Last week, a friend of mine on Facebook (who happens to be gay) opined that we should retire the term “homophobia.” His argument was that no one except folks who are closeted themselves actually fears homosexuals or homosexuality, as is suggested by “phobia.” Rather, he argued, people who might otherwise be labeled homophobes should be termed “heterosexual supremacists,” which more accurately identifies their position.
And I see where he’s coming from. There’s a lot of that: people who are opposed to homosexuality, but for whom “fear” is certainly the wrong term. People who feel they deserve more rights than gays do because they’re just better people. I’m with my friend there: as loaded as “heterosexual supremacists” is, it works for them. That’s just what they are.
However, there are plenty in the same-sex marriage “debate” (quotes necessary) who will tell anyone who will listen that they have nothing but love and respect for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation; that they just want this thing called “marriage” to remain the way it’s been for the last several hundred years. And I believe them, or some of them. Some of them (I know a few) have gay friends they legitimately adore, and I’m sure many have gay family members who they love and cherish (in their own ways). They’re probably basically good people, by and large, people who legitimately love all their neighbors, et cetera, but they’re just tied to their own myopic interpretation of the Bible, or their church’s, or some similar sense of tradition or morality or whatever. I don’t think these people are “supremacists” of any stripe. They don’t actually want anyone to have fewer rights than they do. They just don’t view it as a “rights” issue at all.
And that’s why I think the word “homophobia” still has its place. Because if that describes you, you’re not a heterosexual supremacist, but you sure are scared. You’re scared as hell.
The Bible has plenty to say on what foods to eat and avoid, on observing the Sabbath, on the rightful respective places of women and men and so forth, and there are plenty of believers out there who more or less hold to them; yet, none of those believers are trying to legislate those faith-specific mores into every other U.S. citizen’s daily life. Almost every Christian would agree that adultery is sinful, but you don’t see a lot of call to (re-)criminalize unfaithfulness. The thing is, you can believe in the Bible (I do, though a different version of it than most seem to), and you can preach it, and you can do everything you can to change people’s minds with it, but you owe it to your country not to vote with it. This doesn’t get talked about much (and many believers might reflexively disagree with that statement), but in practice, that’s generally the way it works. We’re not a Christian country, and people of faith are generally incentivized to convert others through reaching their hearts andor minds, not through legal coercion. You can see it in the examples above. Even in the abortion debate, there’s a religious element to it, but at bottom the pro-life argument seems generally to come down to the basically secular idea that you’re talking about killing a baby and that that’s just not okay. Religion certainly informs people’s politics, but it’s really almost never the whole basis for them.
This — gay rights, and same-sex marriage specifically — is apparently a different thing, though, because this is just the way it’s always been, and because “marriage” is a word that happens to apply both to the government-sanctioned privilege and to a number of different religious rituals. And if you’re opposed to the idea of making the change that’d grant the right to enter into the government version to everyone, and you don’t actively hate and want to oppress homosexuals, then the only possible conclusion is that you’re scared. Scared of change, in a blanket sort of fashion. Scared that letting two people who want to bind themselves to each other and call it “marriage” just like any other two people get to will somehow lead to the downfall of our society or the end of morality as we know it. Scared that anything that appears to encourage or legitimize gayness means that your children or your spouse or you are going to Catch The Gay. Scared (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that gay marriage’s legality is going to force your church and your pastor to perform those marriages, contrary to your faith.
If you’ve ever said “they can have all their rights in civil unions, just don’t call it ‘marriage,'” you’re afraid of something. If you’ve ever made any reference to “protecting” or “defending” “traditional marriage,” as though granting equal rights and dignity to two people who love each other could possibly have any effect on your own marriage, or your hetero friends’ or your children’s or any other group of consenting adults’? You may or may not be a bigot, may or may not hate the gays, may or may not be a heterosexual supremacist. You’ve sure as hell got some fears, and they’re most certainly the kinds of manic, non-reality-based types of fears generally associated with the term “phobia.” You’re homophobic. I like that word (I mean, I hate what it represents, but it’s a fairly descriptive term). And I think we need that word, and that we will as long as those kinds of ugly, utterly baseless fears hang around.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as a Minneapolis Star Tribune poll of 800 individuals suggests that my home state, which in November became one of the first four to reject an anti-gay measure by popular vote, was still not ready to accept the legalization of same-sex marriage. It’s pretty depressing, as are the quotes in that piece (though notably, for “momentum” reasons: all the worst quotes come from individuals in their mid-sixties or older). For whatever the reason, a vote against legalizing marriage for everyone is a vote to deprive someone else of a right you have — to marry the person you love. There are no arguments against that, and no religious beliefs or moral qualms, no matter how deep they may run, that justify voting that way.
Thankfully, it’s out of the public’s hands, and in its elected officials’. The courts, and to a much smaller extent the legislatures, exist specifically for these kinds of situations (among many other things, of course): where there’s one obvious right answer benefiting a minority and the majority hasn’t come around on it yet, for whatever reason, those branches of our government have the power and the duty to make that one right answer the one upon which our laws are based. I’ve got a lot of hope that they’ll do that. It’s the way the country is going, and I don’t think it can be stopped at this point (or at least I hope it can’t, of course); it just can’t happen fast enough. Homophobia is dying (and so is hetero supremacism), but sure ain’t dead yet.