright anti-Catholicism.

    That should not present a problem for any fair-minded individual.

  • A high school allegation uncorroborated by any witnesses at all, accusations against an adult male by an adult female – also uncorroborated, and perjury by an adult male who imposed on a subordinate should not result in feeling “…. it’s déja vu all over again for me.”

    But that does appear to be the lever Dianne Goldman Berman Feinstein wished to pull.

  • And every last Yellow Dog Democrat – Feinstein, Leahy, Schumer, Harris, etc – will vote against Kavanaugh without regard to whether or not he is qualified – which in theory is what is supposed to be the question before the Senate.

    Why is that surprising?

    The only positive thing that has come out of this is a general impression of the public that the partisanship has gone too far to the detriment of getting anything done.

  • Be honest. They aren’t the ones lobbing softball questions or have a history of flat out refusing to do their duty for purely partisan reasons.

  • “If he’s believed to be telling the truth, he will, like Thomas, gain his lifetime tenure on the country’s highest court. But if, in the #MeToo era, his alleged victim is found to be credible, he’s likely to discover, as Bill (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) Clinton did, that it’s not the misbehavior that gets you into trouble, it’s the lying.”

    First, just what is required for Kavanaugh’s accuser to be credible? Whatever it is, so far I haven’t seen it. Second, just because the presumed victim is credible doesn’t mean Kavanaugh is lying but only that he MIGHT be lying. Don’t forget that with the only charges against Clinton that stuck, it was physical evidence that made them stick rather than the credibility of the accuser.

  • We need more diversity on the Supreme Court. Any cases around sexual harassment, abuse or perversion coming before the court with Kavanaugh and Thomas present, the perpetrators know they will have empathetic ears.

    Kavanaugh is unfit to serve for many reasons. While I generally disagree with the filibuster, doing away with it for these cases just opens the door to more extreme and marginal qualified candidates for Supreme Court Justice.

  • Basically what you’re suggesting is “we need more justices on the Supreme Court that will turn a blind eye towards the Constitution as written and rewrite it to suit”.

    Judge Kavanaugh by any rational criterion for Federal judges is MORE than qualified to serve. That is why the American Bar Association gave him gave its highest rating of “well-qualified”.

    The performance of his opponents, right up to the reprehensible Hail Mary play of Dianne Emiel Goldman Berman Feinstein out of the Bork playbook, shows that his qualifications have never been in question.

    Rather, they are addicted to what Justice Gorsuch described in National Review 13 years ago:

    “…. American liberals have become addicted to the courtroom, relying on judges and lawyers rather than elected leaders and the ballot box, as the primary means of effecting their social agenda on everything from gay marriage to assisted suicide to the use of vouchers for private-school education.”

    “This overweening addiction to the courtroom as the place to debate social policy is bad for the country and bad for the judiciary. In the legislative arena, especially when the country is closely divided, compromises tend to be the rule the day.”

    In short, American liberals want “empathetic ears”, not the law as written applied to the facts.

  • Yes, but tried what?

    As I read “Why be so unpleasant, Bob?”, the words “Never seen anything like it in all my years.” came to mind:

    “Why be so unpleasant, Rosa?” would have been as appropriate December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, when Parks refused to obey bus driver James F. Blake’s order to give up her seat in the “colored section” to a white passenger, after the whites-only section was filled.

    Conditioned by dealing with the effluent from now-closed National Catholic Reporter Comments into thinking anti-Catholicism is no problem, your correspondent was nearly without words.

  • I’d rather be anything than aligned with Obama, Clinton, Feinstein, Booker or the like. The more the Democratic Party becomes socialist and resorts to groupthink; the more danger America is in.

  • Not a denial of my assessment of your character there.

    Funny how you automatically demonize stuff like:

    Access to healthcare for the public
    Living wages
    Reasonable taxation policies
    Effective diplomacy
    Clean air, water, soil
    Free markets
    Functional financial markets
    Government capable of doing its job effectively.
    Free and fair elections
    Civil liberties
    Effective economic growth for the nation

    Go ahead and use nonsense epithets. Its not like you have a POV worth taking seriously. Its all flinging poo and evasion for you.

