Bigotry By Any Other Name

Is homophobia a choice, or are people just born that way?

Amongst all the silliness and bombast at the most recent Republican primary debate, there was the following statement from Ben Carson, who was asked to clarify his position on same-sex marriage:

“I believe that the Constitution protects everybody, regardless of their sexual orientation or any other aspect.  I also believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.  There is no reason that you can’t be perfectly fair to the gay community.  They shouldn’t automatically assume that because you believe that marriage is between one man and one woman that you are a homophobe.”

In a strong field, that might rank as the most incoherent thing that any candidate has said about any issue.  It would be easy enough to ignore or dismiss it—most media outlets have done just that—except that a) it came from the highest-polling candidate in the race (more or less), and b) it forces us to confront the issues of marriage and homophobia in a manner that is just too interesting to pass up.

Getting right to the point, then:  Is it possible to oppose same-sex marriage without being homophobic?  Can you believe that gay people are morally and legally equal to straight people while also believing that only the latter are entitled to marriage?

I’ll be honest:  I do not find these to be difficult questions.

No, you cannot oppose gay marriage—or any other gay right—without the disease of homophobia coursing through your veins.  Thinking that gays are beneath the institution of marriage is precisely to think that heterosexuals are a superior human species—a view otherwise known as homophobia.

“Defending” traditional marriage is homophobic by definition.  You can’t have one without the other.  To say that these two people can receive a marriage license but those two people cannot is axiomatically to think that the former are more deserving of the American dream than the latter.

Hence the absurdity of Carson’s statement.  He wants to have it both ways, but how could this be?  If you believe—as Carson apparently does—that gay people are entitled to equal protection under the law, how could that protection not include the right to get married?

Officially, marriage is nothing more than a legal contract between two consenting adults.  It’s a secular institution whose broader meaning is determined by those who enter into it.  Conservatives can bang on and on about what marriage is “for”—commitment, sacrifice, procreation, serving God—but the truth is that marriage is whatever each individual couple makes of it.  It is neither possible nor desirable for the government to make those decisions for them.

If you truly thought that all men and women are created equal, then the notion of withholding marriage from gay people wouldn’t even occur to you—just as prohibiting marriage between interracial couples wouldn’t make sense to anyone who believes in equality of black and white.

The reality is that most Americans are adept at holding utterly contradictory views in their heads, and most of the time they don’t even realize they’re doing it.  This has been true since the founding of the republic (see:  Jefferson and slavery) and we can expect it to continue until long after we’re all dead.

The far more interesting trend—and a welcome one at that—is the degree to which homophobia itself has fallen out of fashion.

Even as the country remains fairly divided on same-sex marriage—the current split is 60 percent in favor, 37 percent opposed—very few people today are comfortable with being viewed as anti-gay.  Even as they espouse policies that are obviously and deliberately discriminatory toward gay folks, they are very careful to launch into a “some of my best friends are gay” routine, insisting that their opposition to gay rights should not be construed as opposition to gay people.

It’s a ridiculous and hypocritical stance—an insult to the intelligence of anyone who made it through kindergarten—but it’s also indicative of how thoroughly gay people have been integrated into polite society.

Remember:  It was as recently as the 1980s that gay people were so marginalized by their leaders that, when Ronald Reagan’s press secretary was asked if the administration was aware of a “gay plague” known as AIDS, the entire press room erupted in laughter.

In the 1990s, anti-gay animus was so strong that Bill Clinton—a Democrat!—was able to sign the Defense of Marriage Act and institute “Don’t ask, don’t tell” without experiencing any real pushback from the gay community because, hey, what other option did they have?

The difference between then and now in enough to give you whiplash.  Not only is same-sex marriage legal from coast to coast, but gay people are so visible in every walk of life—including positions of power—that the straight community has no choice but to treat them like human beings.

Or at least to give lip service to that effect.  A chunk of Americans remains opposed to affording gays equal protection under the law, but—as if taking a cue from Pope Francis—they are far less cavalier than they’ve ever been before, concealing their true feelings behind inclusive and compassionate rhetoric.

Today, you can’t even be a Democrat unless you offer full-throated support for every plank of the dreaded “gay agenda,” and you can’t run for president as a Republican without at least pretending to have a few gay acquaintances and acknowledging that homosexuality is, in fact, a real thing.  (I wish we could say the same for climate change.)

But let’s not be cute about it by letting opponents of gay equality off the hook.

Yes, I am aware of many good people who support “traditional” marriage and, by all outward appearances, harbor no prejudice toward their gay colleagues and treat everyone with respect.  They regard their views on marriage as an honest disagreement—invariably informed by their religious faith—and not, in any case, as an expression of bigotry, intolerance or blind hatred.

Well, of course that’s how they feel.  In any great debate about civil rights, everyone wants to view themselves as the hero—the person on the “right side of history.”  Being several generations removed from when, say, George Wallace could proudly stand at a podium and bellow, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” we no longer allow ourselves to hold prejudicial views without performing an elaborate sleight of hand to convince ourselves and others that we are not the villain in this story.

Sorry, but it won’t wash.

In this era of equality, you can no longer get away with threading this particular needle without looking like a disingenuous nincompoop.

If you’re going to support anti-gay legislation, then you have to own the fact that—whether you realize it or not—you, yourself, are anti-gay.

If you don’t want to be tarred and feathered as an intolerant prude, then quit advocating for a society that withholds basic rights from an entire group of citizens on the basis of their emotional attractions.  That, after all, is exactly what an intolerant prude would do.

If you truly believe, à la Ben Carson, that “the Constitution protects everybody” and “there is no reason that you can’t be perfectly fair to the gay community,” then join the rest of us in effecting a system of laws that actually are perfectly fair to the gay community—namely, laws that don’t care whether your significant other is a man or a woman, because why on Earth should that make a difference?

Show, don’t tell.  Either you believe that we’re all equal before the law, or you don’t.  Sooner or later, you have to pick a side.

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