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How People Learned to Stop Worrying and Oppose Same-Sex Marriage

June 1, 2012
same sex marriage bomb

Illustration by Kate Holterhoff

Same-sex marriage is all over the news. Yesterday, a U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston struck down a key element of the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law defining marriage as between one man and one woman. This news comes mere weeks after North Carolina voters passed a ban on same-sex marriage by voter referendum and Obama announced his newly “evolved” support for same-sex marriage.

Given all the recent developments on the same-sex marriage issue, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the rhetoric surrounding this issue.

Take, for example, this statement, made a few weeks ago by Tami Fitzgerald, chairwoman of Vote for Marriage NC:

We are not anti-gay; we are pro-marriage.

Fitzgerald’s statement is short, but there’s a lot going on, some of it buried beneath the surface. In fact, her words can tell us a great deal about where Americans stand on the same-sex marriage issue and—more importantly—how that stance is changing.

When I started paying attention to the same-sex marriage controversy in the early 2000s, I remember opponents of same-sex marriage justifying their opposition to it in explicitly religious or moral terms. Homosexuality is wrong, they would say, and so we do not support gay rights. But recently something has changed. There’s a growing defensiveness in the rhetoric of opposition to same-sex marriage, a growing sense that it ought to be somehow justified without recourse to homophobia.

To show you what I mean, let’s take a closer look at Fitzgerald’s statement. Opposition to same-sex marriage is being separated from an anti-gay stance. The label “anti-gay” implies a prejudicial position, one rooted in the hatred of a group of people. The label that Fitzgerald (and, no doubt, many others) prefer is “pro-marriage,” never mind that there are few willing to take an “anti-marriage” stance.

At face value, Fitzgerald’s statement is a fairly typical example of how opponents of same-sex marriage attempt to distance themselves from negative values like prejudice and bigotry. On the other hand, one important consequence of her position is that adopting it could allow a person to take a stance against legal equality for same-sex couples and escape the contradiction of claiming that they are not anti-gay. In other words, if I follow Fitzgerald’s logic, I can separate my position on the same-sex marriage issue from my position on legal equality for gay people. I can say that I am in favor of gay rights while still vehemently opposing the right they seem to want the most: marriage.

As a rhetorician who studies public deliberation, I would argue that the contradiction between opposing same-sex marriage and supporting equal rights for gay people is one that we as a public ought to face. Facing contradictions and dealing with cognitive dissonance are important tasks for the critical citizen, tasks that ought not to be skipped over as easily as Fitzgerald would have us do.

I also think it’s telling that Fitzgerald sees a real need to separate her organization and its supporters from anti-gay prejudice. Fitzgerald may or may not feel genuinely conflicted about same-sex marriage. She may be simply trying to put a positive or neutral spin on her organization’s mission, or to make it more broadly appealing. But the fact that she is so careful to separate homophobia from her stance on same-sex marriage shows a growing awareness that opposing same-sex marriage while not thinking of oneself as anti-gay might cause some serious cognitive dissonance, or perhaps that it ought to.

What do you, reader, make of Fitzgerald’s statement? Is it just spin? Or, does it tell us something more about what opponents of same-sex marriage are thinking and feeling?

If you want to know more:

  • It’s hardly surprising that Fitzgerald and others would prefer not to call themselves anti-gay (or anti-anything, for that matter). People usually prefer to be pro-something than anti-something. One needn’t look far for examples: notice that there are no “anti-choice” or “anti-life” organizations running around in the debate about abortion rights. Rather, the groups call themselves pro-choice and pro-life. These labels present a serious conundrum for journalists because they are so ideologically loaded. I checked the Associated Press Style Manual for advice on referring to pro-life and pro-choice groups in news copy and found a sensible solution: they recommend referring to these groups as “anti-abortion” and “abortion rights” respectively.
  • I said above that few would call themselves “anti-marriage” because I have yet to hear anyone adopt this label. However, there have been serious critiques of the institution of marriage, notably from popular figures like Dan Savage. See his essay in The “M” Word: Writers on Same-Sex Marriage for an example. I do not think it would be fair or reasonable to call Savage’s position “anti-marriage.” I merely wish to point out that, although you won’t find many people running around calling themselves “anti-marriage,” there are some important critiques of the social impact of marriage, as we now know it, circulating.
  • Here’s another piece of same-sex marriage rhetoric that I chewed on for a while. It was made in response to the U.S. appeals court’s May 29, 2012 decision on the Defense of Marriage act: “In allowing one state to hold the federal government, and potentially other states, hostage to redefine marriage, the 1st Circuit attempts a bridge too far…” I guess I just couldn’t get over the mixed metaphor it offers.
  • This entry is partly based on a presentation I made this past week at the Rhetoric Society of America conference in Philadelphia. It is, of course, considerably shorter than the talk I gave in Philadelphia. That presentation dealt with the social consequences of the dissociation of concepts, mentioning Fitzgerald’s statement only as a brief example.
  • If you’re interested in a more theoretical approach to Fitzgerald’s statement, here it is: Fitzgerald’s statement is a clear example of the dissociation of concepts. The beginning term is opposition to same-sex marriage, which is split into an anti-gay stance and a pro-marriage stance. The second, pro-marriage stance is the preferred term in the dissociation. I see this dissociation as addressing the contradiction between being opposed to same-sex marriage while also thinking of oneself as not prejudiced or homophobic. I don’t think it’s a particularly convincing dissociation, or that it truly resolves the contradiction. Rather, I see it as an attempt, on the part of same-sex marriage opponents, to carve out a social space for people to oppose same-sex marriage and not think of themselves as prejudiced. Sorry for the long footnote.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Christopher Brown permalink
    June 18, 2012 6:54 pm

    To me, it seems as if Fitzgerald’s statement illustrates a fear, namely that those who oppose same-sex marriage are hateful. There seems to be a current shift to treating ‘gay’ as something to be protected, something that is impossibly ignorant, and socially unacceptable to be ‘anti-.’ To be anti-gay is to be completely out of touch.

    Why? The shift has been happening for a while.
    A.) The recent string of news regarding LGBT suicide and bullying has finally framed homophobia in a realistic way, a terrifying look into the lives of adults who have filled their children with hate and prejudice. Being anti-gay is being pro-suicide, regardless of the motivation.
    B.)And, as many people come to know actual human examples of this ‘evil’, they learn that to be hateful is unattractive, idiotic, and empty. As people get to know the LGBT men, women, and children in their lives, they are finding out that the evils of their tradition lack relevance.

    Harm, the thing that so often signifies the evilness of our actions, is difficult to find in the life of married LGBT people. This is another deterrent to being ‘anti-,’ you must find harm in that thing which you are against. Though there are a few convoluted arguments for the heinous harm that queer people do to others, they fall apart under any close analysis. More revealing is the amount of harm the heterosexual system and its expectations are doing to young, confused LGBT people who have no one to relate to, no beliefs that allow them.

    These unhelpful, unrelated belief systems function fantastically when there are no dissenters, and when the counter-examples are stamped out at first sight. But in our lives, we continually find that LGBT people are present, real, acknowledged, heard. Their existence demands to be recognized.

    It’s hard to be ignorant in times like this. Unless you’re a sideshow like Westboro Baptist, your reputation can only be protected in poorly formed arguments that amount to “I am not against an entire group of people, but I am going to take action against an entire group of people.” These people, this belief system, must begin to dissociate itself, rebuilding in the new rhetorical landscape of pro-gay being anti-suicide. Where knowing someone who is gay makes “pro-marriage” laws seem hateful and bigoted.

    I am glad we are moving forward on this front, but someone must remind Fitzgerald and her followers that, while they can name themselves whatever they please, their meaning will be judged via their action.

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