    I am not the one willing to betray our nation, its laws and way of life to grab power and privilege for yourself. That is all conservatives doing.

  • Effective diplomacy?

    Each and every one of these is a goal. HOW we achieve goals and exactly WHAT they mean are open for discussion.

    For example “free markets” would seem to support opposing Obamacare.

  • Of course you aren’t. Those are all considered scary “socialist” to you and conservatives these days.

    Unless this is just your capitulation and acknowledgment that your position has always been a joke.

  • Of course you aren’t. You aren’t a capitalist either.

    Capitalism requires free markets. Free markets require regulation to prevent restriction and monopolization. Whereas conservatives support monopolized oligarchic markets. Conservatives attack free trade and open markets under the guise of “protection”. “Small government” means corrupted and restricted markets. Gaming the system rather than upholding principles of free market capitalism. Corporate welfare at the expense of the public.

    Nor does capitalism apply to principles of government such as education and public welfare. Government has a duty to address public hazards and issues. There is not a single privatization scheme which has to do with free markets or capitalism. Cronyism and corruption yes, but not much else.

    Conservative ideology does not exist. It is simply “I’ve got mine, F-U”. What you are saying is that you oppose such things I mentioned but are too dishonest to say so outright.

  • Dude, you are clueless. Until trump came into office, Republicans were the promoters of free market capitalism; and fought against the protectionist Democrats and their union handlers.
    I’m glad you are crossing over to the Republican Party.

  • Dude, you are a liar or a fool. Republicans haven’t promoted free markets in nearly 40 years. From Reagan to Trump they promote monopolistic markets and oligarchy. They are against the regulatory climate needed to ensure free markets. They support privatization, which again is not free markets either.

    Even the protectionism of Trump is far more selective, haphazard and phony. Its not about protecting jobs or workers, its about corporate welfare to donors.

    Republicans are simply crossing over into full on kleptocracy. The Mobutu Party.

  • LOL!!
    Oh yes, yes… you are correct.
    Democrats have ALWAYS been for the free market. They’ve never supported unions or business killing regulations.
    I now know where you work! You work in the Ministry of Truth. Full of double-speak and re-written history.
    The book 1984 describes you perfectly!
    Later Winston.

  • Again, as usual you are bullshifting here. Making fictional attacks on past people does not refute or deny statements here about present actions.

    It isn’t a question of what you claimed Democrats did in the past. Its a question of what Republicans are now. Supporters of free markets and capitalism isn’t what they do. Nor are they even remotely concerned with that list of subjects you claimed to be for, but really aren’t.

    “You work in the Ministry of Truth. Full of double-speak and re-written history. ”

    Projection is strong in you. It goes well with the deflection. Too bad there isn’t an honest bone in your body. I guess when you support habitual liars, it rubs off.

  • You are either dumb, ignorant, or an out right liar. It is a waste of time for anyone to continue to discuss issues with you in which you fabricate information.

  • More like being honest and direct on a given subject. Something you never are.

    You are too spineless to address an issue directly, engage in bullshifting as a matter of course and make up crap.

    So what source do you have for that “FBI disclosure of the existence of the Deep State”? Oh right. None whatsoever. And you have the nerve to accuse me of fabrication. Funny.

  • FEAR, SHAME and GUILT and COVER IT ALL UP, a standard response across the board

    Obviously ordination in any religion is not assurance of good behavior !!!!!

    Neither is coronation!!! e.g. Henry VIII, King David.

    Neither is marriage as 50% of those men convicted of pedophilia are married.

    Neither is being elected president of the USA!! e.g. Billy “I did not have sex with that girl” Clinton, John “Marilyn Monroe” Kennedy”. Then there is the “Trumper”!!

    Neither is possessing super athletic skill!!! e.g. Tiger “I am so sorry for getting caught” Woods.

    Neither is being an atheist or pagan or football coach since pedophilia is present in all walks of life.

