The National Memo brings you an excerpt from What’s Wrong With Homosexuality? by John Corvino. President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) have all recently voiced their support for marriage equality, and on Tuesday the United States Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments for and against same-sex marriage — decisions are expected to be made in June. Corvino, Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Wayne State University, discusses his experience as a leading advocate for the LGBT community as well as his understanding and criticism for the anti-gay rhetoric.
Are They Bigots?
When people are unwilling to approve of same-sex relationships, does that make them bigots?
I believe in using the word “bigot” judiciously. Like “evil lie of Satan,” it’s a conversation-stopper, and we need more conversation around these issues, not less. To call someone a bigot is not merely to describe him or her as irrationally bound to false views; it’s to label those views as beyond the pale. One does not thoughtfully entertain bigoted views any more than one thoughtfully entertains Satan’s lies: one rejects them and keeps moving.
Gays did not invent the use of conversation-stopping rhetoric. Whenever someone labels us perverts, deviants, agents of Satan, or worse, they are casting us outside the realm of civilized discourse, and (wittingly or unwittingly) giving cover to those who would treat us as less than human. I know whereof I speak. I’ve had food thrown at me by people yelling “faggot.” I’ve been physically attacked by teenage gay-bashers. And—twisted as it may sound—I’ve heard people invoke the Bible while doing such things.
Meaning well is not the same as doing well, as any honest look at history will reveal. I am reminded of my beloved grandparents, who—like many other whites of their generation—opposed interracial relationships. I admired and respected my grandparents. (Still do—one is still living.) Their racism was not the sneering, epithet-wielding, block-the-schoolhouse-door variety. Their stated reasons against interracial relationships sounded principled and wholesome: It’s bad for the children, they’d say, or it’s not what God wants, or sometimes: “It’s just not right.” They didn’t make a fuss about it, and they didn’t organize around it politically, but as a moral matter, they deeply believed it.
Were my grandparents bigots? I can certainly understand why many would think so. As someone who loves and was loved by them, I prefer to frame it this way: My grandparents—like all of us, me included—had their moral blind spots, and racism was among them.
My awareness of our shared human frailty is one reason you’ll never hear me refer to gay rights as “the last frontier in the civil rights debate,” as some do. Calling it the “last” implies that we, unlike our ancestors, have identified all our moral blind spots. But the whole point of calling them “blind spots” is that we don’t see them. Just as belief in an infallible God doesn’t make anyone infallible, belief in the moral demands of justice doesn’t make anyone perfectly just.
Bigotry results from complacency at least as often as from malice. It can have a gracious, even noble-looking face. It’s not necessarily about yelling epithets, or throwing food at people, or physically blocking doors. Sometimes it involves kindly grandparents who can’t quite wrap their minds around social change. Sometimes it’s about blocking metaphorical doors, rather than physical ones—which brings me to my final topic.
Conclusion: Love and Marriage
In the last two decades, the gay-rights debate has evolved into a debate over marriage. This is a natural evolution. In 1992, when I started speaking about gay rights, it was against the law in approximately two-dozen states for me to have private consensual relations with a same-sex partner. Indeed, for many years, I lived as an unapprehended felon in the state of Texas. The option of marrying a same-sex partner was scarcely on anyone’s radar. And so gay-rights rhetoric largely focused on freedom and privacy, a “leave us alone” message.
Telling anti-gay legislators to “leave us alone” made sense when we faced the threat of being harassed, jailed, and even put on sex-offender lists for private consensual lovemaking. But after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the “leave us alone” message became less relevant. It is not irrelevant —gays are still subjected to physical and emotional abuse, a tragedy that has become more apparent with the increased visibility of gay teen suicides—but it is less important as a political goal. Because marriage is a social institution, same-sex couples’ desire to participate has changed our central public message from “leave us alone” to “include us.” For better or for worse, this new message broaches the morality debate. As I explained above, people express their moral values in the associations they choose to keep, or not to keep.
The connection between the morality debate and the marriage debate is not absolute. One can believe that homosexuality is morally wrong while also believing that same-sex couples should have the legal freedom to marry, just as one can believe that divorce is morally wrong while also believing that a free society should permit it. Conversely, one can oppose same-sex marriage without believing that homosexuality is morally wrong (although the position is rare). But part of what marriage does as a social institution is to give a kind of public moral blessing to otherwise private commitments, and so the two debates are inextricably entwined.
This moral dimension of marriage is one reason the issue is so contentious. When same-sex couples ask for marriage, they are not only asking for legal rights and responsibilities—although those are crucial, and their denial can be devastating—they are also asking for inclusion, affirmation, and equal respect. No one should be ashamed to seek such things: Human beings are social creatures. But it’s important to remember that, given the affirmative message that marriage carries, asking for it means asking others to confer something. It’s not just a personal relationship between spouses; it’s also a relationship between the couple and the community. For gays, it’s about access to an institution that our heterosexual fellow citizens take largely for granted.
Of course, the state cannot legitimately force anyone to condone anyone else’s relationship decisions. In a free society, citizens retain the right to opine as they wish on homosexuality, marriage, or any other topic. Yet citizens of a free society also expect equal treatment under the law, and they must accept that others may exercise freedom in ways they themselves don’t necessarily approve. For example, you might believe that interfaith marriage is immoral, or that divorce and remarriage are immoral. You might believe that your daughter’s fiancé is a jerk and that for her to marry him would be just plain wrong. You might think that there should be a moratorium on Kardashian weddings. You are entitled to your convictions, but in the United States, at least, you may not stop anyone from marrying because of them.
I’m not going to rehearse the arguments for and against same-sex marriage here. (I’ve recently done so at length with Maggie Gallagher in our book together.) I simply want to emphasize that, at its core, the marriage debate is a moral debate: It’s about the kind of relationships society is willing to embrace—or, short of that, to tolerate. It is about the fact that relationships are good for people, that social support is good for relationships, and that some people find love with persons of the same sex. Although it involves legal rights and responsibilities, it’s about more than that: It is one thing for the state to let you marry, and quite another for your family to show up at your wedding and be happy for you. In my view, both elements are important.
In these pages I’ve argued that there is no good reason to condemn same-sex relationships, and that, indeed, there’s a good reason to affirm them: Like their heterosexual counterparts, they can be an important avenue of human well-being. As someone who has been involved in this debate for two decades, I recognize that philosophical argument only takes us so far, and that this issue demands not merely a change of mind but also a change of heart. But nor should we dismiss the value of reasoned discourse in opening a space for a broader personal and social transformation. When moral arguments are twisted into weapons, as happens all too often, philosophical analysis becomes more than merely relevant: It becomes morally urgent. I hope that this book invites an ongoing dialogue that is thoughtful, rigorous, sensitive, and productive.
Reprinted from What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? by John Corvino, with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2013 by John Corvino.