In the Name of Our Humanity: The Failure of Tolerance for LGBTQ People

There’s been an instructive imbroglio flaring between a few men in the middle echelons of the American commentariat. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat wrote about the “terms of surrender” that he and other opponents of LGBT  marriage equality were currently negotiating against what he sees as gay rights’ relentless march, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern forcefully declaims the dissembling disingenuousness inherent to the piece, and then a couple of other men from The Week have a go on the merry go round, with Michael Brendan Dougherty making a pluralist-inspired paean for “religious liberty,” and Damon Linker going further and asseverating that same sex marriage supporters are “the real bigots” in this debate.

Such spats are a commonplace in the world of commentary, but this particular one caught my interest because the ideas at work—particularly as expressed by Douthat, Linker, and Dougherty—which suggest a moral equivalence between LGBTQ advocates and prejudiced business owners, are alarming for their pretensions to reasonableness.  Each advances a perverse version of pluralism that deliberately confuses dehumanization with resistance to dehumanization. In the process, they eschew any notion of moral judgement, throwing their hands up as if to say “who are we to judge” a person’s prejudice. They seem to suggest that if we are to have same sex marriage, then we must also “tolerate” a sacred right to discriminate against people who avail themselves of that new liberty–as if a perverse, amoral Newtonian physics must prevail upon social relations in the wake of same sex marriage: Every right must be met by an equal and opposite prejudice.

These arguments, though centered around same-sex marriage, also betray an alarming set of broader assumptions—namely that the “gay rights” battle is all but over, and we must merely decide how mercifully to treat the losing Christian conservatives. This is in spite of the fact that marriage is hardly the only, or even most important right yet to be won by our community.

Consider Linker, a man who supports same-sex marriage, and the thesis he advances in The Week:

As I’ve argued before, liberal democracy is a political theory designed to allow people who disagree about the highest human goods to live together in peace and civility despite their differences. Like it or not — and a certain militant class of gay marriage proponents clearly do not like it at all — traditionalist religious believers are our fellow citizens and neighbors, and the United States is as much their country as it is ours.

To be quite clear, no one is disputing that. I fully, and warmly accept the citizenship of my traditionalist religious neighbors—the problem, as it always has been, is that they fail to acknowledge us as equal citizens. What these men are arguing for, using Stern’s critique as a foil, is the idea that “we” queer folks are being uncharitable in victory. Dougherty’s argument is perhaps the most radical, likening LGBT rights to an intrusion of the state upon the private rights of religious discriminators. He calls this state-sanctioned protection “the mission of the state.”

Untangling the misconceptions here (beginning first and foremost with the fact that LGBTQ people’s interests have almost never overlapped with ‘the mission of the state’) would certainly far exceed my weekly word-count (and no one wants that), but let us make a valiant effort to try for a condensed version.

Privatizing Prejudice

I wrote this week for RH Reality Check about the ways in which these “religious freedom” laws constitute a “crowdsourcing of bigotry”—devolving discriminatory power from the state to individuals, effectively privatizing the reinforcement of prejudice. Rather than passing anti-marriage equality constitutional amendments, we now have the state invigorating the private prejudices of individuals, garlanding them with a protected-status that concomitantly denies LGBTQ citizens that same protection (the recent laws being mooted in Arizona, Kansas, Idaho, Georgia and elsewhere being good examples of such initiatives that were only defeated after an aggressive outcry).  The irritating and even cowardly propensity for vague platitudes among those arguing for this debauched and petty form of “religious freedom” is made abundantly clear by these men’s articles. They fail to engage directly and meaningfully with the form of discrimination they are minimizing or defending, at best suggesting that LGBTQ people refused service at one business can take their trade elsewhere.

What this ignores is that this is an unreasonable burden that is not placed on similarly-situated heterosexual people. But above and beyond that, the prejudice in question is inescapably premised on an idea that is neither innocent nor fair: the idea that heterosexual unions are superior to those of queer people. It should trouble us that these “religious freedom” laws are premised on that incredible and unworthy belief. Dougherty and Linker’s suggestions constitute the surrender of our judgement on an altar of abstraction. They deliberately ask us to not think too carefully about the merits of these ideas, whose competition they see as an inherent good that ought to continue in perpetuity—like dialectical materialism without the payoff, one is left to suppose.