    If someone is guilty of a crime in this litany of “neithers” they should or should have been penalized as the law dictates to include jail terms for pedophiliacs (priests, rabbis, evangelicals, boy scout leaders, married men/women, football coaches), divorce for adultery (Clinton, Kennedy, Woods), jail terms for obstruction of justice (Paterno et al ,Clinton, Cardinal Law) or child endangerment (Paterno in abstentia, Sandusky et al, Lynn) and the death penalty or life in prison for murder (“Kings David and Henry VIII).

  • But you approved of what GW Bush/Mike Dukakis/Mitt Romney/Gerald Ford did! Therefore I have demonstrated that Jeff Sessions really is a rogue Keebler Elf!

  • Nobody seems to understand that you are very generously using paranoia on behalf of the Church to provide comic-relief, BobBob, bless your precious little heart.

  • Nobody seems to understand that you have a deep abiding hatred for the Catholic Church based on some personal experience which you bring to the conversations.

    alwayspuzzled > Bob Arnzen

    “‘the theology of the Eucharist, about which you appear to know zilch’”

    “The Host, if it contains gluten, is Jesus.”

    “The officiating priest, who may or may not like touching little boys or girls, is Jesus (in persona Christi)”

    “So the Eucharist consists of Jesus worshiping himself by cannibalizing himself.”

  • This stunt appears to be winding down.

    The accuser is now demanding, through her attorney, a “complete FBI investigation” of an event that MAY have occurred in 1982, involving high school students, that would have been a misdemeanor under local law then, that has been denied by the supposed other male attendee AND the accused, supported only by her word and some therapy notes which do not line up with her current story, or she will not testify.

    This sets a new low for obstruction, topping the Borking of Bork and the Hilling of Clarence Thomas by some margin.

    Have these obstructionists no shame?

    Do they detest the American government and people that much?

  • If that were the criteria that we need a judge who will understand the law as written, then why have nine supreme court justices when one can do the job? We could save taxes payers millions of dollars by doing away with courts of that have multiple judges reviewing a case. In fact, we might not even need appeal courts except if new evidence came forward.

    Courts withe multiple judges will always be need as many different views of the intend of the law, due process and the constitution will always exist. We need more then nine justices on the Supreme Court to capture the complexity of a modern technologically based society and the diversity of this huge country.

  • There is no need of diversity where interpretation of the constitution is required. Either you adhere to it as the founders intended; or you don’t.
    Your need for diversity on the court is doublespeak for implementation of liberalism from the bench.

  • Both President Trump and Sen. Jeff Flake have now arrived at the same conclusion. If the accuser shows up on Monday and she gives credible testmony, that could potentially make a real difference in Kavanaugh’s final outcome. Maybe Kav won’t survive.

    But Kavanaugh gets to say his side of the story as well, on Monday. And now that a slew of good-faith, we-take-you-seriously invitations have been extended, if this accuser does NOT show up on Monday and testify to the Judiciary committee, then the entire political assassination is cancelled.

  • What hasn’t changed is the methodology of personal destruction used by democrats to destroy competent judges or cabinet appointees.
    It’s unfortunate that in this case both the accused and accuser will be smeared; never to recover or repair their reputations, all because of unscrupulous Democrats. She may write a book; to “tell the truth”; but his reputation is tarnished forever regardless of the outcome.
    And before all the hand-wringers jump to indignation and mock disbelief; remember that Chinese Pawn Feinstein had this information for months; withheld it from her democratic colleagues; did not question kavanaugh when she met with him face to face and leaked the letter to the press at the last possible moment.
    THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is the quality of representation from the great state of California and the true soul of today’s Democratic Party.

  • “If that were the criteria that we need a judge who will understand the law as written, then why have nine supreme court justices when one can do the job?”

    Ask Congress.

    The number of justices is set by Congress, not by the Constitution.

    The odd number is a result of a desire never to have a tie.

    The typical number in state Supreme Courts is three to five.

    You want more than one because you want to be sure that all the possible considerations and interpretations of the laws as written are considered.

  • In the history of Democratic Senator character assassination, the perpetrator is always a cannot-be-unseated individual in a Navy Blue state whose track record for playing loose and wide with the facts and truth are a matter of record.

    Consider Ted Kenney’s opening statement for the Democrats for the borking of Robert Bork:

    “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.”

