Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed a phenomenon the other day I've been meaning to post about here on Bilerico: droves of straight people in media trying with all their might to prove that folks who go out and vote against same-sex marriage aren't homophobic. It's just their personal opinion on the definition of marriage, but it has nothing to do with LGB people or same-sex relationships themselves.
I've read dozens of commentary along these lines these past few weeks, and it makes me wonder where it's all coming from. Sure, not everyone who showed up and voted "Yes" on Question 1 was going to go round up some queers and beat them up later that day. But is our definition of "prejudice" so narrow that it only includes the most violent and ridiculous of homophobes?
There are obvious corollaries with other movements here, as Coates points out:
The obvious parallel is civil rights. It's quite clear to me that Jim Crow in the South could not have been struck down by a majority vote; interracial marriage was banned in Alabama until 2000, and even then, some 40 percent of Alabamans voted to keep it. It's quite clear to me that Jim Crow in the North, enforced through housing segregation, restrictive covenants, block-busting realtors, and the federal government red-lining could not have been defeated by a majority vote.
But more than that, the sense that prejudice is actually not a common and potent force among straight people today, and white people then, that the group intent on discriminating is "essentially good" is the most remarkable parallel. Rod believes that most of the people voting against gay marriage aren't prejudiced against gay people per se. That reminds me of National Review, in 1957 arguing that most of the people intent on preventing blacks from voting weren't actually anti-black:
The central question that emerges--and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal--is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically?
National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.
Thus those who are known to be primarily motivated by ethnic prejudice were, in their time, seen by conservatives as guardians of civilization. Likewise heterosexuals now are presumed to be about something more than base prejudice.
The point of citing the Civil Rights Movement here isn't a banal and flat comparison between the Civil Rights Movement and the LGBT movement. Instead, it's to show that this cultural phenomenon, where people in positions of power and in the media make excuses for other people's prejudice, isn't at all new.
I think this comes from the way we've come to understand prejudice - it's not a cultural force that undoubtedly affects us all. Instead, it's a personal moral failing, and if you have racist thoughts or sexist thoughts or homophobic thoughts, you're just a bad person and that's that.
It reminds me of when I invited over an American friend to eat with Alberto, his cousin, and me. We were fine, eating great, drinking... until I leaned over and kissed Alberto. My friend said, "Ewwww," and then tried to backtrack and say he was just against PDA in general (this from a man who made out with quite a few women in nightclubs). We talked about it, about why he had a problem with two guys kissing but not two women kissing, and moved on with the evening.
After he left, I told Alberto, "Well, he's kind of homophobic," to which Alberto replied, "Mais c'est pas grave (But it's no big deal)."
Instead of making it about my friend being a bad person, it was a subject to be explored, but with a clear understanding that homophobia is toxic. In that way, it was more productive than other ways of handling the situation, that probably would have involved more glove-slapping.
But the point remains: if someone is motivated to go out and vote in one of these ballot initiatives, and they choose to vote to deny other people's participation in a legal institution for no rational reason, then they're homophobic. It's not the end of the world, they're not "hate-filled," and it doesn't mean that over half of America is bad people. But it does mean that they act on their prejudice, and that's wrong.
We need to be pointing it out, since it's not like people are going to start calling themselves prejudiced. But if it's made as a personal attack, it just gives people another reason to ignore it. And, believe me, people are just looking for a reason to ignore their own prejudice.