Gov. Corbett’s Corrosive Condescension

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

My initial response to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s offensive comments about same-sex marriage was to ignore them. I thought they were better left to lie baking in the sun, picked at by media scavengers of every stripe. But a conversation with a friend changed my thinking and made me realize—for the zillionth time—there’s still a lot of work to do on this whole LGBT awareness thing. You see, my friend didn’t find anything particularly offensive about the governor’s comments; in fact, he called the whole dust-up a “non-story.”

To review the controversy: Corbett staggered even his most stun-proof detractors during this television interview. When invited to respond to an offensive comment one of his lawyers had made, comparing same-sex marriages to the unions of 12-year-olds, Corbett managed to make things worse: “I think it was an inappropriate analogy. I think a much better analogy would’ve been brother and sister, don’t you?”

Sure, much better. Let’s move from images of royal child-weddings to incest. My friend defended this by saying, in essence: “Well, in context, it was clear he was making a legal and not a moral point. And maybe it was a bad analogy, but that’s all.”

But it’s not just a bad analogy, it’s a staggeringly bad analogy—one that I wouldn’t let any of my first-year law students get away with. It’s so bad, in fact, that it’s impossible to believe Corbett is such an incompetent lawyer that he would try to convince any court of its strength. But he’s not trying to convince any legal authority, he’s trying to gross you out.

The legal argument, by the way, centers on whether Pennsylvania has to recognize marriages from other states. As I wrote here in Slate a few days ago, courts usually, but not always, defer to marriages legally solemnized in other states. Out-of-state marriages have been disrespected when the state of residence claims a strong public policy against certain unions. There are cases where courts have considered the validity of marriages between first cousins or between people of different races. But there’s never been an issue involving brothers and sisters, because such marriages are void everywhere.

So the only reason for the remark is to use the structure of legal analysis—but not the substance—to produce an “ick” reaction in the listener. Just watch the video to see the mischievously smirking Corbett admire his own legal legerdemain. Gay marriage freaks him out just as much as incest. It’s a big joke at our expense, one he seemed to have forgotten wouldn’t work as well in front of a camera as it might have among his bobble-headed cronies. As another of my friends put it: ”That Corbett didn’t seem to notice or even respond to the interviewer’s look of horror after he made his ‘analogy’ speaks volumes about his beliefs and values, not to mention his interactional competence.”

In 2013, it’s still possible for the governor of a major northeastern state to say something like this, and for well-meaning people to dismiss it as a non-issue. But whatever the logical justification of that view, it overlooks the history of LGBT discrimination and demonization—a history that, just a few years ago, was pock-marked by then-Sen. Rick Santorum’s infamous comparison of same-sex relationships to “man on dog.” To those of us who continue to live with the legal disabilities that spring from a stubbornly reductive view of gay and lesbian relationships, Corbett’s remarks are fighting words. And newsworthy ones.