They seek to rob us of our ability to morally discern the difference between, say, civil disobedience athwart apartheid and civil disobedience athwart another person’s humanity.

Linker wishes us to believe that there is a difference between his Platonic ideal of a bigot (“Someone who considers homosexuality an abomination that should be a criminal offense”) and the kinder, gentler intolerant who “professes to hold no animus towards homosexuals and yet opposes gay marriage because she conceives of marriage… as ‘a religious sacrament with procreative purpose.’” There is, yes, a difference of degree here that matters in our ethical calculus. But there is no difference in kind; both constitute prejudice, neither ought to be enthroned as a sacred right, impervious to public scrutiny.

The nub of that belief is that heterosexual practise is endowed with a certain moral superiority. It is loosely analogous to arguing that you have no problem with people of colour as such, but that since you believe marriage is a religious sacrament for the procreative advancement of one’s race, interracial marriage ought to be verboten. If we can see the moral bankruptcy there, we can see it with the argument Linker advances in the name of an ethically limp “tolerance.”

No Surrender

What is also ignored is the grand old elephant squat in the room: the fact that same sex marriage is not the be all end all of LGBT rights. Trans people’s healthcare access, rights for the queer undocumented and immigration detainees, protections for the LGBT incarcerated, trans sex workers, and the seropositive, the lack of employment discrimination or housing discrimination protection, the high suicide rate of LGBT people and the ongoing plague of anti-queer bullying in schools… This list does plod dreadfully on, and these are not idle distractions: these are the issues. Even if same sex marriage were legalized in all fifty states tomorrow,  we’d still have a very long way to go.

Douthat’s mealy-mouthed proclamation of “surrender” clangs with a sonorous hollowness as religious conservatives fought with hale spirits out in California, seeking to mobilise the public in outlawing trans students’ equal rights there, or against Jane Doe in Colorado simply because she used the washroom at her school. Indeed, this screed hardly feels like a supine waving of a white flag.

It does not feel like much of a “surrender” to me, Mr. Douthat.

We come at last to the limits of the paradigm of “tolerance” espoused by some of The Week writers. Democracy was only ever a means to an end: freedom. The liberty to use one’s personal power to crib the humanity of others is a corruption of democratic values—as is the bleak moral equivalence that suggests my humanity is of equal standing with another person’s bigotry. And yes, contra Linker’s insinuations about the misuse of the word bigotry, to believe that queer unions are invalid, socially harmful, and unworthy of service is a belief that allows hatred to take root, lending fire to more direct forms of prejudice like hate crimes. I stand by calling such beliefs bigotry.

Liberalism is not relativism.

We do not become more fully human, nor more fully citizens by discriminating—though carefully abstracted democratic rhetoric can be used to justify it, certainly. But when we are specific, when we have the courage of our convictions to name our means and desired ends for what they are, then we can get somewhere.

To wit, I have never said that Christians should be stripped of their faith, or their right to practice that faith publicly. As a woman of faith myself, I have only ever extended my hand  to share this country with them in sisterhood, not molest them out of their religious beliefs. I do this merely as someone who wants the core of her humanity respected and not placed on the same level as hatred or entitled petulance. I also ask, with some humility: why must discrimination be essential to your definition of humanity? Can your exercise of faith only nourish itself upon the dehumanisation of others? Or is there, perhaps, a larger universe that you are denying yourself?

Every single issue I named above—from dignity for LGBT prisoners, to a publicly enshrined right to transgender healthcare, to a program that alleviates queer poverty—takes nothing away from anyone else: it adds something to our civic mosaic; something beautiful. What the Christian rightists are actually losing is the benefit of that richer, more colourful society where whole classes of people are not stuck in a death spiral of survival and able to actually live up to their full potential, contributing their distinctiveness to our wider society.

That forgotten future is what we risk losing.


Katherine Cross



Katherine Cross believes “equality” is more than just a word.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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