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.