Marriage Equality, Bigotry…and Don Sterling
April 29th, 2014
A great deal of opposition to marriage equality is based on anti-gay bigotry. I’ve read it, experienced it, documented it and called it out, again and again and again. Homophobia, like racism, anti-Semitism, and a host of other toxic bigotries, is a derangement, a flaw of judgment and character, quite enough to make us question a person’s ability (and suitability) to lead.
That’s never been in doubt for me. What I have doubted, though, is whether opposition to same-sex marriage always and automatically marks one as an anti-gay bigot. Some have argued, forcefully, that it does. As one commenter wrote:
Opposition to marriage equality doesn’t exist in a person for no reason. You can’t get to “I oppose equality” if you don’t first see gays as bad or inferior. They may not all hate us, but they most certainly all think they’re superior to us or that we’re bad in some way.
If my CEO thought gays to be bad or inferior, I’d want him removed, and I could make a strong case to a Board of Directors that he should be removed. But I don’t see the connection the commenter made. Many people don’t ever get to “I oppose equality.” Our opponents struggle to make sure they don’t think of it in those terms, shifting instead to, “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” It’s not a question of whether gays are good or bad. It’s a question of what their religion tells them about marriage.
In 2012, Gallup reported that 47% of Americans who oppose same-sex marriage gave the Bible or religion as their main reason (while only 12% of people with “no religious identity” opposed marriage equality). Barack Obama used this justification for a while. In The Audacity of Hope, he attributes his opposition to his religious beliefs and then weasels around to describe how bad he feels about it when talking to a lesbian, never bothering to explain why his religious beliefs should be enforced on everyone by rule of law.
When I read Audacity in 2006, I stopped right there. He’d lost my respect and it took a lot to bring me back to the point where I was excited for his candidacy. I suspect his opposition at the time was a political calculation, that he was being a shrewd political operator rather than a Constitutional incompetent — that he simply figured (probably correctly) a good many people would sympathize with this stance.
Many of these people opposed marriage equality because they followed the guidance of their pastor and priests. Why, then, have so many changed their minds? Because, like all human beings, they can live comfortably ensconced in familiar but contradictory beliefs — in this case: Marriage is between a man and a woman, and The gays I know are good and decent people. They opposed marriage equality not because of their view of gays and lesbians, but in spite of them. And they changed their minds when they could longer duck this discrepancy. That’s why change has come so fast. There’s little reason to change your bigoted beliefs when they’re backed up by your religious authority. But if you harbor a decent amount of good will, it can make you change your mind, even in defiance of your own religious leaders, if you’re forced to confront your contradictions.
This is also why so many people of all denominations are working hard to reconcile marriage equality with religion, even among evangelicals. Some folks are practically desperate for a way to support our rights without giving up their faith, and authors like Matthew Vines are beginning to show them how.
I wouldn’t argue this is true for all of our opponents. I’m spent too much time fighting in trenches to believe that, and you probably have you, too. But it is true of a good many, especially the swing vote, people who have recently changed their mind or who will soon do so.
This isn’t idle speculation. We’ve seen the truth of it in the strategies both sides of the debate have put forth. For instance, here’s some revealing advice the National Organization for Marriage used to offer (they’ve scrubbed it from their website, but you can still find it here):
Language to avoid at all costs: “Ban same-sex marriage.” Our base loves this wording. So do supporters of SSM. They know it causes us to lose about ten percentage points in polls. Don’t use it. Say we’re against “redefining marriage” or in favor or “marriage as the union of husband and wife” NEVER “banning same-sex marriage.”
NOM actually lost support when they brought up same-sex marriage, and did best when gays and lesbians weren’t mentioned at all. Not what you would expect if all Prop 8 supporters considered gays and lesbians inferior. It’s as if they realized hard-core ads about evil gays may scare up donations from the bigots, but could cost them votes in the elections.
Many of us disparaged the “No on 8″ campaign for focusing on (important) abstractions like equality and fairness while strenuously avoiding images of actual gay people, as if our existence were some liability to be hidden away in the attic closet. That losing strategy has been replaced with one showcasing us and our families, and most of us have cheered that. These images merely infuriate anti-gay bigots. They can change the minds only of voters who don’t despise us.
After Prop 8 passed, we took to the streets. I know first hand that these protests can change minds. Not the bigots’, of course — they just double down when they see uppity minorities fight for their rights. No, those protests, with their anger and their pain, changed the minds of people by forcing us into their view, so they could no longer bracket off their views on marriage from the way these bans hurt us.
Then there’s this:
Having persuasive face-to-face conversations with someone who supports same-sex marriage can lead opponents to have significant and long-lasting shifts in their views about marriage equality, especially when the person they’re talking to is gay, according to a new study by two political science professors.
From the study:
Again looking at change scores, we see that those contacted by straight canvassers became 0.21 scale points more supportive of same-sex marriage … The jump was even larger among treatment subjects who conversed with gay canvassers: support for same-sex marriage rose 0.35 scale points … Evidently, the treatment not only increased policy support and warmth toward gays; it also set subjects on a path to further attitude change in the wake of the Court’s ruling on behalf of gay plaintiffs.
