A Reader's Case for Punishing Gay-Marriage Opponents

The case for stigma—and its limits
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Last week, I promised to air more reader opinions in the debate about whether all gay-marriage opponents are "bigots" who ought to be stigmatized and punished for their beliefs. In previous items, I've criticized the ouster of Mozilla's CEO as a betrayal of liberal values, noted the inaccuracy of comparing all gay-marriage opponents to racists, and published reader correspondence from a 23-year-old orthodox Christian. Tomorrow, I'll publish a bunch of reader takes from all sides of the conversation.

For now, I want to highlight one impassioned and thoughtful dissent.

Like me, Adam Hersh is a fervent proponent of gay marriage. Unlike me, he believes it isn't enough to critique the arguments of gay-marriage opponents in an effort to persuade them and others that they're wrong. He favors stigma and punishment too. He writes:

I'm a long-time reader, occasional commenter, and big fan of your writing. I also happen to be gay. I've been closely following your series of posts on stigmatizing opposition to same-sex marriage, because I strongly believe in the value of such a stigma, and I want to see the strongest argument against my position—something you can be counted on to provide. I sympathize with your support for pluralism and respect for orthodox Christian beliefs, but there's a perspective that I think is missing from your posts, and one that is perhaps difficult to understand if you are not gay yourself. For me this perspective is the decisive argument in favor of calling out people like Brendan Eich, and on the off-chance you decide to read this email, I hope I do it some justice.

Growing up gay, you are constantly told—implicitly and explicitly—that you are weird, weak, and wrong. This is true even in my generation, which is undoubtedly the most progressive in American history on gay issues. Debates are held on the national level about whether you are fit to be a pro athlete, or a Boy Scout, or a parent. Politicians fight hard for the right of a business owner to turn you away. The word faggot, a word that says you are pathetic and contemptible, is used as an all-purpose insult. We're getting better, in all these areas. But to be gay is still to be kept apart from the institutions of society in myriad ways.

And that, at least for me, is what the same-sex marriage fight is about. Forget the tax benefits and the visitation rights, forget the legal recognition of a committed relationship, forget even the right to publicly acknowledge the love one has for another person. The fight for gay marriage is a fight to be recognized as a normal member of society. Every now and then, in school or at home or with friends, kids talk about how they see their future family: how many children they'd want, what their wedding would be like, what kind of person they'd want to marry. Up until very recently, no gay kid could answer those questions with any confidence. In a lot of places in America, they still can't.

Those are the stakes.

A quick interjection. At first, the reader treats "calling out people like Brendan Eich" as if it is part of our disagreement. In fact, I favor "calling out" opponents of gay marriage: I want their position to be forcefully, persuasively, exhaustively critiqued and rebutted, over and over, until gay marriage is legal not just everywhere in America, but everywhere. Condemning someone's politics is fine. Punishing them outside politics is objectionable.

Now, I agree with much of what this reader says.

My insistence that gays deserve full marriage rights, not just civil unions with the same set of domestic benefits, is rooted partly in my desire to declare that they are and ought to be treated as normal members of society. As the reader says, much progress has been made, but that fight isn't over. I also agree that stigma is sometimes an appropriate tool. In my social circles, anyone who called gays "weird, weak, and wrong" would be stigmatized, and I would certainly participate. I hope that norm spreads to America's school children. To hell with anti-gay bullying. The reader mentions the exclusion of gays by organizations like the Boy Scouts of America as well as use of the anti-gay slur "faggot." In July of 2012, I celebrated the Eagle Scouts who were resigning over their organization's discriminatory policy, and said I'd resign too if I were an Eagle Scout. And "faggot" should no more be accepted in polite company than racial slurs. (Had Eich referred that way to gay colleagues at Mozilla, that would've been a legitimate reason to remove him as CEO.) Of course, part of the disagreement here is about whether or not there is any non-bigoted opposition to gay marriage, as I believe there to be.

