Alex Blaze

Not every homophobe beats up gay men after a long day of firing lesbians

Filed By Alex Blaze | November 16, 2009 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: gay marriage, homophobic behavior, LGBT, marriage, Question 1, racism, same-sex marriage

Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed a phenomenon the other day I've been meaning to post about here on Bilerico: droves of straight people in media trying with all their might to prove that folks who go out and vote against same-sex marriage aren't homophobic. It's just their personal opinion on the definition of marriage, but it has nothing to do with LGB people or same-sex relationships themselves.

I've read dozens of commentary along these lines these past few weeks, and it makes me wonder where it's all coming from. Sure, not everyone who showed up and voted "Yes" on Question 1 was going to go round up some queers and beat them up later that day. But is our definition of "prejudice" so narrow that it only includes the most violent and ridiculous of homophobes?

There are obvious corollaries with other movements here, as Coates points out:

The obvious parallel is civil rights. It's quite clear to me that Jim Crow in the South could not have been struck down by a majority vote; interracial marriage was banned in Alabama until 2000, and even then, some 40 percent of Alabamans voted to keep it. It's quite clear to me that Jim Crow in the North, enforced through housing segregation, restrictive covenants, block-busting realtors, and the federal government red-lining could not have been defeated by a majority vote.

But more than that, the sense that prejudice is actually not a common and potent force among straight people today, and white people then, that the group intent on discriminating is "essentially good" is the most remarkable parallel. Rod believes that most of the people voting against gay marriage aren't prejudiced against gay people per se. That reminds me of National Review, in 1957 arguing that most of the people intent on preventing blacks from voting weren't actually anti-black:

The central question that emerges--and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal--is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically?

National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.

Thus those who are known to be primarily motivated by ethnic prejudice were, in their time, seen by conservatives as guardians of civilization. Likewise heterosexuals now are presumed to be about something more than base prejudice.

The point of citing the Civil Rights Movement here isn't a banal and flat comparison between the Civil Rights Movement and the LGBT movement. Instead, it's to show that this cultural phenomenon, where people in positions of power and in the media make excuses for other people's prejudice, isn't at all new.

I think this comes from the way we've come to understand prejudice - it's not a cultural force that undoubtedly affects us all. Instead, it's a personal moral failing, and if you have racist thoughts or sexist thoughts or homophobic thoughts, you're just a bad person and that's that.

It reminds me of when I invited over an American friend to eat with Alberto, his cousin, and me. We were fine, eating great, drinking... until I leaned over and kissed Alberto. My friend said, "Ewwww," and then tried to backtrack and say he was just against PDA in general (this from a man who made out with quite a few women in nightclubs). We talked about it, about why he had a problem with two guys kissing but not two women kissing, and moved on with the evening.

After he left, I told Alberto, "Well, he's kind of homophobic," to which Alberto replied, "Mais c'est pas grave (But it's no big deal)."

Instead of making it about my friend being a bad person, it was a subject to be explored, but with a clear understanding that homophobia is toxic. In that way, it was more productive than other ways of handling the situation, that probably would have involved more glove-slapping.

But the point remains: if someone is motivated to go out and vote in one of these ballot initiatives, and they choose to vote to deny other people's participation in a legal institution for no rational reason, then they're homophobic. It's not the end of the world, they're not "hate-filled," and it doesn't mean that over half of America is bad people. But it does mean that they act on their prejudice, and that's wrong.

We need to be pointing it out, since it's not like people are going to start calling themselves prejudiced. But if it's made as a personal attack, it just gives people another reason to ignore it. And, believe me, people are just looking for a reason to ignore their own prejudice.

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Great point, Alex. I see another connection. Back in 2005 when we battled in Kansas over a constitutional ban on marriage equality, one of the opposition's main talking points was: This doesn't hurt anyone. Over and over again, churches and ministers drove home the idea that keeping same-sex couples from marrying wouldn't hurt a soul. Of course, they also made the we're-not-prejudiced argument.

I've always thought both arguments were absurd, but I think they also illuminate major weakness in the anti-equality case. We may well be able to win by showing that (a) refusing marriage to couples damages families and (b) prejudice is prejudice, and discrimination is always damaging, particularly when it targets children. This issue isn't a mere difference of opinion.

I'm a gay man; live in Boston.

We need to acknowledge that some people can oppose gay marriage without hating gay people. We need to find out why those people are opposed to the social change gay marriage represents and find a means to take issue with their arguments without denigrating them as individuals. It's necessary to win hearts and minds of people with attitudes different from those who consider themselves to be "tolerant." I've heard many liberals say how damn "tolerant" they are, when in fact, they are quite the opposite. Advocates of gay marriage need to move beyond the hate, move beyond the calling of others "prejudice," when in fact you just don't know one person from the next.

You’d think the liberals could put at least half the anger they aim at Prop 8 supporters towards someone who has executed gay people. Complain about the gay folks in Iran or Jamaica or Zimbabwe for Christ's sake. They fear for their damn lives from day to day.

We need to acknowledge that some people can oppose gay marriage without hating gay people.

That's the point of the post - people can be biased and prejudiced without being hateful.

I don't get why you want American gays to focus on homophobia in other countries instead of the homophobia that affects them. Why take the attention away from homophobia in our own backyard? Why try to ignore it or cover it up?

Prejudice can be active or passive; it's the difference between a Klansman and someone who harbors latent prejudicial attitudes about people of a different skin color without being really aware of why they're wrong. One is more visibly ugly than the other, but both are equally poisonous.

The same goes for homophobia.

Being against marriage equality -- whether you think we should just settle for civil unions or domestic partnerships or whether you want no recognition for same-sex partnerships whatsoever -- means that you view gay couples, by virtue of their existence, as a threat to the social order. It would make marriage less important and "special" for straight people to include "those people" in it. It would make children aware that gay couples exist and thus weaken their moral fiber. It would give "immoral" gay relationships the same legitimacy as "moral" straight ones.

Anybody who votes in favor of denying marriage equality to us is not necessarily a deliberate homophobe, but absolutely votes on the basis of homophobic attitudes. The reason why all those "think of the chilren" commercials work so well is that a lot of people believed we were a threat to children to begin with; a truly non-prejudiced person would immediately recognize such commercials as homophobic bigotry. The reason why the meme of "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman" works so well is because the people who repeat it think that including marriage between a man and man or woman and woman would upset some natural order; a truly non-prejudiced person would question the logic of this statement. Groups like NOM know this, which is why they've pursued the strategy of putting our rights up to popular vote. They know they can coast on the homophobic attitudes of voters who truly believe, deep down, they have nothing against gay people.

I found it ironic that the National Review article contained one sentence I wholeheartedly agreed with: "It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority."