Political Correctness

Gay Rights, Intolerance, and Racial Parallels

Persecution of dissent on gay marriage is bad not only for intellectual freedom and the cultural climate but ultimately, perhaps, for gay equality as well.


Brendan Eich's departure as CEO of Mozilla in the backlash over his 2008 donation of $1,000 to the campaign for Proposition 8, the California initiative that limited marriage to opposite-sex couples, has sparked a new backlash—over free speech. There has been some absurdly overheated rhetoric on the right, with mentions of the gulag, fascists, jihad, and Torquemada. But even gay authors who champion marriage equality, such as Andrew Sullivan, Frank Bruni, and Dale Carpenter, have assailed a new orthodoxy and intolerance in the liberal camp. 

There is no question that Eich's resignation under pressure highlights a larger trend: the increasingly prevailing view that all opposition to same-sex marriage is bigotry akin to racism. In many ways, this attitudinal shift has helped same-sex marriage (for instance, by advancing the judicial opinion that discrimination against gay unions has no rational basis). But if it turns to persecution of dissent, the consequences will be bad not only for intellectual freedom and the cultural climate but ultimately, perhaps, for gay equality as well.

In some ways, the Eich scandal is not the best test case for free speech: being CEO of a company heavily dependent on community relations inevitably limits one's ability to take controversial positions. As usual, it's a matter of whose proverbial ox is being gored: How many of Eich's conservative defenders would be upset if he was in hot water over a donation to a militant atheist group, to the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, or to an organization seeking a total ban on handguns?  And, of course, social conservatives have hardly been averse to using the power of the market against pro-gay expression (recall, in the late 1990s, the "Ellen" boycott and that of ABC's "Nothing Sacred," a series about a Catholic priest who questioned church teachings on sexuality).

However, conservative hypocrisy doesn't make the liberal version better. And, given that Eich was hardly a crusader against same-sex marriage, the "outing" of his donation, the organized anti-Firefox campaign after his promotion, and the pressure on him to publicly recant and affirm his support for same-sex marriage do have nasty inquisitorial overtones.

More troubling examples of new intolerance come from the academy. Earlier this year, the Stanford chapter of the Anscombe Society, which advocates premarital chastity and other traditional values, was granted its request for $600 in Graduate Student Council funds toward a symposium on "Marriage, Family and the Media."  Then, news of the event, intended to promote the idea of marriage as a one-man, one-woman union, caused an outcry from campus activists. At the March 12 meeting of the Council, the conference was denounced as promoting "hateful," "bigoted," and "unacceptable" ideas. The funding was revoked; the Undergraduate Senate also turned down the Society's request for funds.  While the group was able to secure other funding, the university administration tried to hit it with $5,600 in "security fees" for the April 5 event—though this demand was dropped after negative publicity and pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Meanwhile, at Swarthmore, a February panel featuring Princeton professors Cornel West and Robert George drew heated objections because of George's conservative views of sexuality and marriage—rather ironically, considering that the central theme of the event was communication across differences in values.  While the panel eventually proceeded without disruption, many students interviewed for Swarthmore's Daily Gazette expressed unhappiness with it, and specifically with the notion that George's ideas deserved a hearing. During question and answer, a student chastised West for providing a platform to someone with such views.

Let's face it: however committed we may be to intellectual diversity and free exchange of ideas, few would criticize a school's refusal to fund an event in defense of anti-miscegenation laws, or welcome the presence of a white supremacist on a panel about bridging differences. Should the belief that marriage is a male-female union be treated the same way? For many, the answer is yes. At Slate.com, some commenters have criticized the magazine for merely allowing columnist William Saletan—a supporter of equal marriage rights for gays—to argue that opposition to same-sex marriage is not equivalent to racism.

Yet in many situations, we do recognize that gender is not the same as race, legally or morally.  In law, racial distinctions are (properly) presumed to be insidious and virtually always illegitimate; sexual distinctions are acceptable with a much less stringent "rational interest" test. The "separate but equal" principle, repugnant as a basis for racial segregation—an analogy commonly used against the idea of civil unions—is far more acceptable for the sexes. Much to the chagrin of radical feminists, there is no taboo on either research or popular discourse on psychological and cognitive sex differences. The backlash against then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers, and his eventual ouster, after he speculated that female underrepresentation in science could be at least partly due to biology was widely regarded as dogmatic intolerance.

In 2000, Andrew Sullivan wrote a New York Times Magazine article arguing that hormones make men and women fundamentally different: men are competitive, risk-taking, action-oriented and power-seeking, women are nurturing, empathetic, relationship-oriented and safety-minded.  Personally, I find such claims vastly exaggerated and overgeneralized (Sullivan's assertions were questioned by many critics, myself included).  But are they bigoted and unacceptable in decent society? No. And surely it makes sense that, for some non-bigoted people, the belief in fundamental sexual difference justifies a special status for male-female marriage—not only as a reproductive relationship but as a joining of humanity's two distinct halves, based on complementary masculine and feminine qualities.  

Given the general shift toward sex-neutral law and policy as well as flexible cultural attitudes toward gender—all of which, as far as I'm concerned, are welcome developments—such arguments for the heterosexual nature of marriage have lost much of their potency. However, that does not mean the debate itself should be terminated. The threshold of bigotry for gender is set much higher than for race; and so it should remain. There is a big difference between the view that women shouldn't be allowed to vote and the view that women shouldn't be allowed to serve in combat. There is, likewise, a big difference between the view that gays should be socially ostracized and denied all legal protections for their relationships, and the view that marriage rooted in sexual complementarity and the mother-father bond should retain some measure of privilege.

Many advocates of gay equality explicitly say they want all opposition to same-sex marriage to be treated exactly like racism: as shameful and contemptible. But such a hardline attitude is not necessarily a pathway to progress.  For one, when a large segment of the population sees its cultural values not only displaced but ostracized and stifled, its hostility to social change is likely to become more bitter. In such a climate, it won't seem too paranoid for religious groups to fear that even civil same-sex marriage will infringe on their freedom. Could churches that stick to the traditional definition of marriage be reduced to pariah status like sects that condemn racial mixing? Could religious colleges that don't recognize same-sex relationships be denied public benefits, as Bob Jones University once was over its interracial relationship ban?

Such a climate would very likely drive members of traditionalist faiths further away from the mainstream—perhaps causing them to become more hardcore in their cultural conservatism. And, in countries where gays still face an uphill battle for basic freedom of expression and advocacy, the perception that gay equality leads to censorship and suppression toward conservative sexual values is almost certain to make resistance to gay rights far more entrenched. (On Russian Internet forums, critics of the Kremlin's odious recent ban on "homosexual propaganda" are often dismissed with, "Well, try criticizing gay marriage in America!")

Yes, tolerance for dissent on same-sex marriage feels deeply insulting to many gays and lesbians, to whom this is tantamount to putting their human rights up for debate. Yet some women may feel the same about tolerance for pro-life advocacy, or for religious beliefs that support male leadership in the family, or for the view that women's highest calling is caring for home and children. Anti-immigration arguments may feel deeply hurtful to immigrants; critiques of single parenthood may feel like personal attacks to single parents or their children. In an open society, one person's free speech does not end at another's comfort zone.

So let us by all means continue to affirm a commitment to gay equality; but let's go easy on racial parallels, and avoid pushing more ideas beyond the pale.