But before I get to my disagreements, let's get back to Hersh's email:

So when people like Brendan Eich spend time and money opposing same-sex marriage, they are directly attacking the human dignity of every gay and lesbian person. As it happens, Eich contributed $1,000 to a particularly cruel and misleading campaign—a campaign that did damage in its process as well as in its outcome. But contributing to even the most pure hearted and honest campaign against marriage equality should, to my mind, carry a stigma. I'm not sorry Eich lost his job, and that's not just out of spite. It is out of a genuine desire to make it clear that gays and lesbians can no longer to be kept apart from the institutions of American life, and that attempting to do so perpetuates a great injustice.

You say in your most recent article on the subject that "once you've gotten to a threshold within a community where lots of powerful people will stigmatize a behavior, the point had already been reached where it would be defeated without stigma." But stigmatizing Brendan Eich isn't about, or isn't just about, winning this fight in Silicon Valley. It's about the many places where powerful people do not stigmatize discrimination, but rather endorse it. Mozilla is a major company, and this resignation was national news. That sends a message to those people anywhere who would deny their neighbors the right to be ordinary people: This will not stand. And it sends a message to gays and lesbians as well, perhaps the same gays and lesbians who were told by Prop 8 that they were abnormal and dangerous to children: We are on your side.

The speed with which gay rights have moved from marginal to mainstream is nothing short of astounding, and I think the rapidity of that shift makes it easy to forget how deep the oppression ran and how brutal it was. Ten years ago, gay-marriage bans were considered an effective get out the vote tactic. Twenty years ago, DOMA passed Congress with huge majorities and was signed by a President who is largely a beloved national figure. Thirty years ago, the White House Press Secretary cracked jokes in the briefing room about gay men dying of AIDS. The people who implemented these policies and the voters who supported them didn't vanish into thin air. They are very much still with us. Some of them have been persuaded by reason to change their mind, and others by empathy or by appeals to emotion, and others still by social convention. And many more have not changed their minds at all. What I am trying to say is that fighters for gay rights are hardly conquerors imposing their program on defeated opponents. When ENDA cannot pass the House of Representatives, when same-sex marriage is still banned in most states, when over a third of LGBT kids attempt suicide, we are nowhere near equality, let alone victory.

I hope that appeals to reason and decency and common sense will prevail. But I have read enough history to know that they often do not. And I hope that opponents of same-sex marriage come to realize that they are hurting people in many ways beyond simply denying them a title. But I am one of the people they are hurting, and I have felt the pain that they are inflicting, and waiting for them to come around is simply not worth it. Thank you for reading, if you have.

I thank the reader for a powerful letter with many good points, but I am not persuaded to change my position on our several areas of disagreement, partly because it does nothing to refute some of the arguments I've made in past articles on this subject, but also because of the many ways it underestimates and diminishes the power of argument and the role that reason ought to play in self-government—as if persuasion is useful, but stigma is what we bring out when the stakes are high. If we're at our best when the stakes are high, we bring out the Declaration of Independence or the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Stigma is nothing in comparison.

The reader and I actually agree that it's desirable to send the message, "This will not stand," to opponents of marriage equality. That can be done with articles, blog posts, and speeches; gay-pride parades; judicial opinions; TV shows and movies that portray gays with the human dignity they deserve and were long denied; activism in favor of marriage equality; and countless private interactions. In years of heated debates with gay-marriage opponents, via email and in person, I've said things like, "Your position is discriminatory, it is wrongheaded, it is harming countless individuals. It isn't what Jesus Christ would want you to do. And here is why I believe all that."

Or, "So if I were gay, you'd prevent me from marrying the person I love? And you don't think that would be cruel of you?"

Those are hard critiques to hear, as are some retorts that I've been subjected to over the years. Such conversations are fraught precisely because it's so easy and common for folks on both sides to feel judged, even when both participants in the conversation try their best to criticize their interlocutor's position, not their person. Those interactions still convey the moral imperative that gay-marriage proponents feel, preserve the possibility of dialogue, and change hearts rather than shutting mouths.

