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”).
What infuriates us the most about our friends is often the flip side of what makes us admire them.
April 10th, 2014
I love Box Turtle Bulletin. I owe Box Turtle Bulletin.
Long before I was a contributor here, I had (and still have) my own personal blog. My work there prompted a “Christian” blogger called Heteroseparatist to write a post tying homosexuality and pedophilia, calling it The Tisinai Formula. The rarity of my last name made this seem all the more despicable, more personal than if my surname were Williams or Smith.
I used the sordid happening as a chance to make a video, one that debunked the alleged connection in as much depth as I could manage in a youtube timeframe. It’s not my most-viewed video, but it’s the one I’m proudest of. People wrote to say they’d made their parents watch it, that it had calmed their parents’ fears and made it easier to have frank conversations with them. Of all the things I may have accomplished a blogger, that has to be the best, and if I sound a bit prideful about it, that’s why.
Two things made that video possible.
- Heteroseparatist had laid out his case in detail.
- Jim Burroway, the founder of Box Turtle Bulletin, had already written a long, footnoted (!) post debunking the supposed gay/pedophile correlation.
Both of those elements had to be in place for me to make the video. No, it’s not good that so many people believe these slanderous claims, but since they do believe them, it’s very good when they’re stated publicly and clearly, so that people like Jim Burroway can demolish them piece by piece. This is all in accord with Jim’s stated mission for the blog, which is to engage our opponents’ arguments and provide reasoned responses supported by evidence.
That’s not universally valued. When the Regnerus study came out, for instance, I did my best to expose its flaws, an effort that another blog dismissed as “blah-blah-blah,” and as having fallen into the “trap” of discussing the details of what the study actually says. That stunned me. I respect the work done at that blog, but it wouldn’t be a good home for me. That’s why I’ve been so happy to have Jim welcome me here.
I really do believe it’s a very good thing when our opponents make their position clear, and that’s occasionally gotten me into trouble. I baffled (infuriated?) some readers not long ago when I chastised Stanford for defunding an event featuring anti-gay speakers, one of whom was cited in a Supreme Court Windsor dissent. In particular I mocked a student, Brianne Huntsman, for saying the event should be cancelled to keep the university a “safe space” for gay and lesbian students (more on that mockery a bit further down).
Since then, another school has issued a statement that’s quite relevant and that I wish I had written:
To target funding for a particular program because it doesn’t align with certain beliefs and judging it in terms of specific content instead of the discussions the content promotes is perhaps a bit shortsighted. Indeed, controversial issues are essential in creating levels of discussion and student engagement that cannot be generated otherwise. We see such engagement as essential to the educational process.
That wasn’t in response to anti-gay speakers, though. That was the University of South Carolina reacting to State Representative Garry Smith (R), who wanted to withhold $17,142 in university funding because the school had assigned first-year students an LGBT-friendly book without balancing it with — I don’t know — an LGBT-unfriendly book.
One key difference between the Stanford and USC cases is that Stanford didn’t involve a First Amendment violation. That only occurs when the government takes action, which is precisely the situation with USC. It’s all the more striking, then, that USC didn’t invoke the First Amendment in its defense. It appealed to more demanding standards: academic freedom and the mission of the university.
Yes, I called those more demanding standards. I revere the First Amendment, but we should never forget: The First Amendment is a minimum requirement.
People sometimes defend the private stifling of speech by pointing out that no First Amendment rights were violated, and while they’re correct, that doesn’t mean all is well. USC reminds us that other standards exist, standards that go beyond what the government can do, standards that guide our own non-government actions. Academic freedom is one is one such standard, but there are others.
This means we can have a huge debate — among people who are otherwise allies — about the appropriate response to legal speech that we find offensive or appalling. This happened over my Stanford post and again the other day, when Jim expressed misgivings over the resignation of Brendan Eich. As everyone here knows, these debates can be heated, even rancorous. I hate that, because though I may go trolling on anti-gay sites, I have a childish hope (need?) that everything I write here be received with great joy and admiration. Now that ain’t gonna happen, and that’s a whole growth opportunity for me. But when the criticism comes down like a hammer, that same need eventually forces me to take it seriously, even if I don’t end up changing my mind. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the debates over Duck Dynasty and Stanford and Brendan Eich — actually not so much about those cases per se, but about the issues underlying them.
Here is what I’d like critics of Jim and Timothy and me to keep in mind — and just as importantly, what we need to keep in mind in return:
Quite often, the most infuriating aspects of another person are simply the flip side of the things you most admire.
In recent days, we’ve seen two admirable sets of values collide. First,
A free and open society works best when all positions are argued clearly and explicitly, along with their rebuttals. This climate of open debate, whatever its bumps and pitfalls, is the best way to try and secure a culture free of ignorance and superstition. It’s important to do as little as possible to discourage such debate because when an orthodoxy is imposed through legal or social pressure, it opens the door to tyranny and corrodes the human spirit.
