Why Gay-Marriage Opponents Should Not Be Treated Like Racists

The shortcomings of stigma

Liberals generally think of themselves as proponents of tolerance, pluralism, and diversity. Some liberals are also eager to stigmatize and punish opponents of gay marriage. Is that a betrayal of their values? If so, these liberals tend to argue, it is no more problematic than the decision to exclude white supremacists from polite society. As an email correspondent put it, if you object to a boycott against a tech company whose CEO gave $1,000 to the Proposition 8 campaign, "I guess you find the Montgomery Bus Boycott objectionable as well. If not, you might want to come up with a better rationalization for why you've chosen to give aid and comfort to those who would deprive gay people of basic rights available to others."

In Slate, Will Oremus made a stronger version of the argument. "The notion that your political views shouldn’t affect your employment is a persuasive one. Where would we be as a democracy if Republicans were barred from jobs at Democrat-led companies, or vice versa?" he wrote. "But this is different. Opposing gay marriage in America today is not akin to opposing tax hikes or even the war in Afghanistan. It’s more akin to opposing interracial marriage: It bespeaks a conviction that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others."

Oremus and I agree on the following:

  • A person's political views generally shouldn't be held against them in other realms.
  • The general wisdom of that standard doesn't mean that it holds in every case. (If someone sponsored a ballot measure to expel all Jews or Muslims or blacks or whites or gays from California, for example, stigma would be justified and I'd object to putting that person into a position of societal power.)
  • Gays ought to have equal marriage rights.

A narrow point we disagree on is the comparison of opposing interracial marriage to opposing gay marriage. Opposition to interracial marriage was all but synonymous with a belief in the superiority of one race and the inferiority of another. (In fact, it was inextricably tied to a singularly insidious ideology of white supremacy and black subjugation that has done more damage to America and its people than anything else, and that ranks among the most obscene crimes in history.)

Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior, but it's also commonly rooted in the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.*

That's why it's wrong to stigmatize all opponents of gay marriage as bigots, even if (like me) you'd find unobjectionable the forced resignation of a CEO who used anti-gay slurs, or declared that gays are inferior humans, or sought to deny gays even benefits unrelated to the definition of marriage, like the ability to be on a life partner's insurance. My position has always been that civil unions are not enough—that gays ought to have full marriage equality. But the pro-civil-union, anti-gay-marriage faction is instructive. Opposition to interracial marriage never included a large contingency that was happy to endorse the legality of black men and white women having sex with one another, living together, raising children together, and sharing domestic-partner benefits as long as they didn't call it a marriage.

Does that clarify the inaptness of the comparison?

The people who declare that gays and lesbians should enjoy equal domestic benefits but want to reserve the title "marriage" for opposite-sex unions are wrong for several reasons. But it's not credible to argue that they're in the same moral category as the bigots who sustained Jim Crow, or that the narrow right they'd withhold has done similar harm and thus warrants the same response (even if you believe, as I do, that withholding the name marriage is wrong and harmful).

With all that context, I hope folks who defended Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich's ouster can see why I think they're overstating the similarities between white supremacists and gay-marriage opponents; failing to make important distinctions among the most and least objectionable gay-marriage opponents; and dramatically expanding the norms around stigma, not applying previously established norms to a new case.

I'd also leave them with a tough question.

To justify stigmatizing folks he disagrees with on gay marriage in a way he'd never stigmatize antagonists on "tax hikes or even the war in Afghanistan," Oremus claims he's identified a special case. He thinks gay-marriage opponents are different, because they believe "that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others."

That's ostensibly his red line. And many on his side of the argument make similar claims. Yet I find their outrage curiously, unwittingly selective.

Proponents of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen believe "that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others." Advocates of deporting illegal immigrants believe "that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others." Advocates of spying on Muslim Americans believe "that some people do not deserve the same rights as others." Indefinite-detention apologists believe "that some people do not deserve the same rights as others." On a weekly basis, I write about all sorts of civil-libertarian causes, foreign and domestic. Let me assure everyone that there is no end to policies implicitly or explicitly premised on the notion "that some people do not deserve the same rights as others." If that's the standard, why are gay-marriage opponents the only ones being stigmatized? How many members of the Mozilla community could I get on record calling Barack Obama or Michael Bloomberg a hateful bigot for doing orders of magnitude more to perpetrate rights violations than a CEO making a donation?

There is something amiss here, and while I don't think it's as simple and uncomplicated as the right-wing charge of willful leftist hypocrisy, I do think it's problematic. Stigma doesn't flow to rights violations according to its usefulness or their severity.

What I think, in fact, is that stigma is an overrated tool for effecting change, because 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. Disagreements over Mozilla aside, it's wonderful that Silicon Valley is a place where large majorities demand the equal treatment of gay employees. The rightness of their doing so isn't diminished by the fact that it's relatively easy now to stand up for gay rights in the Bay Area, compared to attempts to stigmatize something that would implicate many colleagues.

Those who rely on stigma are tied to a tactic that is employed most when needed least, often against groups already marginalized within a community; no wonder stigma it is correlated more strongly with signaling self-righteousness than effecting change. That isn't to say stigma is never appropriate—just that engagement and persuasion is almost always the better option, as it is on gay marriage. It has succeeded, it will continue to succeed, it is consistent with liberal values, and it reinforces a norm that helps us cooperate in many areas of life even when we disagree about politics. Put all those together and this isn't even a close case.

* One thing I've noticed in this debate is how unfamiliar proponents of stigma are with thoughtful orthodox Christians—that is to say, they haven't interacted with them personally, critiqued the best version of their arguments, or even been exposed to the most sophisticated version of their reasoning, which I find to be obviously earnest, if ultimately unpersuasive. It's just the sort of thing Ira Glass critiques here.