Writing in The Atlantic, Brandon Ambrosino has some serious misgivings about broad-brushing opponents of marriage equality and defining them all as homophobic and anti-gay.
As a gay man, I found myself disappointed with this definition—that anyone with any sort of moral reservations about gay marriage is by definition anti-gay. If Raushenbush is right, then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay. That’s despite the fact that while some religious people don’t support gay marriage in a sacramental sense, many of them are in favor of same-sex civil unions and full rights for the parties involved. To be sure, most gay people, myself included, won’t be satisfied until our loving, monogamous relationships are graced with the word “marriage.” But it’s important to recall that many religious individuals do support strong civil rights for the gay members of their communities.
It’s a longish piece which he obviously put a lot of thought into, and he makes some points worthy of consideration. On the other hand, he also published an earlier article in The Atlantic, entitled “Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University,” and I can’t help but wonder how much his thinking is colored by whatever background led him to Lib U in the first place.
His main thesis is that people have complex reasons for opposing gay marriage, and not everyone who does so wants gays to be imprisoned or assaulted or otherwise physically harmed.
I would argue that an essential feature of the term “homophobia” must include personal animus or malice toward the gay community. Simply having reservations about gay marriage might be anti-gay marriage, but if the reservations are articulated in a respectful way, I see no reason to dismiss the person holding those reservations as anti-gay people. In other words, I think it’s quite possible for marriage-equality opponents to have flawed reasoning without necessarily having flawed character.
Or in other words, it’s possible for some people to oppose equal rights for gays, and still be good people in other ways. By tarring everyone with the same brush (he suggests), we may be harming the gay rights movement by being excessively judgmental. We who support gay rights ought to be more accommodating towards those who oppose gay marriage but are not overtly hostile towards gays. We need to distinguish somehow between the good homophobes and the bad homophobes.
If it’s “anti-gay” to question the arguments of marriage-equality advocates, and if the word “homophobic” is exhausted on me or on polite dissenters, then what should we call someone who beats up gay people, or prefers not to hire them? Disagreement is not the same thing as discrimination. Our language ought to reflect that distinction.
It’s an argument that sounds like an argument in favor of tolerance, but for me it falls flat. When you advocate the idea that certain individuals belong in a special category of people with reduced rights, you are advocating direct harm to those individuals. Yes, we can make some kind of distinction between those who literally throw stones at gays and those who merely oppress them by passing laws against their basic human rights, but we can reasonably express that distinction just by calling the former “violently” anti-gay. The latter are still anti-gay, no matter how complex their reasons, because they are actively advocating direct harm to homosexuals.
A lot of people fail to recognize that denying equality to gays is genuinely harmful, but that’s because a lot of people assume that gays don’t deserve equality. Granted, they might not express it or think of it in precisely those terms, but that’s the assumption. Gays have been oppressed and suppressed for so long that the whole idea of gay love, commitment, and marriage strikes people as something novel and unheard of, as if allowing gays to marry would be the invention of something entirely new, instead of merely allowing them to enjoy the same rights and privileges as everyone else.
To truly appreciate the harm inherent in denying marriage equality to gays, just imagine imposing the same restriction on any other group. Imagine if gentiles began saying that Jews should not be allowed to marry, and began circulating petitions to amend state and federal constitutions to define marriage as the union of two gentiles. How long before all such advocates were branded as anti-semitic, regardless of how nice they were in church or of how complex their reasons for supporting that kind of discrimination?
Of course, that’s obviously wrong, because it singles out the Jews and takes away the right to marry. We assume that they ought to be entitled to marry, and that by forbidding it, we are robbing them of what is rightfully theirs. But many of us, including possibly Brandon, don’t make the same assumption about gays. People like Brandon seem to be making a distinction between those who want to overtly harm gays, and those who merely are reluctant to give gays some new privilege they’re not really entitled to.
That’s the harm right there. That’s what’s homophobic about opposing gay marriage: it advocates the idea that gays are a special group who are explicitly NOT entitled to marry one another the way members of any other group can. And homophobes honestly believe that they are entitled to make that distinction, which is why they need to be confronted about the fact that they’re making it. If we do not, if we implicitly agree that they are entitled to make this discriminatory distinction, we only reinforce the problem.
Yes, we can be tolerant and respectful towards those who, for whatever reason, resist the idea of gay marriage. But tolerance is for people, first and foremost. Tolerance for ideas comes second, and it’s not automatic. We tolerate people by granting them the same rights and privileges we claim for ourselves, but when we express ideas that reject the rights of others, then we ought to be accountable.
So with due respect to Brandon, I must disagree with his ideas. People who reject the rights of homosexuals, and who actively or passively work against full equality for gays, are homophobic, and need to be called to account for it. Even if they themselves are gay.