Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Plea for Charity in Understanding African-American Homophobia

A central tenet in critical thinking is the principle of charity, one should always formulate a view in the strongest possible fashion. I'm trying my best to be charitable with the anti-gay marriage arguments of the African-American lawmakers in Maryland last week.

Emmett Burns argued,

"I will argue for the position that civil rights were not the same, our civil rights, the movement was not the same. Those who juxtapose the two are gravely mistaken."
So, in both cases, you have American citizens who are denied equal treatment, rights, and protections under the law because they are a minority that the majority thinks is inferior. They are clearly arguing that bigotry enshrined in law against African-Americans was illegitimate, but that there is some essential difference between African-Americans and GLBT Americans that makes discrimination in the law, being treated as less than fully human, against this minority not only acceptable, but necessary. How can we reconstruct this reasoning in the most charitable way?

One line seems to be that the suffering of African-Americans was greater. A comment on the Washington Post story takes this line
"You can compare this to the Civil Rights movement when your homes are burned, your children are lynched, you are forced to ride in the back of the bus, can't drink from the same fountains or simply just can't eat in the same restaurants as straight people."
But the idea that civil rights are not inherently deserved, but earned through amount of suffering seems horribly weak.

Another line, that Emmett Burns also pushed is that the two are different because gay people can hide their sexual orientation and therefore could serve in the legislature when he -- or those like him -- couldn't because you cannot hide skin color. But the idea that people don't deserve equal rights because they could pretend they are who they aren't to get some, but not all rights, also seems absurdly flimsy.

A third line one often hears is that skin color is an essential part of who one is, but sexual orientation is a function of what one does and that while one could choose not to be gay by abstaining from sexual relations, one could not choose not to have one's skin color. But, of course, one does not have a sexual orientation only when one is engaged in sexual activities. The law itself recognizes that it is people, not acts, we are talking about here, so this is an incoherent line.

So, what is it? If we want to avoid simply saying this is purely ignorant bigotry and put in line some argument to take seriously, what would it be? How is denying equal rights, standing, and protection under the law for African-Americans different from denying equal rights, standing, and protection under the law for gay men, lesbians, and trans and bi-sexual Americans?