A free and open society can only work when it recognizes the humanity, the dignity, and the equality of all its citizens. Movements that stigmatize entire swaths of the population, that declare them to be inferior, that try to rob them of their rights, have no place in such a society. They open the door to oppression and tyranny, and corrode the human spirit.
It’s hard, for me at least, to oppose either of those positions. Gay people have suffered in the past when either one was discarded. They overlap, they reinforce each other, but they can also contradict each other. And when that happens, long-time allies flare at each other and demand to know, How can someone I’ve respected hold such a view?
For instance, some people react to Jim (or me, or Timothy) by wondering, How can you be a defender of, and an apologist for, such anti-gay bigots? But that’s not his intent at all. He’s defending a legal and cultural climate of open and unchilled dialog for everyone, even our most vitriolic opponents. And his critics here, if they’ve ever found this blog valuable, must understand that Jim’s commitment to that ideal is what made the blog possible. It inspires him to devote hour after hour to smacking down the flawed arguments and outright lies of the other side. And the most baffling aspects of what you see in him now are simply the flip side of what you admire most.
On the other hand, I can look at someone like, say, StraightGrandmother — whom I respect and admire — and wonder, How can you subvert the ideals of a free society by deliberately chilling speech? But that’s not her intent at all. She’s defending the humanity, dignity, and equality of an oppressed group of real human beings, a group that she herself doesn’t even belong to! And I have to understand that her commitment to that ideal is what I so respect and admire. It inspires her to devote hour after hour to smacking down the flawed arguments and outright lies of the other side. And the most baffling aspects of what I see in her now are simply the flip side of what I admire most.
This debate isn’t going away anytime soon. It will only intensify. But keeping these things in mind will make that debate more productive. I’m not just talking about tolerance for each other’s views, or an attitude of Can’t we all just get along? No, I’m hoping we can remember that when we hurl contempt and derision at each other in this debate, we unintentionally spatter the very things we respect about each other.
That’s a lot to ask. I know this, because I’ve failed at it.
When I consider my Stanford post, I have to say I stand by my position but I regret the way I mocked Brianne Huntsman. USC has shown there are far better ways to make the same point, and mocking her won’t persuade her or her supporters to change their minds. It can only polarize the debate further. As I read some of the comments to that piece, with their condescending psychologizing and often outright scorn, the little kid in me wondered, Why y’all got to be so mean? Then the adult in me recalled my own mockery and realized, Oh, well, yeah. I committed a major violation of the Golden Rule right there.
But that still leaves open the question of how to respond to legal, offensive speech and to political activity that we fiercely oppose.
This hit home few days ago when I expressed concern on Facebook about the Brendan Eich controversy. A friend asked me, But what would you have done differently? The short answer might be: Nothing, because it’s possible we didn’t do anything. Yes, there was a petition with 70,000+ signatures calling for his resignation, but some have convincingly argued that he had to go because many of the Mozilla’s employees weren’t willing to accept his leadership, and that makes a sound business case for his departure.
But what if this had happened at the company I work for?
I can’t argue that a person’s private beliefs are irrelevant to their work. I remember collaborating with a tenured University of Chicago professor to create an online course, and one day he confided in me that he got a pit in his stomach every time a black student walked into his clasroom because, “I know they just won’t get it.” And I thought, You have no business being a teacher.
Even so, I wouldn’t have called for Brendan Eich’s resignation, partly because I don’t think opposition to same-sex marriage (as opposed to, say, membership in the KKK) is proof positive of hatred and bigotry. I have too much direct experience to the contrary to make that assumption. Still: based on the ideals set forth above, what would I do?
I’d push to open a dialog with the CEO.
I don’t just mean an hour-long chat with a photo opp at the end. If we’re strong enough to achieve the CEO’s resignation, then we’re strong enough to win an extended, well-publicized public conversation. This would be my homosexual agenda for that dialog:
- We’d make it clear how many of the company’s employees are LGBT.
- We’d bring the CEO into our homes to meet our families and see how we live — see that we live.
- With the CEO having dinner with our families, we’d detail the harm that banning same-sex marriage does to gays and lesbians, to our children, even to straight kids in opposite-sex homes as they struggle through the fears and insecurities of adolescence.
- We’d listen to the CEO’s objections to marriage equality and address them point by point. We know we can do this.
- We’d discover the CEO’s core values, some of which likely involve dignity and fairness, and show how marriage equality fulfills them.
In short, we’d engage the CEO through both reason and emotion, by making a logical case and by expanding the CEO’s personal experience with gays and lesbians and our families. I see two possible outcomes, and ultimately we would win no matter which prevailed.
We change the CEO’s mind. Can you imagine how powerful it would have been for Brendan Eich to announce: After meeting with Mozilla’s gay and lesbian staff and getting to know their families, I’ve come to recognize that they deserve all the rights and dignity traditionally afforded to opposite-sex couples, and I now voice my support same-sex marriage. This could happen.
We don’t change the CEO’s mind. We still win. We’re helped by any public conversation that focuses on gay people as actual human beings and undercuts the terrible stereotypes we’re subjected to. And in this scenario, the conversation would be about us and our families instead of what’s happening to Eich. There would be little question among the general public — and especially the undecided middle — about which side is the champion of freedom and dignity.
