The Majority Report
BY Jonathan Rauch
November 19 2010 4:00 AM ET
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.