Today’s Globe and Mail contains a letter to the editor from yours truly (second from the bottom) in response to an op-ed criticizing those who take offence at J.K. Rowling’s misguided views on trans people. I discuss one of my pet peeves in the current “free speech” wars — namely, the conflation of condemnation with censorship.
If anyone would like my two cents on the controversy surrounding Trinity Western University, its proposed law school, and its homophobic “Community Covenant,” please see the letters section of today’s Vancouver Sun. My letter appears at the very bottom, under the heading “Trinity’s gay policy anti-Christian.”
Assuming that the world survives this coming December 21, the United States Supreme Court is expected to rule on two cases in June which could result in the nation-wide legalization of gay marriage.
I cannot forecast with certainty how the court will decide, but supposing for a moment that it rules in favour of marriage equality, the short-term results are easy to predict: conservative commentators across the country will complain of judicial activism, despite having in many cases urged precisely such an overreach one short year before when Obamacare hung in the balance. Right on cue, public support for same-sex marriage rights — steadily on the rise for years — will drop by approximately ten points.
But despite this frothy chorus of apocalyptic whining (maybe that’s what the Mayans were referring to!), the homophobic naysayers will not succeed in preventing a single same-sex couple from exchanging vows. The US Constitution is the law of the land, and the Supreme Court has final say over its interpretation. Gay marriage, assuming a favourable ruling, will be here to stay.
A more interesting topic for consideration, however, is how American attitudes to marriage equality will evolve over the long-term. Will the coming Supreme Court decision be more Brown v. Board of Education or Roe v. Wade? The former ruling from the 1950s, which desegregated public schools and marked a major victory for the civil rights movement, was incredibly controversial at the time, but is now almost unanimously recalled as a just and necessary decision. Roe v. Wade, by contrast, the 1970s ruling that legalized abortion across the country, has done nothing to settle the debate over a woman’s right to choose. So is gay marriage more like desegregation or abortion?
I believe it is more like desegregation. Marriage equality can very easily be framed as a civil rights issue, since after all it is about guaranteeing equal rights for a persecuted minority. On the subject of abortion, however, the applicability of equality is muddied by the fact that some people demand rights for women while others demand them for fetuses. Although I personally count myself in the former category, and believe that any depiction of the pro-life community as a modern-day civil rights movement for the unborn rests on a fundamental confusion, I can at least understand how such a confusion could come about and how much work it will take to clear it up. Gay marriage is far more clear-cut, and I see something approaching a consensus emerging over time.
But might it actually be something else that determines the public’s attitudes on social issues? Might it instead be the powerful influence of religious conservatives? If so, gay marriage could be doomed to share the stage with abortion as a highly symbolic subject of perpetual debate whose status is never secured.
Fortunately, I do not think this is likely. Take a look at Canada. We have had same-sex marriage for nearly a decade now and unrestricted abortion rights for a quarter century. While the latter is not nearly as much of a hot issue here as in the United States (perhaps owing to the reduced influence of evangelical Christianity), occasional attempts to chip away at a woman’s right to choose still make their way into Parliament. But marriage equality has not been up for serious contention in years, and that appears to be just how the public likes it.
This does not mean that homophobia has completely disappeared from Canada any more than racism disappeared from America within a decade of Brown v. Board of Education. But after a little time passed and the Canadian public saw that the institution of heterosexual marriage was not under threat after all (at least not from homosexuals), gay marriage quickly lost its status as boogeyman to be exploited by reactionary politicians.
If the United States Supreme Court comes to a similarly enlightened conclusion a few months down the road, I think the American public will look back on the present day ten years from now and wonder what all the fuss was about.
In honour of Pride Week here in Vancouver, I can think of no better time to wade into the growing Chick-fil-A row currently ruffling the feathers of our southern neighbours.
For those who don’t follow American news (it’s not like we’re a different country or anything), Chick-fil-A is a US-based fast-food chain whose President, Dan Cathy, is known for supporting anti-gay Christian groups. The controversy boiled over in recent weeks with a couple of high-profile interviews in which Cathy expressed his opposition to gay marriage: “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit,” and “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.'”
While some regard such literal interpretations of scripture as praiseworthy (no word yet where he stands on mixing more than one fabric in a single garment), the mayors of Boston and Chicago responded by saying that the restaurant’s expansion is not welcome in their cities. Predictably, anti-gay apologists like former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee declared this past Wednesday Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, and the hateful hordes turned out right on cue.
To my mind, the sight of thousands of Americans lining up at Chick-fil-A locations across the country to show their support — clogging their arteries for bigotry — suggests that government efforts to silence hate speech do not work. The pattern is a familiar one. Preachers of intolerance claim they are being persecuted by an intolerant government, and public sympathy for the poor little martyrs is cultivated. What is really a civil rights issue — marriage equality — is being turned into a free speech one, and millions of Americans are now convinced of the absurd notion that homophobes are the ones being victimized.
A much better approach than that taken by the Boston and Chicago mayors is for reasonable people to make reasonable arguments on why Dan Cathy is wrong. And, of course, for comedians to ruthlessly make fun of him and his supporters. Nothing more effectively demonstrates the ridiculousness of a position than its well-deserved ridicule. But to give homophobes the opportunity to distract the public with charges of censorship is counterproductive and puts at risk the trend of steadily increasing support for gay marriage in American society.
After all, if the goal isn’t to convince the public, then what is it?
First thing’s first. Barack Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage yesterday should be celebrated. On the heels of similar pronouncements by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, this marks the first time that a sitting US President has taken such a bold stance in favour of marriage equality.
However, just as light can be considered both a wave and a particle in quantum mechanics, every announcement by an elected official exhibits a similar duality. Was Obama’s decision motivated primarily by principle or by politics?
I believe there were elements of both. On the surface, a stronger case can be made for principle. Although most recent polls show a slim majority or plurality of Americans in favour of legalized gay marriage, it is still an incredibly touchy subject. And with Mitt Romney, Obama’s soon-to-be-confirmed opponent in November’s Presidential election, railing against the evils of not just gay marriage but even civil unions, one would think that Obama could safely have continued speaking favourably of such watered down compromises in order to pacify the left — who after all have virtually nowhere else to go — without overly alienating the right. So the fact that Obama rejected this strategy suggests that he acted for reasons other than mere electoral advantage.
However, according to administration officials, Obama was already planning to come out in favour of gay marriage in a matter of months — i.e. closer to the election. Biden’s announcement simply forced his hand. If this is true, the Obama campaign must have seen some kind of political benefit in backing gay marriage — probably as a means of mobilizing the base and portraying the President as strong and decisive.
In fact, if Obama can be accused of cynicism and political gaming at all, it is not for the announcement he made yesterday, but for his failure to do so earlier. The President almost certainly supported gay marriage all along, as he admitted while running for Illinois state Senate in 1996 — back when it was far more of a liability. The fact that, in the intervening years, he stuffed his true beliefs back in the closet (so to speak) reflects a concern that they might have jeopardized his ever-escalating political ambitions.
But different times and different campaign strategies have changed all that. Politics and principle have finally converged to compel the President to make the right choice. This does not mean that legalized gay weddings will immediately sprout up in all fifty states. But the cultural shift is undeniable. Obama has done something without precedent, and it falls on officials in all three branches of government and at federal and state levels, as well as on individual Americans, to act. Will they one day look back upon their behaviour with shame, like those who resisted women’s suffrage and desegregation? Or will they join with the current of history and stand up for equality?
Obama has made his decision. Romney has made his. Let’s see how these next few months play out.