Gay Marriage and The Bigot Card

First published at on May 1, 2009

Maggie Gallagher at the National Organization for Marriage—producers of the unintentionally hilarious “Gathering Storm” ad—has been mentioning “footnote 26” of the Iowa marriage decision quite a bit lately.

For example, she tells conservative blogger Rod Dreher that same-sex marriage requires “the rejection of the idea that children need a mom and dad as a cultural norm—or probably even as a respectable opinion. That’s become very clear for people who have the eyes to see it. (See e.g. footnote 26 of the Iowa decision).”

Elsewhere she describes the footnote as “the most heartbreaking sentence” of the decision.

What is this ominous, heartbreaking footnote? The offending bit is here:

“The research appears to strongly support the conclusion that same-sex couples
foster the same wholesome environment as opposite-sex couples and suggests that the
traditional notion that children need a mother and a father to be raised into healthy, well adjusted adults is based more on stereotype than anything else.”

So says the Iowa Supreme Court in a unanimous decision.

So too says the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Child Welfare League of America, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychological Association—in fact, every major health and welfare organization that has examined the issue. The Iowa Supreme Court has mainstream professional opinion solidly on its side.

But to say that the opposing view is based on “stereotype” attacks our opponents’ last remotely plausible-sounding secular argument. No wonder they’re getting defensive.

The use of the word “stereotype” is a large part of what irks them. Those who rely more on stereotype than evidence are being unreasonable. And in the extreme, those who cling to unreasonable views are bigots. Elsewhere in the Dreher interview Gallagher states,

“Same-sex marriage is founded on a lie about human nature: ‘there is no difference between same-sex and opposite sex unions and you are a bigot if you disagree.’”

Indeed, Gallagher uses the term “bigot” and its cognates no fewer than five times in the short interview.

A bigot if you disagree? Neither the Iowa Supreme Court nor most marriage-equality advocates make any such sweeping statement. On the contrary, footnote 26 is attached the following:

“On the other hand, we acknowledge the existence of reasoned opinions that
dual-gender parenting is the optimal environment for children. These opinions, while thoughtful and sincere, were largely unsupported by reliable scientific studies.”

“Reasoned opinions” which are “thoughtful and sincere.” That’s about as far from “you’re a bigot if you disagree” as one can get.

Marriage-equality opponents are increasingly complaining that we’re calling them bigots. This leads to a kind of double-counting of our arguments: For any argument X that we offer, opponents complain both that we’re saying X and that we’re saying that anyone who disagrees with X is a bigot.

Then, instead of responding to X—that is, debating the issue on the merits—they focus on the alleged bigotry charge and grumble about being called names.

I don’t deny that some of us do call them names (sometimes deserved, sometimes not). Yet even those who call them “bigots”—such as Frank Rich in his New York Times op-ed “The Bigots’ Last Hurrah”—often engage the substance as well. Increasingly, our opponents ignore the substance in favor of touting their alleged persecution.

Personally, I think the term “bigot” should be used sparingly. Many of those who oppose marriage equality are otherwise decent people who can and sometimes do respond to reasoned dialogue.

To call such persons bigots is not merely inaccurate; it’s a conversation-stopper. It says, “your views are beyond the pale, and I won’t dignify them with discussion.”

But let’s not pretend that any one side in this debate has a corner on conversation-stoppers. There are plenty of people on Gallagher’s side who consider us “deviants” or “perverts,” and those terms don’t exactly welcome dialogue either. Neither does Gallagher’s calling us “liars”—as in, “same-sex marriage is based on a lie about human nature.”

There’s a more general problem here, and it’s hardly unique to the gay-rights debate. Suppose you’ve reflected on some controversial issue and adopted a particular position. Presumably, you’ve decided that it’s the most reasonable position to hold. How, then, do you explain the fact that seemingly reasonable people deny it?

There are several possibilities, most of them not very flattering. Perhaps your opponents are inattentive, or not very bright, or have logical blind spots, or are swayed by superstition.

Or perhaps they’re just being bigots. It happens.

(Interestingly, some philosophers have suggested on this basis that there’s no such thing as a “reasonable disagreement,” strictly speaking. If you accept P but think that denying P is “reasonable,” then you should either switch to not-P or become agnostic about the issue.)

I don’t pretend to understand why seemingly reasonable and decent people adopt what strikes me as an obviously wrongheaded position on marriage equality. I think the reasons are various and complex, though they typically involve a distortion of rationality caused by other commitments, such as religious bias.

But I also recognize that my opponents do, or should, wonder the same thing about me—and the ever-growing number of reasonable and decent Americans who support marriage equality.

Which leaves us with a few choices.

(1) We can call each other crazy and stupid, or bigots, or deviants. This is generally not helpful.

(2) We can pretend that we’re above all that, but complain that the other side is doing it. This, I fear, is what Gallagher is doing, and it strikes me as equally unhelpful. It would be akin to my saying that Gallagher’s position is that you should oppose same-sex marriage, and if you don’t, you’re a liar (or a heathen or a pervert or whatever).

(3) We can actually engage the substance of each other’s positions.

I can understand why those with poorly supported positions would want to avoid (3). That doesn’t necessarily make them bigots, but it doesn’t reflect very well on them, either.