It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t, and you get your choice of punch lines. So…these college students walk into a mom-and-pop bakery in Indianapolis with an order for rainbow-colored cupcakes and cookies. Seems they’re celebrating National Coming Out Day. The bakery owners turn down the job, saying it violates their moral principles.
Punch line 1: The students, though unhappy, take their order to another bakery and tell reporters that the incident shows the need for continued dialogue between gays and the community.
Punch line 2: The city opens a discrimination investigation against the bakery to determine whether it should be kicked out of the city-owned space it has occupied for two decades. “I’d hate to lose them,” says a local official, “but we can’t tolerate any kind of discrimination like that.”
In real life the story ends with both punch lines. And many gay folks would have no problem with that. Why tolerate discrimination?
For the gay equality movement, however, punch line 1 is the right answer—and punch line 2 is positively dangerous.
This is a new development. It stems from the fact that we—gay Americans and our straight allies—have won the central argument for gay rights. As a result, we must change. Much of what the gay rights movement has taken for granted until now, and much that has worked for us in the past, is now wrong and will hurt us. The turn we now need to execute will be the hardest maneuver the movement has ever had to make, because it will require us to deliberately leave room for homophobia in American society. We need to allow some discrimination and relinquish the “zero tolerance” mind-set. Paradoxical but true: We need to give our opponents the time and space they need to let us win.
Let me explain.
First, what I’m not saying: that the fight for equality is finished. It isn’t, of course. Most states prohibit gay marriage. The military ban on gays serving openly has proved frustratingly persistent. Gay kids still face routine harassment and bullying, as we’ve all painfully observed with multiple news reports of suicides this year.
But we all know momentum is on our side. And even more significant is the source of that momentum. In 2010 the most important gay rights story that you probably never read came from Gallup: “Americans’ support for the moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relations crossed the symbolic 50% threshold in 2010. At the same time, the percentage calling these relations ‘morally wrong’ dropped to 43%, the lowest in Gallup’s decade-long trend.”
Since—well, since forever, the American majority regarded homosexuality as immoral, and the only question was whether to tolerate or repress it. In 2008, however, the lines converged, at 48% on each side. Today, same-sex relations are deemed morally acceptable by a margin of 52% to 43%. The “moral values” argument is on our side.
This is a watershed in gay Americans’ relations with our country. The belief that homosexuality is morally wrong undergirds all the other problems that homosexuals face. When the foundation of moral disapproval crumbles, so, in time, must all the superstructures of discrimination and stigma. To a majority of the public, the “morally deviant” shoe will be on the antigay foot.
So let’s pinch ourselves and say it: American homosexuals and our allies are entering a new and unprecedented phase. For the first time, we are emerging into majority status.
Majority support does not necessarily make the “all accelerator, no brakes” approach ineffective, but it does change the cost-benefit calculation. Pushing on every front at once is no longer cost-free. Far from it: To the public, a shrill, aggressive majority appears bullying and menacing, not plucky and righteous. Worst of all, it looks oppressive.
Oppressive? Gays as oppressor? Am I kidding?
The irony is rich. Nothing gays have ever said or done to our opponents comes close to the harassment and stigmatization that homosexuals have endured (and, among the young, often still do endure). Still, gay rights opponents have been quick, in fact quicker than our side, to understand that the dynamic is changing. They can see the moral foundations of their aversion to homosexuality crumbling beneath them. Their only hope is to turn the tables by claiming they, not gays, are the real victims of oppression. Seeing that we have moved the “moral deviant” shoe onto their foot, they are going to move the “civil rights violator” shoe onto ours.
So they have developed a narrative that goes like this:
Gay rights advocates don’t just want legal equality. They want to brand anyone who disagrees with them, on marriage or anything else, as the equivalent of a modern-day segregationist. If you think homosexuality is immoral or changeable, they want to send you to be reeducated, take away your license to practice counseling, or kick your evangelical student group off campus. If you object to facilitating same-sex weddings or placing adoptees with same-sex couples, they’ll slap you with a fine for discrimination, take away your nonprofit status, or force you to choose between your job and your conscience. If you so much as disagree with them, they call you a bigot and a hater.
They won’t stop until they stigmatize your core religious teachings as bigoted, ban your religious practices as discriminatory, and drive millions of religious Americans right out of the public square. But their target is broader than just religion. Their policy is one of zero tolerance for those who disagree with them, and they will use the law to enforce it.
At bottom, they are not interested in sharing the country. They want to wipe us out.
A lot of gay people have trouble taking this narrative seriously, partly because in its more extreme forms it sounds so paranoid and nutty—as when Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, recently said, “If this case [overruling California’s ban on gay marriage] stands, we’ll have gone, in one generation, from 1962, when the Bible was banned in public schools, to religious beliefs being banned in America.” It would be a false comfort, though, to suppose that the gays-as-oppressors narrative can’t and won’t take root among moderates and thoughtful, mainstream conservatives—people like Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, former Bush administration officials, who write, “If [gay] marriage is deemed to be a civil right—and if opponents are therefore deemed to be the equivalent of modern-day segregationists—churches may eventually be compelled to act in a way that complies with the spirit and letter of ‘anti-discrimination’ law rather than with orthodox Christian teaching.” Stated that way, the claim happens to be true. Nor must we suppose it is a mere stratagem, cooked up to scare open donors’ pocketbooks. It is a product of a genuine and widespread fear of marginalization and stigmatization on the cultural right—and it is all the more biting as a result.