You can’t change bigotry with a single conversation. What you can do is expand someone’s awareness and force them to confront the harm a policy can inflict on people who deserve better treatment.
Finally, you might remember Chris Geidner’s great article on how we swept the 5 states voting on our rights in 2012:
Commitment trumps rights, a point made in prior research by Freedom to Marry as well: “Leading with commitment will show the middle that gay people want to join the institution of marriage, not change it.”
We can’t persuade bigots with this strategy. Homophobes who equate homosexuality with pedophilia would just mock our stories of commitment. So would the idiots who chant, Homosexuality is about sex, not love. Sex is right there in the middle of the word! No, this only works with people who are willing to believe we can commit to each other the same way they do, with a depth that deserves the honorific marriage.
It’s not wishful thinking, or even naive, to say a substantial chunk of those who opposed marriage equality weren’t acting out of anti-gay bigotry. Rather, it’s exactly this hope that we’re building our strategy on. And the thing is — we’re winning with it!
So is Brendan Eich one of the bigots or not? I see a few troubling signs. He didn’t just oppose same-sex marriage in 2008, but still seems to oppose it today. And his donation to Pat Buchanan, though it occurred 22 years ago, is still enough to give pause.
On the other hand, as far I know, that’s all we have: two troubling decisions almost two decades apart. Real bigotry — that derangement, that flaw of both judgment and character — corrodes the spirit and blinds the mind. It surfaces again and again, infecting choice after choice, leaving behind it a long, slimy trail. Lord knows we saw that with Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, and now we’re seeing it with Clippers’ owner Don Sterling.
Sterling’s comments, of course, revealed a shocking contempt for African-Americans (how deranged does a basketball team owner have to be to not want Magic Johnson at his games because of his race?). And Sterling, it turns out, does possess that long, slimy trail. For instance:
What’s striking about Sterling’s rant and its hours of coverage is the extent to which it isn’t new. To wit, in 2003, 19 plaintiffs sued Sterling for housing discrimination. In the suit, Sterling is accused of telling his staff that he did not like blacks and Hispanics, citing their behavior. “Hispanics smoke, drink, and just hang around the building,” he allegedly said.
What’s more, the lawsuit said, Sterling told his staff that he only wanted to rent his apartments to Koreans and forced black tenants to sign in when they entered the building. “Is she one of those black people that stink?” he allegedly asked of an elderly black tenant who needed repairs to her apartment. “I am not going to do that. Just evict the bitch.” His wife, Rochelle Sterling, also participated, posing as a health inspector to harass tenants and record their ethnicities.
And because bigotry is so corrosive, we shouldn’t be surprise at his contempt for women, too.
ESPN’s Peter Keating, Amanda Younger, and Alyssa Roenick detailed Sterling’s abhorrent history with women in 2012: in 1996, a former employee sued him for sexual harassment. The woman alleged that Sterling “offered her clothes and an expense account in return for sexual favors.” The suit alleged that Sterling often “touched her in ways that made her uncomfortable and asked her to visit friends of his for sex.” In addition, Sterling has used the Clippers to hire “hostesses,” whom he evaluated based on their looks at his own home. One later said that “working for Donald Sterling was the most demoralizing, dehumanizing experience of my life.” He later testified that he paid another woman for regular sexual favors and said, “When you pay a woman for sex, you are not together with her.” He’s asked female employees to hook him up with masseuses who will provide sexual favors. It seems obvious from his history that Sterling views women as vehicles for his own enjoyment rather than as actual human beings.
Sterling can’t be trusted as a leader. Blacks can’t trust him, women can’t trust him, and neither can any decent person who wants a fair and equitable workplace. Hell, neither can any slimeball shareholder who gives not one good goddamn about fairness and equity, but just wants to avoid lawsuits while attracting the best talent out there.
Homophobia is every bit as vile as racism and sexism, and if Eich had the kind of history with gays that Sterling has with blacks and women, I’d have happily agitated for his ouster. Instead, we have a donation in support of Prop 8, forcing us to ask if opposition to same-sex marriage is proof positive of anti-gay bigotry. I think it’s not, recent history shows it’s not, and our current winning strategy makes a powerful case it’s not.
That will change. As time passes, as the unbigoted move from opposition to uncertainty to support for our marriages, bigots will be the only ones left in that camp, people whose opposition to same-sex marriage is perfectly aligned with their contempt for lesbians and gays. We see this happening even now as their moderate voices fall into silence (or fall away all together) and those who remain speak in tones ever more paranoid and shrill. This will continue, and the day will come when opposition to marriage equality is enough to mark you as a bigot. It’s just not today.
ADDENDUM: I’ve been asked by someone I respect to point out the Obama actually publicly opposed Prop 8. This, however, reinforces the point I was trying to make: That Obama probably did not oppose marriage equality when he wrote his book; rather, his framing of the issue was a shrewd political ploy, based on the idea that a good fraction of his potential supporters (in 2006, at least) thought it possible to oppose marriage equality without having animus toward gay people (hence his, “I felt bad, and told her [the lesbian who criticized him] so in a return call”).