You can learn a lot about the private fears of the anti-gay-marriage bloc by some of its more contorted public statements after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling last week in Obergefell v. Hodges.
One of the ruling’s most interesting side effects has been the inadvertent rhetorical pressure it exerts on social conservatives. Before Obergefell, if you were a homophobe living next to a gay couple in Arizona, you could always point to another state and say: “See? You have options. Go get married in Iowa. In the meantime, please keep it to yourself. Also please stay away from my kids.”
Now that such couples can get married anywhere in America, the whole “keep it to yourself” line is defunct, and the script is suddenly upended: You can be as homophobic as you like! Just please keep it in the privacy of your home and don’t rub it in my face. Pre-Obergefell, gay marriage was by default an implicit indulgence; now it is an explicit right. By the same token: Pre-Obergefell, homophobia could express itself in legal briefs, homilies from straight commentators on the virtues of the nuclear family, above all in the “slippery slope” school of oratory. Homophobia was the formal default. Now, quite suddenly, it is not, and so its modes of expression become more tortured—and more obvious.
As the decision came down, so did the façade: When you complain about gay marriage now, there’s no getting around it—you’re complaining about gays.
Homophobia in the era of gay-marriage-for-all still dresses itself in the hair shirt of a martyr, but now it must perform extravagant rhetorical gymnastics. Take Michael Gerson’s aggrieved response in the Washington Post, so rich a performance in suffering that it deserves a central place in the Museum of Forgotten Apologies for Bigotry. His piece is titled, “The Next Crucial Question on Gay Marriage,” and that question is not, “Where are Susie and Luanne registered?” In fact, it’s not really a question about gay marriage at all, but rather about whether straight Catholics will still be OK:
Will the state regard interactions with institutions that embody traditional views to be contaminating? How will grants to Catholic anti-poverty programs or to students attending evangelical colleges be affected?
Those are, undeniably, questions. They’re not really about gay marriage, though, and their premise—that the New Gay Cabal will tear the church down to its cornerstone—is likewise rooted less in fact than in phobia.
Gerson would have us believe that conspiracy is afoot, but he takes time to exonerate the acceptably bourgeois moral reasoning of gay thinkers such as Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan, who argued for gay marriage on ostensibly conservative grounds. These two, Gerson assures his terrified audience, “are genuine pluralists. They do not intend the advance of gay rights to become a campaign to defund and delegitimize traditional institutions.” Note what Gerson is really saying here: There is a campaign to de-fund and de-legitimize traditional institutions. It just so happens that not ALL gays want to burn white churches.
This is brilliant misdirection. Gerson takes an epochal history of gay-bashing and uses it to prophesy an epidemic of hetero-Christian-bashing (a non-existent epidemic that is, we’re warned, perpetually imminent). We are urged at once to congratulate and to pity the plight of social regressives—“It is often the fate of conservatives to be concerned about the fire code and occupancy limit at someone else’s party”—as though he weren’t describing a species of fascism born of a sense of moral superiority. The author cedes perfunctory kudos to the courageous gays who, “often at considerable risk and cost, humanized an abstract debate” (if you ever thought it was abstract, that says far more about you than it does about the debate). But of course Gerson promptly deflects our admiration for actual gay people, crediting the real activist courage to “fictional gay characters” in Glee and Modern Family. An insincere tribute to the civil-rights accomplishments of 20th-century gays would be formally incomplete without trivializing the issue into sitcom morality.
Then there is “Middle America—already inclined to live and let live,” Gerson claims, having apparently never met Tracee Knapp, secretary of the Republican Party of Ringgold County, Iowa. Knapp, a Huckabee supporter, spoke quite freely to two of Gerson’s colleagues following the Obergefell decision: “I’m just sick of secular things,” Knapp told the Post’s Phil Rucker and Robert Costa. “Homosexual issues are on the television all the time. I’ll be honest—we live on a farm. We have to have a bull and a cow to make a baby. We have to have a rooster and a hen. Maybe some Republicans need to come live on a farm.”
Elsewhere at the Huckabee rally, another magnanimous live-and-let-live Midwesterner named Tawny Waske held forth: “As a Christian, we’re taught to love the sinner, not the sin. But tolerance only goes so far.” For instance, Waske said, what’s the deal with Caitlyn Jenner? “Is it him? Her? It? I don’t even know what to call it,” she said. “You know, don’t shove this down my throat.”
That last phrase didn’t just materialize out of the sweet Iowa air—Waske hears it 18 times a day from right-wing media professionals who spend half their time disclaiming homophobia and the other half perpetrating it. Representative Barney Frank is a perceptive commentator on hatred masquerading as policy sobriety, largely because he’s encountered so much of that hatred himself. (You might well disagree with Frank’s characterization of Justice Antonin Scalia as a “homophobe,” in which case I invite you to mark each instance of a deadly sin in Scalia’s recent dissents. If you arrive at fewer than four, I suspect you’ve overlooked something.)
After Obergefell, though, that hatred no longer has the luxury of the masquerade. Sure, you can talk about the erosion of the nuclear family, or you can worry in public about where babies will come from now, or—as Gerson has chosen to do—you can gnash your teeth over the future of white churches. But as the decision has come down, so has the façade: When you complain about gay marriage now, there’s no getting around it—you’re complaining about gays.
Let’s return to that aggrieved question that keeps Gerson up at night, the great and noble task of preserving white churches. Gerson and his tribe are basically saying, “Please don’t start burning them.” But right now, a lot of black churches are burning. The ironies, both historical and contemporary, are manifold. Gerson is too frightened to notice.
Lead photo: (Photo: Lindsay Douglas/Shutterstock)