Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Names will never hurt me

One thing is clear in America’s fight over same-sex marriage: The activists on both sides describe those on the other as “bigots”. Are they both? Or are GLBT people being held to a completely different standard than heterosexuals?

I recently read a post at Loren Olson’s Magnetic Fire site that got me to thinking about all this. Dr. Olson was commenting on a Boston Globe OpEd column, “Wedded to vitriol, backers of gay marriage stumble” by right-wing columnist Jeff Jacoby. Said Dr. Olson:

“Whether or not opponents of gay marriage are bigots, calling them bigots will be counter-productive. While it is impossible to argue with ideologies, name-calling simply reinforces the polarization. Attitudes will change as people begin to understand the true nature of our relationships, and that we wish to support, not undermine, the institution of marriage.”

I agree with the general thrust of that, but left a lengthy comment in which I also argued that the leaders of the anti-gay marriage movement are bigots (you can check out that and a further excellent point made by Dr. Olson on his site). I also pointed out the difficulty in exposing the bigotry of anti-gay activists without seeming to brand ordinary folks who voted against us the same way when they’re far more likely to be, as Dr. Olson put it, “homo-naïve”—they don’t know us or our lives (which is precisely why the right is so successful in defining us—ordinary people don’t know us, so they believe the nonsense the right spews).

However, I believe our side is being held to an entirely different standard than the right, and that can be seen in the Globe column that began this discussion. Jeff Jacoby is an opponent of gay marriage because, he said:

“I think it would be reckless to jettison the understanding, as old as civilization itself, that society has a deep interest in promoting families anchored by a married man and woman. It seems to me nonsensical to claim that men and women are utterly interchangeable, or to deny that children are likeliest to thrive when they are raised by both a mother and a father. I believe that timeless moral standards must not be casually overturned and that doing so is apt to have unintended and unfortunate consequences. And I am sure that legalizing same-sex wedlock would fuel demands for further radical change—legalizing plural marriage, for example.”

Jacoby‘s argument is specious, not historically accurate and filled with the kind of scare-mongering that the most bigoted of the bigoted would endorse. Is he a bigot or, to use his own words, “mistaken, not evil”?

Here’s the problem: Jacoby is demanding that our side “respect” his side and the primacy of their particular religious views, and he claims he sympathizes “with committed gay and lesbian couples who feel demeaned by the law’s rejection of same-sex marriage or who crave the proof of societal acceptance, the cloak of normalcy, that a marriage license would provide.” This shows that he has absolutely no understanding of what this issue is for us, so his demand that we “see marriage traditionalists in the same light” (of understanding, apparently) is just plain silly.

We don’t feel “demeaned” because of the lack of legal recognition of our relationships, we’re furious at being treated as second-class citizens (or worse). We have to pay higher taxes than heterosexual married couples, but we don’t get the government protection they do. While we have no spousal rights, such as with death or illness of a partner, in most states a heterosexual couple who’s known each other for one minute can get married and instantly get more legal protections than a same-sex couple that’s been together 50 years. “Demeaned”? Hardly.

Gay marriage also has nothing to do with his imaginary “proof of societal acceptance” which we don’t “crave”. In fact, his choice of that word, and his declaration that we’re seeking “the cloak of normalcy” shows he’s making assumptions based solely on his conservative philosophy. Social conservatives believe that gay people are seeking approval and that we’re trying to normalise homosexuality (whatever that means). We don’t need anyone’s approval, and it doesn’t matter to us whether the rightwing thinks we’re normal or not. However, we demand that government—to whom we also pay taxes—treats us exactly the same as all other citizens, that if government gives benefits to committed partners it must give them to all such partnered relationships.

What Jacoby doesn’t understand is that for us, it’s not simply about having a disagreement with people, it’s that our opponents wish to deny us not just our citizenship, but also our very humanity. Jacoby and his friends simply cannot expect to treat us with such contempt and have us not react.

Yet in most cases it’s counterproductive to call them out as bigots. The conservative bias in the newsmedia means that we can’t make it clear that we’re only calling the activists bigots. Their side can, and does, lie, distort and slander us with reckless abandon, but if we dare to criticise them in any way, no matter how small, we’re being “intolerant” or “Nazis” or even worse.

The problem, then, is that because their side has spun the issue in their favour, we can’t call out bigots even when they deserve it.

Our side is used to verbal abuse coming from our opponents, something that started way back with schoolyard taunts. But back then we also learned something that maybe delicate flowers like Jeff Jacoby should take to heart: “Names will never hurt me”. If Jacoby and his pals aren’t bigots, then the words are meaningless and they can all have a good laugh. But maybe, just maybe, the more reasonable ones among them realise that we may just have a point after all.


Roger Owen Green said...

Interesting debate on another hot-button issue - gays in the pulpit.

Arthur Schenck said...

Thanks for that, Roger. For anyone else who wants to watch the video, I'd suggest going directly to YouTube; be warned, both sites have many homophobic comments.

The YouTube link: