June 2006

First published in Between the Lines, June 15, 2006

“A vote for this amendment is a vote for bigotry, pure and simple.” So said Senator Ted Kennedy in response to the so-called “Marriage Protection Amendment,” which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman and preempts the right of states to interpret their own constitutions regarding marriage and civil unions. (The amendment failed on a procedural vote.)

Reaction to Kennedy’s remarks was swift and predictable. “Does he really want to suggest that over half of the United States Senate is a crew of bigots?” griped Senator Orrin Hatch. Columnist Maggie Gallagher scolded, “Conducting this debate in a spirit of mutual respect and civility would be a lot easier if gay marriage advocates stopped pretending that only fear, hatred or bigotry is at the root of these disagreements.”

It’s tempting to respond, “But’cha ARE, Blanche. Ya ARE a bigot.” Please resist the temptation for just a moment.

What is bigotry? As is often the case on controversial terms, the dictionary is of limited help here. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a bigot as “one who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.” Webster’s definition is similar: “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.”

Now there must be a difference between merely disagreeing with those who differ and being “intolerant” of them. By definition, everyone disagrees with “those who differ”–that’s just what it means to “differ.” And everyone is presumably “devoted” to his own opinions in some sense (otherwise, why hold them?).

So it’s not bigotry merely to disagree with someone: one must also be “intolerant” of those who differ. But what does that mean? That one wishes to silence them? Surely, that applies to many gay-rights opponents, who would like very much to push us back into the closet. That one is willing to use force to silence them? Surely, that’s too strong a criterion. Those who believe (for example) that the races should be separated are bigots even if they stop short of advocating using police power to achieve the separation.

It seems, rather, that to call someone a bigot is at least in part to express a value judgment. It is to suggest that the bigot’s views are beyond the pale. So the dictionary definition only gets half of the picture: it’s not merely that the bigot doesn’t tolerate those who differ, it is also that we ought not tolerate him. In a free society we should not silence him, but we should certainly shun him. Thus, to call someone a bigot is not just to say something about the bigot’s views, it’s to say something about your own.

Where does this leave us with respect to the marriage debate? Some opponents of marriage equality do indeed hold views worthy of the utmost contempt. Take for example the view that the government may imprison gays and lesbians for private, consensual acts of affection–a view held publicly by our own president, who endorsed anti-sodomy laws before the U.S. Supreme Court struck them down in 2003.

Or consider the view that gay partners should not be permitted to enter contracts allowing them to make health care and funeral decisions for each other–a view that will likely become part of Virginia’s constitution as voters decide this November on an amendment that, among other things, prohibits recognition of “a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage.” (Intolerant? Who are you calling intolerant?)

Certainly, not everyone who supports the federal marriage amendment deserves the epithet of “bigot.” Many are decent folk. Some endorse civil unions while opposing full-fledged marriage. A good number base their views on sincere religious convictions. But let’s also recognize that basing a view on religion doesn’t exempt it from critical moral scrutiny. (Slaveholders quoted the bible too.)

Let’s grant that calling people names–even ones that accurately express our convictions–is no substitute for reasoned argument. But let’s also grant that, in politics, leaders often influence citizens by drawing strong rhetorical lines. Think of George W. Bush’s frequent references to those who “hate freedom” in the 2004 presidential race. A fair and balanced assessment of the motives of the terrorists? Not really. Rhetorically powerful? You betcha.

Now, Kennedy didn’t exactly call supporters of the amendment bigots. Rather, he called the amendment “bigotry.” (It’s a fine line, not unlike “love the sinner/hate the sin.”) It’s certainly possible for a political maneuver to be unacceptably intolerant even though some of its supporters fail to realize as much.

But in calling the amendment “bigotry,” Kennedy was not merely describing it. He was also exhorting others to oppose it, in the strongest rhetorical terms. Amen to that.

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First published in Between the Lines on June 1, 2006.

I am writing this column at my desk at the Xianlin Hotel at Nanjing Normal University in China, where I am delivering a two-week series of lectures on business ethics. Prior to arriving here I visited Beijing, and in a week I will visit Hong Kong, where I will lecture on homosexuality. Thankfully, Hong Kong is far more receptive to the topic than the mainland: when my hosts in Nanjing proposed that I deliver a lecture on homosexuality, the university administration deemed it “too controversial.”

While homosexual conduct is not technically against the law in China, nor is it legally protected, and gay people are somewhat subject to the whims of local officials. Until 1997 Chinese gays could be prosecuted for “hooliganism,” a somewhat vague charge that was easily open to abuse. Until 2001 China’s psychiatric association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and the perception that gays are sick remains common.

But the main problem facing gay Chinese comes not from police or doctors but from family. Pressure to marry is strong, and most gays choose to remain closeted rather than disappoint their parents. As one student explained to me during a dinner conversation, “One of my friends is homosexy…”

“Homosexual,” I corrected, although I quite like the idea of being homosexy…

“…and it made his mother very sad.”

Another student piped in, “The only thing they can do is move far away. Some of them change their names to avoid disgracing family.”

Mind you, these same students told me that it’s not so bad to be gay in China anymore. “Most people think it’s nobody’s business,” they said, unwittingly touching upon a key aspect of the problem: gay invisibility. The issue is just not on people’s radar here.

Hence the puzzled look I received when I checked into an upscale Western hotel in Beijing and reassured the desk clerk–twice–that my partner and I only wanted one bed in the room.

Hence the fact that my students – whom I intend to come out to before leaving – have absolutely no clue that I’m gay. Despite the fact that I arrived with my partner. Despite the fact that I was introduced at my first lecture (with generous hyperbole) as a “great American expert on homosexuality.” Despite the fact that I keep asking them questions about being gay here.

More generally, I am struck by these students lack of maturity on sexual issues. Most of them are graduate students, with an average age of about 25. Yet they giggled through much of my lecture on sexual harassment.

At times I’ve just wanted to blurt out “I’m gay!” During one dinner one of my female students grinned when she saw me use my chopsticks. “Chinese say, when you hold chopsticks at far end you marry girl far away; when you hold chopsticks at near end you marry girl close by. You hold chopsticks in center – is good!”

I thought about switching my chopsticks to my left hand, but I’m quite certain that the point would have been much too subtle, even coming from the great American expert on homosexuality.

There are some slow signs of progress: the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001, China’s first undergraduate gay-studies course at the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai in 2005, and a gay cultural festival organized in Beijing last December. The festival, sadly, was shut down by police, a sign that the country still has a long way to go. It is also worth noting that my research on this column was hampered by limited access to certain Web sites. This is not yet a free country in the sense most Americans understand the term.

A couple of other striking things about China: it is not at all uncommon to see young men walking together with their arms draped around each other, in a manner typical of heterosexual lovebirds in the U.S. Here it’s considered a sign of “brotherhood.” It’s hard for me not to stare when they do this, although they stare at me for being white, so I guess we’re even. (Remember that for decades China was largely closed to foreigners.)

Nor is it uncommon, apparently, for heterosexual males to remark on other males’ good looks. One taxi driver told our student interpreters several times that he thought my partner Mark was handsome. (Can you imagine this from an American cab driver?) Several male students have said the same to me.

“I’m not handsome,” I want to respond. “I’m homosexy!”

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