No, It’s Not Too Soon to Condemn Public Figures for Being Anti-Gay

Mozilla - Brendan Eich.
Brendan Eich

Photo-illustration by Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo. Photo courtesy Darcy Padilla/Mozilla Foundation

Last week, a man who had briefly been a CEO suddenly became not a CEO. Depending on who you ask, the man became not a CEO because he resigned for the good of his company or because he was forced out by overzealous thought police. At the same time, we have been told, another sudden change occurred: The virtuousness of gay rights—or more specifically, marriage equality—transformed from a topic of debate on which reasonable, good-willed people might disagree into a new “orthodoxy,” a moral standard from which public dissent could get you run, if not all the way out of town, certainly out of the C-suite.

Many have greeted Mozilla’s decision to part ways with Brendan Eich with praise: To see a financial supporter of the nasty Proposition 8 campaign laid low is a victory for justice, or at least evidence that the free market can sometimes work for good. For others, though, Eich’s ouster is a sign of a gay movement, high on recent successes, run amok. Watch out, they warn—if you harbor a less-than-perfect record on gay civil rights, the rainbow gestapo may soon come for you, too. Of the latter camp, the voices on the right—like Newt Gingrich, who for the last few days has been frothing about the advent of a “new fascism”—were to be expected. But perhaps more surprising are those like Andrew Sullivan who, as gay and gay-supporting, have bemoaned the events in similar terms, calling them “repugnantly illiberal,” and “unbelievably stupid of the gay rights movement”:

You want to squander the real gains we have made by argument and engagement by becoming just as intolerant of others’ views as the Christianists? You’ve just found a great way to do this. It’s a bad, self-inflicted blow. And all of us will come to regret it.

A less “worked up” Frank Bruni joined this particular chorus over the weekend, noting how the harshness of Eich’s rebuke clashed with the recent tone of marriage equality activism in which “advocates didn’t shame opponents and instead made sympathetic public acknowledgment of the journey that many Americans needed to complete in order to be comfortable with marriage equality.” With that in mind, Bruni exhorts us not “to lose sight of how well the movement has been served by the less judgmental posture.”

Both Sullivan and Bruni are, in other words, suggesting that it is too soon for gays and their supporters to be this demanding, that too many of our fellow citizens remain to be cajoled to our cause through patience and “sympathetic acknowledgment” of their journeys for us to be hard-asses at this point in history. The late-comers to the gays-are-people-too party should be allowed room to grow and, if necessary, to seek forgiveness, free of duress, for past mistakes. We will surely reach the point where, as with opposition to miscegenation, publically espoused anti-gay sentiments will be uncontroversial grounds for public condemnation, but we are simply not there yet.

Except, of course, that many people seem to think we are.

For what it’s worth, I would not have signed a petition calling for Eich’s resignation. As an outsider, I cannot really speak to how his presence would have affected company morale, and I am satisfied that those who did understand Mozilla’s corporate culture took the steps that seemed correct. I’m also pretty wary of the thought police, especially when they come blaring onto my street from the left. All of which is to say, I approached this fracas from a fairly Sullivanian perspective. But tracking the discourse since last Thursday, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the “too soon” line that Sullivan, Bruni, and others are toeing. While the Mozilla case is specific, especially in terms of industry culture, and therefore shouldn’t be used to extrapolate too far in any direction, it does seem to indicate the beginnings of a sea change in the public perception of gay rights and their negotiability. And the shift is hardly too soon; if anything, it’s overdue.

There has been a lot of talk during all this of pluralism, of the virtue of coexisting with people who think or believe differently than we do. But doesn’t that ideal require that all the parties involved think of each other as, well, people? Herein lies the problem of applying a naïve call for pluralism to gay or trans issues as opposed to, say, health care models: The latter involves competing policies about which we can debate the merits; the former involves debating the merits of actual human beings.

