Being Against Gay Marriage Doesn't Make You a Homophobe

Some people just aren't sure about marriage equality—but their reasoning isn't necessarily a reflection of their character. 

What to make of Cardinal Timothy Dolan's claim that the Catholic Church has been unfairly caricatured as anti-gay? (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)

Does being against gay marriage make someone anti-gay?

The question resurfaced last week when Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, claimed on Meet the Press that the Catholic Church is unfairly “caricatured” as anti-gay. The Huffington Post’s Paul Raushenbush quickly wrote up a response, saying that “The hard reality that Cardinal Dolan and all Christians need to face up to is that the Catholic Church along with every other church whether Orthodox, Protestant or Catholic has been horrifically, persistently and vehemently anti-gay for almost all of its history.”

Then Raushenbush hauled out a familiar argument: “Let's just be very clear here —if you are against marriage equality you are anti-gay. Done.”

As a gay man, I found myself disappointed with this definition—that anyone with any sort of moral reservations about gay marriage is by definition anti-gay. If Raushenbush is right, then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay. That’s despite the fact that while some religious people don’t support gay marriage in a sacramental sense, many of them are in favor of same-sex civil unions and full rights for the parties involved. To be sure, most gay people, myself included, won’t be satisfied until our loving, monogamous relationships are graced with the word “marriage.” But it’s important to recall that many religious individuals do support strong civil rights for the gay members of their communities.

What exactly do we mean when we say “anti-gay,” or “homophobic”? Often when I try to understand where my conservative opponents are coming from, my gay friends accuse me of being homophobic. It isn’t homophobic of me to try to understand why someone might be opposed to marriage equality. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt takes courage; dismissing him before considering his argument—well, that seems a bit phobic. Beside—me? Homophobic? I write essays about being gay, and then I publish them, and everyone goes, “Oh yeah, he’s gay.” I have no reservations about my sexuality, so as far as the accusation of homophobia goes: that gay ship has already sailed to Disneyland, with a speedo-clad Tom Daley carved into the bow.

If it’s “anti-gay” to question the arguments of marriage-equality advocates, and if the word “homophobic” is exhausted on me or on polite dissenters, then what should we call someone who beats up gay people, or prefers not to hire them? Disagreement is not the same thing as discrimination. Our language ought to reflect that distinction.

I would argue that an essential feature of the term “homophobia” must include personal animus or malice toward the gay community. Simply having reservations about gay marriage might be anti-gay marriage, but if the reservations are articulated in a respectful way, I see no reason to dismiss the person holding those reservations as anti-gay people. In other words, I think it’s quite possible for marriage-equality opponents to have flawed reasoning without necessarily having flawed character. When we hastily label our opposition with terms like “anti-gay,” we make an unwarranted leap from the first description to the second.

To me, recognizing the distinction between opposing gay marriage and opposing gay people is a natural outgrowth of an internal distinction: When it comes to my identity, I take care not to reduce myself to my sexual orientation. Sure, it’s a huge part of who I am, but I see myself to be larger than my sexual expression: I contain my gayness; it doesn’t contain me. If it’s true that my gayness is not the most fundamental aspect of my identity as Brandon, then it seems to me that someone could ideologically disapprove of my sexual expression while simultaneously loving and affirming my larger identity. This is what Pope Francis was getting at when he asked, “When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” The Pope probably won’t be officiating gay marriages any time soon. But because he differentiates between a person’s sexual identity and her larger identity as a human being, he is able to affirm the latter without offering definitive commentary on the former. Maybe his distinction between Brandon and Gay Brandon is misguided, but it isn’t necessarily malicious, and that’s the point.

Rob Schenck, current chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance, told me that while he believes that marriage is between one man and one woman, this belief is a “source of internal conflict” and “consternation” for him. How, he candidly asks, is denying marriage to gay people “consistent with loving your neighbor?” Schenck has no plans to change his social stance on this issue, but he serves as a good reminder that not all gay-marriage opponents are unthinking and bigoted. Sure, there are plenty of religious people who are actually homophobic, and find in their Bible convenient justification for these biases. But let’s not forget about people like Rob who, though he opposes marriage equality, appreciates the reminder from gay advocates “that love is as important as anything else.”

Though I’d like to see Rob change his mind, I don’t imagine he will. For him, the procreative potential of the male-female sexual union is what marriage was designed for. But even if Rob’s opinions don’t change, I still don’t believe he’s a bigot. Just as I distinguish between my sexual expression and the larger identity that contains it, I think it’s quite possible to distinguish between his political or theological expression (Conservative Rob) and his human identity (Rob). If he were disgusted by gay people, or thought they should be imprisoned, or wanted to see the gayness beat out of them, then that might implicate his human identity, in part because it would suggest a troubling lack of compassion. But the way he respectfully articulates his position on this issue doesn’t give me grounds to impugn his character. I can think his logic flawed, his conclusions unwarranted, and his activism silly, and yet still think him to be a good person. In fact, these are the feelings I have for many of my religious friends, and I’m sure those same feelings are returned!

The secular cases being made against gay marriage, as well, often have little to do with any kind of animus towards gay people themselves. Rather than appeal to an archaic notion of God’s “intentions,” these arguments instead focus on the vested interest the state has in legislating sexual relationships. Those who argue in this way don’t see marriage as a sacrament, but as a child-rearing institution whose regulation is in society’s best interest. Not a very good argument? Totally. Not a very good person who makes that argument? I need more information.

As a gay man thinking through the issue of marriage equality, I’ve come to the conclusion that, although it’s a no-brainer for me, this issue is complicated to a great number of people. To demonize as anti-gay the millions of Americans currently doing the difficult work of thinking through their convictions is, in my opinion, very troubling.

It’s true that as an LGBT person, I am Otherized against the sexual norm. But at the same time, I have an ethical obligation to my Other—the people unlike me—as well. On this issue, my Others include conservatives, fundamentalists, and more than a few folks from the square states. If my primary ethical obligation to my neighbor is to allow and affirm his moral agency, so long as it does not lead him to commit acts of violence, then what happens when I take away his right to peacefully disagree with me?

We shouldn’t have to resort to trumped up charges of bigotry to explain why opponents of gay marriage are wrong.  Calling someone “anti-gay” when his behavior is undeserving of that label doesn’t only end civil discussion – it degrades the foundation that undergirds a democratic, pluralistic society. Though gay rights’ opponents have at times villified us, I hope that we’re able to rise above those tactics.