On my wedding day, my wife and I, like several couples we knew who married before us, decided to include as one of our readings a passage from Goodridge v. Department of Health by Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall. I'm sure there were folks in attendance who opposed gay marriage. I hope it made them think twice about their position, just as I trust it signaled to our gay friends, "We are on your side, we find it an abomination that this institution is still denied to some of you, and marriage equality is important to us."

These sorts of gestures are common nowadays.

So I refuse to credit the notion that gay-marriage proponents need to go after the jobs of their opponents to adequately show their horror at campaigns like Proposition 8, or to decisively signal that they are allies in the fight for marriage equality. It is easy to send those signals in other ways. And sending them with stigma doesn't just introduce negative externalities, like undermining pluralism and chilling civic participation. Even apart from that, stigma is an inferior way to show solidarity with gays, one focused on hating their opponents rather than supporting them.

The reader thinks otherwise. He argues that the CEO's ouster sends a message to gays and lesbians all over America, "perhaps the same gays and lesbians who were told by Prop 8 that they were abnormal and dangerous to children: we are on your side." Yet gays and lesbians all over the United States are divided over whether Eich should've been forced out. They disagree about the signal Mozilla sent.

There is no gay position on the subject. Andrew Sullivan was disturbed by what he characterized as anti-free-speech activism that would have the effect of closeting another group. Jonathan Rauch, another of the most eloquent, persuasive advocates for gay marriage, thought the anti-Eich campaign sent a terrible message.

"A handful of hotheads forgot what the gay rights movement is fighting for: the embrace of diversity and the freedom for all Americans, gay and straight, to live publicly as who they truly are," he wrote. "Both supporters and opponents of gay rights need to be able to speak freely without being punished for their beliefs. This is why the mainstream gay rights leadership supports free speech. L.G.B.T. people win when both we and our opponents can speak out. It is why most ordinary gay Americans want nothing to do with efforts to silence our adversaries." Punishing gay-marriage opponents can't be justified by "the message it sends gays and lesbians all over America" when many are upset by the message as they see it. Some gays and lesbians didn't think, "They're on our side." They declared, "not in our name."

The reader is right when he observes, citing history, that reason doesn't always prevail. Well, neither does stigma! And more importantly, while argument and persuasion may not always prevail, they are prevailing on the subject of marriage equality. That doesn't stop me from sympathizing when the reader writes, "I hope that opponents of same-sex marriage come to realize that they are hurting people in many ways beyond simply denying them a title," adding, "I have felt the pain that they are inflicting, and waiting for them to come around is simply not worth it."

I hope same-sex marriage opponents ponder his statement.

But there is no end to the policies of the U.S. government that inflict pain and ought to be reformed, at least in my view. I try to inveigh against those policies, and to critique the ideas of the people who support them. But I don't think America would be a better place if everyone who felt strongly that a policy was unjust began trying to get everyone on the other side fired from their jobs in unrelated fields. America is divided on Iraq. It is divided on abortion. It is divided about the drug war, capital punishment, healthcare, Guantanamo Bay, and NSA surveillance. Shall we live and work alongside people who support policies we believe to be deeply damaging and unjust? Or should all cooperation cease with the impure?

Those who would punish gay-marriage opponents say they don't want this sort of thing to be the norm—that this issue is a special case. But everyone thinks their own highest-priority issue is a special case. Say these pro-punishment folks are right, that they're somehow more justified in deploying this "punish them in the professional realm" tactic than any other group. They're naive to think that, if they successfully deploy this tactic, others won't mimic it, whether or not doing so is equally justified.

The reader writes, "The speed with which gay rights have moved from marginal to mainstream is nothing short of astounding, and I think the rapidity of that shift makes it easy to forget how deep the oppression ran and how brutal it was." Perhaps. But that huge shift happened without any need to punish gay marriage opponents. When a tactic isn't needed, and has huge negative externalities, you don't use it. Declining to deploy stigma doesn't diminish the horrors that gays have suffered in America or the work that remains to achieve full equality. There are just better ways forward.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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