It’s worth reminding ourselves occasionally that the way we discuss LGBTQ citizens in this country is supremely weird and, really, traumatizing in its dispassion. I do not mean that people lack passion with regard to individual issues; I’m referring to a deeper orientation, the way in which allies and antagonists alike accept, without question, the notion that LGBTQ people and their lives are a legitimate topic of debate to begin with. Untold conferences, think pieces, office conversations, church meetings, and, in some ways, magazine sections like Outward are constructed on the foundational principle that those people are fodder for calm consideration. We can agree to disagree about them. We can wish they would behave this way or that. We can, as Irish drag queen Panti Bliss put it recently:

[C]ome home in the evening and [turn] on the television and [see] a panel of people—nice people, respectable people, smart people, the kind of people who make good neighbourly neighbours and write for newspapers … having a reasoned debate about you. About what kind of a person you are, about whether you are capable of being a good parent, about whether you want to destroy marriage, about whether you are safe around children, about whether God herself thinks you are an abomination, about whether in fact you are “intrinsically disordered” … they are all having this reasonable debate about who you are and what rights you “deserve.”

Once, on a train in from Long Island, two nice, respectable, smart-seeming people sat down behind me and began to casually deliberate about the rights I deserved. My face burned so hot that I cannot remember their exact positions—one thought I should maybe have a certain thing while the other thought such generosity really wasn’t necessary. After listening to the pros and cons for an hour or so, I felt I had gathered enough information about myself that I was qualified to offer an opinion; but of course, when I turned to join the discussion, my body betrayed me—I mumbled something annoyingly irrational, certainly overly emotional, through tears and had to excuse myself from the car.

Eich’s firing is not a portent of the end of pluralism. But it may be a sign that we are nearing a point at which it will no longer be acceptable to publically articulate opinions about what LGBTQ people do and do not “deserve,” that we have matured such that we understand (once again) that groups of human beings with intrinsic characteristics may no longer be used as conversation pieces. Tim Teeman wrote on Friday that “the ‘shame’ axis around homosexuality has positively shifted from those who are gay to those who are anti-gay.” He may be right about that, but speaking personally, I am not interested in shaming anyone; it would be enough for me if those people who are so ignorant or intransigent as to still be anti-gay in 2014 would simply shut up.

Or at least, for the majority of Americans to agree that they should do so and to object with the appropriate vehemence when they try to run their mouths. Money being speech, this is actually what happened in Eich’s case. A man offered an opinion on an issue about which opinions should not be entertained, did not indicate that he was interested in amending it, and was duly dismissed. That Sullivan, Bruni, and others are wringing their hands over this man smacks of a particularly bizarre strain of internalized homophobia in which gay people are apparently so alien or icky that even we understand how you might need some time to get used to us, even we must “sympathetically acknowledge” the monumental difficulty of your “journey” to basic humanity. There would be riots if it was suggested that we extend the same hand-holding to racists, but with the gays, coddling is warranted, because we’re so beyond the pale. No, this is not difficult, this is not like bespoke gender pronouns with which some amount of generosity is needed—the time for patience has passed.

To be clear, I’m writing about the public sphere. Personal relationships are just that, and if a friend of Eich’s wants to be his decency tutor, that’s a private (and valiant) choice. Indeed, people can and should continue to believe and feel what they like in private, and the soft diplomacy that Bruni and Sullivan favor may continue apace there. But societal standards evolve, and if the Mozilla dust-up is any indication, we are on the cusp of a new epoch in which public figures may no longer give voice to their anti-gay animus and expect to be treated with respect, much less to be kept on as the leader and public face of a major organization. This is a good thing; the sooner everyone gets the memo, the sooner Panti, I, and the rest of us can go about our lives in peace. 

Also in Slate:
The Astonishing Conservative Hypocrisy Over Mozilla and the First Amendment

We Shouldn’t Forgive Brendan Eich for His Homophobic Past—Yet 
If You’re Against Gay Marriage, You’re a Bad CEO
The Excuses for Purging Brendan Eich Are the Old Excuses for Firing Gays
Why Are Conservatives Only Interested in Defending Mozilla’s Brendan Eich?