A Polite Homophobe Is Still a Homophobe

Two Lego men decorate the top of a wedding cake in Wellington, New Zealand. 176909561HH028_First_Austra
Two Lego men decorate the top of a wedding cake in Wellington, New Zealand.

Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf penned a lively response to my recent piece explaining Ross Douthat’s canny and dishonest defense of homophobia. In my original post, I casually noted that when a business owner denies gay people service because they’re gay, he qualifies as a bigot. Friedersdorf takes issue with this claim, which he believes “is itself prejudice rooted in ignorance.” I beg to differ.

At the heart of Friedersdorf’s article is an insistence that there are reasons other than homophobia that explain why a business owner might refuse service to gay people. But he doesn’t actually name any; instead, he justifies his assertion by pointing out that Elaine Huguenin, the now-infamous photographer who refused to shoot a lesbian wedding, is exceedingly polite over email. Friedersdorf excerpts an exchange between Huguenin and the would-be lesbian client, Vanessa Willock, highlighting how courteously Huguenin phrased her rejection of Willock’s request for service. As Friedersdorf puts it:

Willock was wrong to perceive “hatred,” which doesn’t come across in the exchange, or even “blatant” opposition to same-sex marriage—it was so subtle that a followup email was required to clarify—this all happened in a state, New Mexico, that didn’t permit gay weddings. (The event was technically a commitment ceremony for the lesbian couple.)

Here is how I understand this argument: Because Huguenin’s rejection of Willock (solely on the basis of her orientation) was worded very graciously—and perhaps because the wedding wasn’t a real wedding—Willock should not have sued.

Leaving aside Friedersdorf’s strange addendum about Willock’s pseudo-wedding, I see two problems with this logic. The first is that Friedersdorf seems to think that true bigotry always loudly announces itself as it enters the room, when in reality it thrives in the cracks between superficially civil conversation. (Remember the old quip about the Jewish gentleman who has just left the room.) This kind of tactful bigotry—a sister of “polite racism” and a close cousin of pretext discrimination—arises from the same place as any kind of bigotry: hate, fear, ignorance, or whatever base emotions lead a person to believe that some humans are less worthy than others. By dressing up her homophobia in good manners, Huguenin might have softened the blow for Willock. But the ultimate effect of her actions is the same as if she had placed a sign on her shop door stating “No Gay Couples Served Here.”

The second problem with Friedersdorf’s logic is more puzzling. As I’ve noted, Friedersdorf repeatedly gestures toward an ample cache of justifications for Huguenin’s actions that “have nothing to do with fear of gays, intolerance toward gays, or hatred of gay people.” And though he forces us to guess what those justifications might be, he does give us a clue:

In [practicing Christian] circles, there are plenty of ugly attitudes toward gays and lesbians, as well as lots of people who think gay and lesbian sex and marriage is sinful, but who bear no ill will toward gays and lesbians themselves.

I take this passage to suggest that, for Friedersdorf, believing that gays, lesbians, and their legal unions are “sinful” does not qualify as homophobia—even if this belief leads you to turn gay couples away from your business. I disagree. To believe that someone’s identity is inherently sinful is, to my mind, to be bigoted against them. If you believe black people are sinful and deserve fewer rights, you are racist. If you believe Jews are sinful and deserve fewer rights, you are anti-Semitic. I simply cannot see why those who believe that gays are sinful and deserve fewer rights should be held to a different standard.

Friedersdorf presents no compelling argument to the contrary. Rather, he supports his claim by asserting that my article is “implicitly trafficking in its own sort of prejudice” by assuming that “homophobia, anti-gay bigotry, and hatred” are motivating Huguenin’s refusal to serve Willock. On the second charge, I plead partly guilty: I really do believe that when Huguenin refused to serve a gay couple because they are a gay couple, she was being homophobic. And I’ll even grant that maybe “hatred” isn’t the best word for Huguenin’s motivation; the legal term “animus” might be a better fit.

However, I’m not convinced that my standard for homophobia is “prejudice rooted in ignorance,” as Friedersdorf puts it. I suppose that if believing people who oppose gay rights are homophobic counts as “prejudice,” then by this absurd definition I could be called prejudiced. But I must insist that those who share my definition of homophobia did not derive it from mere ignorance. In fact, my Outward colleague Nathaniel Frank wrote a wonderful article in the Atlantic just last month exploring the research into the impulses behind homophobia. Most psychologists define homophobia as having “some level of emotional discomfort around homosexuality,” and many have found that anti-gay animus is almost always provoked by irrational disgust, complemented by fear and repugnance. In numerous studies, subjects with varying levels of anti-gay animus have been found to share this basic impulse of disgust toward gay people; it’s a seemingly universal quality in those who oppose gay rights. I do not think it is prejudiced or ignorant to believe that it was a form of this disgust that drove Huguenin to turn away Willock’s business, no matter how gently she worded her rejection.

Ultimately, though, the fine-grained details of Huguenin’s homophobia are irrelevant to the situation at hand. Protecting a vulnerable class of people against identity-based discrimination, as New Mexico does, is the state’s obvious prerogative, and whether Huguenin is disgusted by or scared of gay people is legally immaterial. Had Huguenin turned away an interracial couple, we wouldn’t be having this debate, because anti-discrimination protections for black people are by now settled law. But because discrimination against gays still feels somehow more acceptable to so many Americans, cases like New Mexico’s cause a national firestorm. I’m happy, as always, to engage in the debate. But I cannot accept that arguing for gay rights and criticizing the logic of those who oppose them qualifies, to use Friedersdorf’s term, as “prejudice.”