    Kennedy’s speech was the first strike in what was thus far the most contentious nomination process in the history of the Supreme Court. Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, helped lead the charge with special interest groups such as the NAACP, the ACLU, and the National Organization for Women following close behind.

    The difference this time is that tide is going the other way, people have had it up to here with the shenanigans thirty years later, and Dianne Feinstein is nobody’s idea of an upright stalwart who gets her facts straight.

    Although he has not gotten any press, Senator Patrick Leahy’s questioning was bizarre and his statements afterward unprofessional. I had the misfortune of dealing with him during my decades in DC, and if there is anyone who fits the bill of “a legend in his own mind”, Senator Leahy is he.

  • It’s not a political assassination. Trying to ram this confirmation through without the full court records being made available to the public is bad optics.

  • Stop spouting hate speech against LGBTQ+ people, sexual assault survivors, and non-Christians in literally every post you make. It really turns people off from posting on this forum.

  • Republicans will resort to desperate measures to outlaw abortion, by any means necessary. We will stop you.

  • #VirginsDontGiveBirth

    Ford has corroboration, you flaming rape apologist. You don’t seem to mind when Catholic priests abuse children, either.

  • Should be the 6th head on mt Rushmore; after reagan gets up there.
    Better yet, I’d love to see trump riding the horse shirtless on the crazy horse monument.

  • Yes – science is for nerds.
    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go empty some 55 gallon drums of toxic waste into a river.

  • He’s crazy, and so are you. His dick looks like Toad from Mario Kart, according to Stormy Daniels.

  • As the comments on this article wind down to their usual nubbin, this might be a good time to point out that – once again – Mark Silk posted a completely political article at Religion News Service.

    And, as usual, one of the first comments took a shot at the Catholic Church despite the fact that there was zero religious content in the article and Catholicism was completely irrelevant.

    Yes, even über liberals who pine for the days in Atlanta when they could write editorials excoriating conservatives and centrists have a right to an opinion, but is there a chance … even a small one … that the next article have a religious content?

    I have a dream …

  • I, for one, learn from the articles and occasionally comment–sometimes even about the article. I do learn from the comments. It’s like picking blackberries. Several of the regular commenters seem knowledgeable about the issues and bring in perspectives and resources I have never considered. Some of those leave you scratched up when you reach in to pull out a succulent understanding. But I so love blackberry cobbler!

  • I’ll second David Allen’s comment about appreciating your participation in the comments section. It increases the sense that a “conversation” is going on rather than a “lecture.” Readers will appreciate that you respond to corrections (in the case of PsiCop’s comment above) or differences of opinion. Also, I’ll bet that it decreases vitriol in responses. If readers know that the writer is reading and will respond to what they’ve written, they’ll be less likely to be nasty.

  • Mark, a few commenters dominate this site and make discussion very difficult for those who would like to just read viewpoints or express/explore points of view without being attacked or without having the discussion taken over by their repeated ugliness. That dominance is a problem. Could RNS not allow some of us to block someone else from commenting on a string we start. Let the nay-sayer/attackers have their own string but allow those who don’t want to be part of that ugliness to keep it out of the conversations they want to start?

  • I rather doubt that such selective blocking (i.e. certain commenters from a particular string) could be done, but I’ll look into it. The normal and customary approach is to block certain people entirely. I have never wanted to do, just as I’ve never wanted to toss out particular comments. But the idea that personal abuse is preventing some readers from having the discussions they want is reason enough for me to consider changing my policy.

  • Thank you. I don’t know if the web sites even have the ability to do that, but it might make a difference. Notice that there are a few who respond to just about every comment made – the dominators. If I block an individual’s comments, the dominators comments still disrupt the flow in the string. I am fine with someone starting a new string to bring a different viewpoint, or even to refute comments made on a different string. But it would be helpful if those who constantly fight could be limited in where they are allowed to fight. Let the dominator start their own string and let me block that person for directly responding to my comments.

  • Bob Arnzen and his buddies like to gang up on anyone who disagrees with them, especially LGBTQ+ people. That’s why they’re practically the only people who post on this forum. It is in serious need of a moderator who isn’t a homophobe and a transphobe.

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