Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Privilege to Walk Away

An interesting thing went on at Alas, a Blog, recently.

Namely, a discussion was had about when and whether it is appropriate to refer to those who oppose same-sex marriage as bigots. The title of the post, "In Defense of the B-word," suggested that perhaps equality opponents see the word bigot as akin to the n-word. A despicable label that polite, civil folks don't use on others anymore much less say aloud.

Fearing that history will judge them as it has judged opponents of racial progress in the 60s, same-sex marriage opponents who are not overtly gay-hating take great offense to being called bigots. For instance, one equality-opponent commenter at Alas threatened to storm out of the room if anyone engaged in "bigot" name-calling. More prominently, big discussions have been had in major newspapers about whether or not folks like David Blankenhorn, who don't rise to Phelpsian levels of God-Hates-Fags animus, are bigots for opposing marriage equality.

Being called a bigot is a big deal. Apparently, a much bigger deal than when a person advocates for legal inequality. As Blankenhorn recounted after Perry v. Schwarzenegger, he had to endure the indignity of his children seeing him "called a bigot in the pages of The New York Times" and he subsequently secured the endorsement of colleagues who attested in a 12-page open letter to, among other things, his non-bigotedness.

Generally, I try to avoid calling people bigots unless their commentary overtly states that LGBT people are abnormal, pathological,or inferior to heterosexuals. I might privately think a person is a bigot, but those who oppose equality are at least correct in noting that calling someone a bigot is a quick way to shut down dialogue. Furthermore, the bigot charge, while it can be apt, is a distraction. I'm not all that interested in keeping a national conversation about LGBT rights centered around what's in the cockles of a heterosexual equality opponent's heart instead of around the needs of LGBT families. And this power to control the conversation is what I want to get at today.

The argument that calling equality opponents bigots "shuts down a conversation" actually means that, because inequality and power imbalance are the status quo, equality opponents have the privilege to first get offended at such "name-calling" no matter how apt it is and to then threaten to end a conversation about our rights if we continue to so disrespect their civil sensibilities. Because those who oppose equality are the barrier to my actual equality, such folks can both perpetuate my inequality and demand that I be sufficiently pleasant about requesting my equality from them. If I am not sufficiently pleasant, equality opponents can walk away from a conversation and suffer the pain of being called a "bigot" while I must continue suffering the harm of not having equal rights.

Calling one a bigot, to them, is a more serious transgression than their denial of my equal rights.

I, on the other hand, am grossly offended by the fact that people devote substantial amount of time, energy, and money to oppose my actual legal equality. Yet, because inequality is the status quo, I lack the privilege of "walking away" from a conversation about said inequality. I don't have the privilege of demanding that people treat me nicely or else I will storm out of the room, because, for me, walking away means that I continue to exist in a state of inequality. Unlike equality opponents, I don't have the privilege of clutching my pearls and having people respect the fact that I am deeply offended.

Many racial minorities are already aware of how they aren't allowed to show anger in response to racial injustice, racism, and prejudice because being angry doesn't "win anyone over to your side" and "maybe you should watch your tone." And as much as I loathe these tone arguments, I'm not advocating aggression or namecalling toward equality opponents.

Rather, I'm noting that there's a pretty huge power differential between equality opponents and equality advocates. Equality opponents who don't understand the bigot charge or who center that tone argument in conversations about LGBT rights seem to have a serious misunderstanding about how their anti-gay advocacy fosters anger, resentment, and consequent labeling. They seem to have forgotten that they are not called bigots For No Reason At All.

They have the privilege of advocating against the equality of their fellow humans and having the label used to describe their advoacy be considered more rude, more uncivil, and more "conversation-stopping" than such advocacy.

Sometimes, trying to get into the Super Special Marriage Club feels a lot like this:

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