First published as “Angry Lesbians and Right-Wing Nutcases” in Between the Lines on January 26, 2006
In a few weeks I’ll be doing a “Michigan tour” debating same-sex marriage with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family. People sometimes ask me whether I ever encounter hostile audience members at these debates (I do).
“Which kind do you fear the most?” they press. “Rednecks? Bible thumpers? Skinheads?”
Actually, none of the above. The audience members that scare me the most—that strike fear into my very core—are the Angry Lesbians.
I’m only half-joking here. You know the type I’m talking about. They need not be female, much less lesbian. But they are technically on my side, and they’re pissed off.
They’re angry at my opponent for his anti-gay views (both real and imagined). They’re angry at me for my willingness to engage in friendly dialogue with that opponent. They’re angry at the event organizers for setting the whole thing up, as well as for not providing (take your pick):
(a) Free parking.
(b) Better seating.
(c) More Q&A time.
(d) Universal health care.
They’re angry at the world generally, and they want you and everyone else to know it.
There are times when I say sincerely, “Thank heaven for Angry Lesbians.” (I capitalize the term as a reminder that it represents a character type. As I’ve already remarked, AL’s need not actually be lesbians: some of the best examples I’ve known are men.)
AL’s perform an important service: they jolt us out of our complacency. They remind us that the issues I debate from a comfortable dais, in a well-lit, climate-controlled room, can have life-or-death implications. Yes, AL’s make us uncomfortable, but sometimes we should be uncomfortable.
Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes it’s nice to sit back comfortably and have a civil academic discussion.
I say that not just because I enjoy such discussions. I say it because such discussions can be conducive to our community’s shared goals—far more so, I think, than simply screaming at our opponents all the time.
Let’s be clear about something: I don’t debate Glenn Stanton to convince Glenn Stanton (although I’d like to believe I have some positive effect on him). And I don’t debate Glenn Stanton to convince the Angry Lesbians. I debate Glenn Stanton to convince the fence-sitters: ordinary people who make up the bulk of society. They might think same-sex marriage is a little weird, but they might also be willing to support it if we make a strong case.
Glenn’s presence helps me to do that even better, since it gives me a chance to create “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error,” in the words of the great liberal theorist John Stuart Mill. Mill understood that truth is durable: it need not fear open dialogue. “Got a counterargument? Bring it on!” Mill might say.
“But doesn’t debating someone from Focus on the Family give legitimacy to that side? You wouldn’t debate someone from the KKK, would you?” I’ve often been asked.
No, I wouldn’t. But there are at least two key differences here. One (and it’s a biggie) is that Glenn Stanton does not want us killed. There’s a serious difference between opposing same-sex marriage and advocating violence against gays. Although it may be tempting to label all of our opponents as “right-wing nutcases,” doing so is both inaccurate and irresponsible.
Granted, these debates don’t occur in a vacuum, and some of Stanton’s supporters may choose to warp his message. But the debates provide an opportunity for us jointly to prevent such misinterpretation—indeed, it’s rare that I get a chance to talk to his supporters otherwise. Granted, too, that the policies he advocates are not merely wrongheaded; they’re harmful. They needlessly make people’s lives more difficult, in serious and palpable ways. The debates provide an opportunity to point this out, forcefully and publicly.
The other reason the KKK analogy falls apart is political reality. The KKK is indisputably a fringe group, reviled by most Americans. Not so for same-sex marriage opponents, who have won in every state where they’ve put anti-gay constitutional amendments before voters. Like it or not, we have yet to capture the mainstream on this issue.
I’d like to think that someday, debating same-sex marriage opponents will be as much a waste of time as debating flat-earthers. Until then, we’ve got work to do—angry lesbians and philosophy professors alike.