Video surfaced of Alec Baldwin - who had an MSNBC show for a month - calling a journalist a "cocksucking fag." Baldwin lied about what he said, then backtracked, and then claimed he didn't know "cocksucking" was an anti-gay slur (kind of like that woman who claimed she didn't know the n-word had anything to do with race). He has a long history of such comments, and MSNBC took the guy's show away, although we don't know why and it could have been because he wasn't getting good ratings.
Now, one thing that is sadly not surprising at all is that quite a few people have come to Baldwin's defense. A few straight people, like Joan Rivers and Wes Alwan, have made persuasive defenses like "Everybody's something, so why don't we all just calm down" and "It is just as ludicrous to condemn people for being afraid of or repulsed by homosexuality as it is to condemn them for having violent impulses." Some gay people think that his advocacy of same-sex marriage rights is enough to outweigh his propensity to go into homophobic tirades, and there isn't a direct response to that, all I can do is wonder why some gay people are so tolerant of being treated like dirt.
In short: discussing whether Baldwin's actions are homophobic is silly. They are. But why anyone would argue otherwise, now there's an interesting question.
Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests a thought experiment:
If I were to be found to, in anger, repeatedly employ anti-Hispanic slurs, to refer to my enemies as "wetbacks" or "illegals," if I were found to address an actual Latino journalist with the term and threaten to say "kick his ass back across the border," and then having lost my job here at The Atlantic blame "the fundamentalist wing of La Raza," I think you would be justified in calling me a bigot. I don't think my support for, say, the DREAM Act, or my horror at Arizona's immigration laws would save me.
Or if Rachel Maddow were found to have a long history of throwing around the n-word, would anyone care if she supported the Voting Rights Act?
Then why are things so different for homophobic bullying?
Part of the explanation is probably that people just don't think that homophobia is all that big of a deal, but that can only be part of the problem. The issue here is that people don't want Baldwin labeled homophobic, so they concede that homophobia is undesirable.
Instead, they just don't want certain actions - shouting "faggot" and threatening violence to perceived sissies - deemed homophobic. It's a strange line of reasoning because, to me, if those actions aren't homophobic, then homophobia doesn't exist.
I can think of three sources for the opposition to calling Baldwin's actions homophobic.
First, it's Baldwin himself: he's straight, white, cis, male, anglo, rich, famous, powerful.... In short, the sort of person who gets to do the accusing, but is never himself accused. Moreover, he's liberal, which inspires tribal loyalty among the people on the political spectrum who should be more concerned about these actions.
Second, mainstream LGBT organizing for at least two decades has focused on developing lists of legislation and getting them passed. Without expressing an opinion on how that works in the legislative world, it's just silly to take those lists into the outside world and think that they have the power to define morality. That few people want Baldwin thrown in jail for shouting "faggot" does not mean that it's appropriate behavior or that it isn't damaging. It just means that we're not going to try repealing the First Amendment anytime soon.
That said, these lists do hold a certain amount of power when it comes to thinking of what kind of change is possible and delineating between personal and collective problems. It's narrow thinking as a result of lazy thinking, and lazy thinking is common enough for me to believe that it has inserted itself here.
Third, many people - of all genders and sexualities - could probably identify with Baldwin here: gay people are a minority, and protecting minorities is something people ought to do. But being a fag is to be unmanly in a culture that worships masculinity, so that's something you can use to attack others.
At a job I had a long time ago, a co-worker was taunting me into doing something (don't remember what) and said, "What, are you gay?" I answered in the affirmative, and his demeanor changed entirely. "Oh, that's really cool. I have lots of friends who are gay."
There's a disconnect here, and I think that people, mostly straight people, can empathize with it. Accepting gays as a minority that needs a few laws changed does not question their identities and self-worths, which are constructed around a certain flavor of masculinity and femininity. Baldwin can go on TV and sincerely defend LGBT rights as defined by a neat, clean little list of bills and actions that one isn't supposed to do, while never actually wondering what the mentality was that caused the problem of homophobia in the first place. (Or maybe he isn't sincere, and he definitely wouldn't be the first TV personality to reinvent his politics for career reasons. Who knows.)
Many people need that disconnect because justice is important to their sense of self, and the alternative to thinking of themselves as basically fair people is a whole lot of psychic pain. Admitting that shouting "faggot" and taunting sissies is homophobic is admitting to having been an incredibly unfair person for a large part of their lives. Considering how rampant casual homophobia is, the population in general has a powerful incentive for them to defy logic and assert that shouting "faggot" and taunting sissies isn't homophobic.
In short, a lot of egos see this as their only out, but they're only really looking for an out, not to actually have any real discussion.
It's all too evident in the way Baldwin dismissed his critics as "the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy" (referring to - contain your laughter - GLAAD and Andrew Sullivan). Translation: they're not mainstream, their opinion is not relevant, they cannot determine how I feel about myself.
If his goal was simply to argue that they misinterpreted his comments (he claims he didn't know "cocksucker" or "queen" had gay implications, and that in one of the recordings in which he says "faggot," he said "maggot"), then what does it matter if Sullivan and GLAAD are mainstream or extreme gay rights activists? But if his goal was to attack their ability to make a judgment even if they have the correct facts, then his comment makes perfect sense from his perspective.