Many of you, obviously, will disagree with me. And as I said, this debate isn’t going away. But we can make much better progress if we remember that it’s not a debate between apologists of anti-gay bigotry and tyrannical haters of liberty, but between two noble, often complementary sets of values that occasionally collide.
Bring Out Your Pitchforks
April 8th, 2014
Mother Jones reports that OKCupid CEO Sam Yagen donated $500 an anti-gay Utah GOP Congressman’s election campaign:
OkCupid’s co-founder and CEO Sam Yagan once donated to an anti-gay candidate. (Yagan is also CEO of Match.com.) Specifically, Yagan donated $500 to Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) in 2004, reports Uncrunched. During his time as congressman from 1997 to 2009, Cannon voted for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, against a ban on sexual-orientation based job discrimination, and for prohibition of gay adoptions.
…Of course, it’s been a decade since Yagan’s donation to Cannon, and a decade or more since many of Cannon’s votes on gay rights. It’s possible that Cannon’s opinions have shifted, or maybe his votes were more politics than ideology; a tactic by the Mormon Rep. to satisfy his Utah constituency. It’s also quite possible that Yagan’s politics have changed since 2004: He donated to Barack Obama’s campaign in 2007 and 2008. Perhaps even Firefox’s Eich has rethought LGBT equality since his 2008 donation. But OkCupid didn’t include any such nuance in its take-down of Firefox. Combine that with the fact that the company helped force out one tech CEO for something its own CEO also did, and its action last week starts to look more like a PR stunt than an impassioned act of protest.
Eich Resigned. That’s Not Good.
April 4th, 2014
What is the statute of limitations for donating to support Prop 8 before that individual can no longer be fired from his job? I’m asking because this might be important information for those who employ some 101,894 people who did just that. We now know that the offense is still prosecutable after six years. Should we not be allowed to fire them after eight years? Twelve? Twenty?
Also, there were 1,120,801 people who signed the petition to put Prop 8 on the ballot. Can we fire them? Or should we let that slide? It’s too bad the ballot was secret. There were 7,001,084 people we could fire in California alone. That doesn’t even begin to take into account the thirty-three other states where many millions more contributors, petition signers and voters tried, often successfully, to prevent their gay and lesbian neighbors from marrying.
We’ve had a banner two years. Isn’t it time we were more magnanimous? I guess not. Mozilla’s former CEO, Brendan Eich got what was coming to him this week when it was revealed that he had exercised his First Amendment right to support Prop 8 to the tune of $1,000 six years ago. Firefox users and Mozilla employees began criticizing Eich’s elevation to CEO from chief technical officer, and dating site OKCupid put up a special landing page for Firefox users urging them to dump their browser.
Boycotts, I can understand, at least on a personal level. While I can’t think of a single boycott that was decisive in changing a company’s behavior, we all make personal decisions based on a variety of factors about where we spend our money and the products we use every day. I avoid Walmart, Exxon/Mobil and Chick-fil-A, and we’ve rediscovered the simple, childlike joy of graham crackers in our house.
But at a time when we are demanding passage of the Employment Non-Discrmination Act so that companies can’t just up and fire LGBT employees because they don’t agree with them — as they can now in about two-thirds of our states — we need to think very long and hard about whether we should demand someone be removed from his job for exercising his constitutional rights as part of the cornerstone of our democracy: a free and fair election.
We say that LGBT people shouldn’t be fired for something that has nothing to do with their job performance. I think that principle is good enough to apply to everyone, including Eich. And there is no evidence that I can find that his donation affected his ability to do the job he was hired to do. Eich made his donation out of his own pocket. He didn’t do it on behalf of Mozilla, he didn’t do it with Mozilla funds or through a foundation sponsored by Mozilla. And he certainly didn’t own Mozilla, which is a non-profit organization. It was his own dime on his own time.
As for Mozilla, it has inclusive policies that provide protections for LGBT employees and collaborators and offers health benefits to same-sex couples. Eich pledged to work “with LGBT communities and allies, to listen and learn what does and doesn’t make Mozilla supportive and welcoming,” and reiterated his support for the company’s policies “and the spirit that underlies all of these. …I can only ask for your support to have the time to ‘show, not tell'; and in the meantime express my sorrow at having caused pain.”
Which means that everyone who has had to endure corporate diversity training now has the same lesson lodged in their heads. Until now, they had been told that they can do whatever they want and believe whatever they want outside the workplace, but when they crossed the company’s threshold, they had to treat their fellow workers with dignity and respect, and to respect and encourage diversity in the workforce. They’ve now learned that it was all a lie. We do care about what they do outside of work and we can demand their ouster if we don’t like it. Eich learned that lesson the hard way and resigned yesterday. I can’t think of a better way to encourage even more cynicism toward company diversity programs than that.
And on a more personal note, I’ll be avoiding the word “tolerance” along with Walmart and Exxon/Mobil from now on. When a word has no meaning, there’s no reason to use it.