How Should Gay People Engage With Bigots? A Straight Man Explains.


Civility is always preferable, right?

Spencer Platt

Pluralism fetishist Conor Friedersdorf has been on a tear over at the Atlantic in recent days, inveighing his heart out about why we shouldn’t “punish” people like Brendan Eich, the former CEO of Mozilla, who have actively hurt other people through their at this point ridiculous opposition to same-sex marriage and full civil equality for gay folks more generally. Instead, he and similarly minded members of the high-school debate team suggest, we should “try [our] best to criticize [our] interlocutor’s position, not their person,” in order to “preserve the possibility of dialogue, and change hearts rather than shutting mouths.” Since I recently suggested that folks like Eich “simply shut up” in recognition of the fact that, while they are constitutionally entitled to their unique and special anti-gay feelings, they are no longer welcome to express them in the public sphere with the expectation of being taken seriously (or allowed high-profile jobs), it goes without saying that Friedersdorf and I don’t quite see eye-to-eye on this issue.

However, since I know that he is a gay ally (he is sure to assert his ally-ship at least once in each paragraph he writes), I do not want Friedersdorf to shut up. I do, though, wish he would think a bit more about whether his idealistic “hearts and minds” model of social change makes sense beyond the scale of personal relationships—and more important, for whom.

As a starting point, let’s take on the question of what distinguishes gross bigotry, which I think Friedersdorf would agree we should treat with some amount of social stigma, from a reasonable political disagreement in which we should want to persuade the other side of the merits of our position. To be specific, in the Eich case, Friedersdorf has indicated that he would have had no qualms with the ouster if the former CEO had, say, sent out a company memo with the subject line “Attn: Faggots. Stop being so gay with each other”—that would be unquestionably bigoted. But a quiet donation of $1,000 to the Prop 8 campaign (ostensibly) in the name of defending some arbitrary, procreation-based definition of marriage doesn’t cross the line; that’s a person we should try to engage. To summarize: Directly saying that you don’t like the idea of two dudes loving on each other is bigoted, but using your checkbook to try to keep them from doing so as honest men is, if unsavory, rational enough.

What are the special qualities of making a campaign contribution or voting for a marriage ban that makes those acts any less bigoted than punching me in my faggot face? Is it that they are quiet and semi-private, such that if I’m not looking over your shoulder I might not even notice? Is it that your intentions are supposedly based on ideological principles or traditional understandings and so you can’t be accused of personal malice? Or is it that, in a fit of altruism, you feel compelled to help prevent the sinner from further enjoying his sin?

Even if I believed that any of these justifications could exist without the taint of homophobia (I sincerely doubt it), their function in the realm of laws and social conventions is still homophobic. Indeed, there’s something here of Chief Justice John Roberts’ fantastical thinking that only a direct bribe counts as political corruption—if he hasn’t committed a clear hate crime, Friedersdorf doesn’t think we should “punish” with “stigma” a person who is nonetheless hurting gay people. To the contrary, he is resolute in his view that it is possible to oppose gay marriage without actually harboring anti-gay animus and that in this fancy mental footwork, opposition to gay marriage is distinguished from opposition to something like miscegenation, its most obvious historical analog. In a consideration of the comparison, Friedersdorf argues that while the resistance to interracial marriage was based solely on white supremacy (bad), objectors to gay marriage are capable of taking their stand purely in the realm of religion-based, “traditional” definitions of marriage without rejecting gay people or gay sex at all (tolerable).

However, even a cursory look at the history of miscegenation belies this distinction. Court documents from the period regularly cite religious definitions of marriage as the primary justification for keeping the races separate, and President Harry Truman, a strong advocate for integration otherwise, objected to miscegenation because it “ran counter to the teaching of the Bible.” (For more on the supreme aptness of the comparison, check out James M. Oleske Jr.’s paper on the legal academy’s response to each issue.) Of course, Friedersdorf is right to say that these arguments simply gave cover to plain old basic white supremacy—so why can’t he see that “traditional marriage” arguments are functioning the exact same way with regard to heterosexual/procreative supremacy? As Oleske puts it, “though there may be some religious people in the pro-gay-sex/anti-gay-marriage category … the primary religious argument against gay rights in America has been rooted in biblical passages concerning sex, not marriage.” The logic just doesn’t hold.

Indeed, given the number of logical hoops Friedersdorf must jump through to make the pro-gay/anti-gay-marriage position appear to be legible, one can’t help but wonder why he’s bothering at all. I called him a “pluralism fetishist” at the beginning of this piece in a playful spirit, but it’s worth considering what it means for a straight man to be telling gay people that we should be willing to “live and work alongside people who support policies we believe to be deeply damaging and unjust.” Honestly, if I had a higher regard for brevity, I’d call that piece, in which he condescendingly explains to a gay reader how gays should go about getting their equality, the most egregious, cringe-inducing example of straight-splaining I have ever encountered and call it a day.

But let’s be more generous, since Friedersdorf is clearly earnest on this issue. I am thrilled that he wants to include references to marriage equality at his wedding, and I am over the moon that he enjoys critiquing and retorting at gay marriage opponents all the live-long day. But what Friedersdorf’s privilege as a heterosexual leads him to miss is the fact that actual gay people—people who have been sexually and emotionally traumatized since childhood, who have had to listen to people like him civilly debate their worth as human beings for decades, who have more often been made to account for themselves than been able to demand an accounting of the violations committed against them—may very well be just a little too exhausted with bigotry of all stripes to engage in well-mannered chit-chat. Indeed, it seems the height of privilege blindness to schoolmarm gays about how to engage their aggressors when Friedersdorf, in point of fact, has no idea what omnipresent psychological torture feels like. If he did, he might better understand why many of us can’t really get too exercised about a rich straight dude losing a gig because his company found him a mismatch with its culture; why, in the grand scheme of things, that truly minor incident might not seem like such an Issue of Vital Importance to the Republic. If he did, he might get how maddening it is to see your life reduced to another in a list of issues that are acceptable cocktail chatter this weekend.

I realize I’m coming down rather hard on an ally here, but as an ally, Friedersdorf and those like him need to recognize that their first responsibility is to listen, not to dictate. To do otherwise smacks of the worst kind of narcissism—if only you were as reasoned and persuasive as me, all this would be sorted out! Dear Conor, most of us have tried that tack over the course of our lives (indeed, we are often coerced into doing so), and we will undoubtedly continue to employ that approach when we have the necessary energy and emotional reserves. But we also reserve the right to use the recent miracle of gradually improving public and corporate opinion to get a little nonviolent justice, even a little retributive succor, when we can. All’s fair in love and war, and until our love is no longer the subject of debate, reasonable or otherwise, this war isn’t over.