A Reader's Case for Punishing Gay-Marriage Opponents

The case for stigma—and its limits

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.

Presented by

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.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

Just In