In a messy world where rights often collide, we can’t avoid arguing about where legitimate dissent ends and intolerable discrimination begins. What we can do is avoid a trap the other side has set for us. Incidents of rage against “haters,” verbal abuse of opponents, boycotts of small-business owners, absolutist enforcement of antidiscrimination laws: Those and other “zero-tolerance” tactics play into the “homosexual bullies” narrative, which is why our adversaries publicize them so energetically.
The other side, in short, is counting on us to hand them the victimhood weapon. Our task is to deny it to them.
In the gay community, taking any kind of nonabsolutist attitude toward discrimination is controversial, to say the least—largely because we carry in our heads the paradigm of racial discrimination. In today’s America, though, the racial model is overkill for gays. Injustice persists, unquestionably, but the opposition is dying on its feet and discrimination is in decline. And, unlike white supremacism, disapproval of homosexuality is still intrinsic to orthodox doctrines of all three major religions. That will change and is already changing (younger evangelicals are much more accepting of same-sex relations than are their parents), but for now it is a fact we must live with.
Before we shrug and reply, “So what if it’s religious? It’s still bigotry, it’s still intolerable,” we need to remember that religious liberty is America’s founding principle. It is embedded in the country’s DNA, not to mention in the First Amendment. If we pick a fight with it or, worse, let ourselves be maneuvered into a fight with it, our task will become vastly harder.
Remember too that the battle for full equality will be won in the political center. Liberals are with us already; homophobes will never come around. We have made progress by persuading the persuadable center that our loves and our families pose no harm to others, no threat to mainstream values. Especially now that majority support is swinging behind us, going the extra mile to be reasonable, and to seem reasonable, is essential.
Not every religious accommodation is valid, and it’s not always clear where to draw all the lines. But the smart approach is to bend toward accommodation, not away from it, whenever we can live with the costs. Of course, any kind of discrimination exacts a cost, if only to our dignity. Tolerating intolerance is painful. But the Indiana University students who took their cupcake order to another bakery and called for dialogue got it exactly right. If evangelical students want to have a campus Christian group that requires allegiance to biblical (read: antigay) principles, we can live with that. If Catholic Charities doesn’t want to place children for adoption with same-sex couples in Massachusetts but lots of other agencies will make the placement, we can live with that too. Even if you don’t happen to believe, as I do, that religious liberty is, like gay equality, a basic human right, the pragmatic case for religious accommodations is clear: Being seen as a threat to religious freedom is not in our interest.
Rhetorical recalibration is equally important. To a surprising extent, gay rights opponents have made headway with the claim that we brand them as bigots every time they open their mouths. Too often we do throw around charges of bigotry promiscuously. Too often we fail to distinguish between people who loathe us because we’re gay (a small number, nowadays) and people who disagree with us on marriage, say, or military service (a much larger number). Intentionally or not, we send a message that anyone who isn’t with us all the way is a hater.
There are real antigay bigots out there, but they are fading in number and strength. The people who matter now are the persuadables who are struggling to believe they can make room for us on equal terms even if they cannot agree with our “lifestyle”—people who wish us no harm but who are struggling to adapt old ideas to a new situation and who worry about the dizzying pace of cultural change. Our job is to open their eyes, not slap their face.
No, I’m not saying that the b word should be banished like the n word or that we all have to agree on who does and does not deserve to be called a hater. All I am suggesting is that with majority standing must come a mental adjustment: a recognition that rhetorical overkill is a weapon that backfires, one that our opponents are already using to paint us as the real bigots, the real haters, the real threat to minority rights and tolerant values.
Recalibrating is not a retreat. It is a strategy. True, it treats our opponents with more graciousness and compassion than they ever showed to us—but we want equality, not revenge. Obviously, we should criticize our opponents. But we should not try to use law or social coercion to shut them up or force them to repudiate their views, and we should reserve extreme rhetoric for extreme cases. If they want to turn their backs on same-sex weddings or claim that homosexuality is a sin or a disease, well, let them. The real point of the gay rights movement is not just to secure equality for homosexuals; it is to maximize all Americans’ freedom to be true to themselves—the freedom we were denied. The last thing a movement of former pariahs should seek is to inflict the same agony on someone else.
The gay rights movement will have to show unusual foresight to be an exception. Our every instinct will be to press our advantage, exploit our momentum, and drive the other side into the sea. The straight world has ginned up any and every shabby excuse to hurt gay people, with organized religion often leading the way. And now we’re supposed to be tolerant?
Well, yes. As gays become a majority, the burden of toleration—and it is a burden—shifts to us. This is the most difficult adjustment a minority rights movement can make. Our opponents are betting we will fail to make it. In fact, that is now pretty much their entire strategy.
Gay Americans and our allies are not ready to think of ourselves as a majority. And we are not fully there yet, certainly not solidly. But the benefits and, yes, burdens of majority status are descending with wonderful speed. We will miss the turn if we don’t start braking now.