A response to Tim Carney’s “pursuit of happiness” claim

In the days and weeks surrounding arguments in front of the Supreme Court of the United States regarding same-sex marriage–consolidated under Obergefell v. Hodges, plenty of pixels will be dedicated to the consequences of the impending decision. I wanted to take a quick a moment to respond to a piece by Tim Carney on the nature of supporting traditional marriage.

There are few people on the right whose writing I enjoy more than Tim Carney’s. Enjoy, and often find challenging because of how correct he often is. On Thursday, he published a piece arguing that opposition to gay marriage is not by definition rooted in anti-gay bigotry. It can, instead, be rooted in traditional teaching of marriage that is separate from feelings of animus towards LGBT people.

I was disappointed not by Carney’s thesis—which I generally agree with—but instead by his final claim that supporters of LGBT rights are trying to “banish [views of traditional marriage] from our society.” This final, last-shot argument undermines the rest of an otherwise thoughtful piece, and it also provides a useful insight into the mindset of the backlash that is now underway to the ascension of LGBT rights.

Tim opens his piece by making a number of comparisons between anti-gay bigotry and racist bigotry and concludes that refusing service to gay people for their weddings is substantially different than refusing service to black people or interracial couples because of their skin color. So I took Tim’s first six paragraphs, and extended his comparison one step backwards. Here’s how his column might have read fifty years ago:

Traditional, same-race marriage in the U.S. makes its last stand this week at oral arguments before the Supreme Court. If interracial marriage wins out, the next question is what to do with the vanished? Should we tolerate opposition to interracial marriage?

What should be done, legally and socially, with photographers who don’t want to take part in an interracial wedding, or churches that don’t want to consecrate an interracial union? How should we all treat the old-fashioned view that marriage is between people of the same races?

Many institutions, commentators and politicians already have their answer: opposition to interracial marriage deserves no more respect than misogyny. The government ought to force a photographer, a musician or a caterer to participate in an interracial wedding, they argue, just as we forced a misogynistic society to accept women in the workplace.

But the premise here – that opposition to interracial marriage is necessarily grounded in bigotry – is wrong.

Certainly, racist bigotry still exists, and if a businessman refuses to sell someone a slice of pizza because he’s black, that sure looks like bigotry. Hating or discriminating against a person purely because of his race is not in keeping with Christ’s commandments that we love everyone.

But refusing to participate in a marriage ceremony is a different sort of thing. It’s not a statement about the people involved. It’s a decision about the ceremony itself—that one doesn’t want to endorse a definition of marriage that one doesn’t share.

Essentially, the argument is, Nothing personal. You do you, and I’ll do me.

Tim, of course, argues that the Catholic teaching of marriage is a significantly different motivation than anti-racial animus—and I couldn’t agree more with him on this point. He argues further, “if you can grant that some of these teachings are grounded, not in animus, but in an understanding of love, then at least you can agree to this: We shouldn’t use the force of law to banish these views from our society.”

In assailing this straw man, Tim fails to acknowledge that the United States of America has already seen a concerted, nationwide effort to banish a certain set of views from our society using, in part, the threat of state-enforced violence. I’m talking about state-sponsored and culturally reinforced efforts to marginalize LGBT Americans. Though Tim argues that his beliefs are rooted in love, not animus—and he asserted on Twitter that he in fact does not disapprove of same-sex marriage, which he didn’t explicitly state in his piece—it’s difficult to ascribe any of the following to “an understanding of love.”

What it was like, before it got better

Anti-sodomy laws were being enforced in fourteen states as late as 2003. In a majority of US states, it is still 100% legal to fire an employee because of that person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The original Stonewall riots were a backlash to “force of law” efforts to put down the LGBT community in New York City. Harvey Milk, one of the most prominent early advocates for the gay community, was gunned down in broad daylight and the man who shot him was not convicted of murder, but instead manslaughter. Dan White, the assassin, served only five years in prison before being released. When I asked my buddy about it (he is a hotshot Los Angeles criminal defense attorney) – he said this was a pretty bad situation for the person being charged.

As HIV/AIDS decimated the gay community during the 1980s and early 1990s, the federal government stood by silently. I’m not sure whether or not Tim knows a gay man over the age of 55 who was out during the 1980s. If he does, I can guarantee that that man watched several of his friends die slow and painful deaths precipitated by that plague. And, in all likelihood, that man was barred from attending some of the funerals.

For decades, gay, bisexual, and lesbian servicemen and women who had honorably served our country’s armed forces were dishonorably discharged if their sexual orientation was discovered. The transgender members of our military still face this threat of odious discrimination.

Further, the severe rejection of LGBT youth continues to have deadly consequences today, to say nothing of the past. Compared to LGBT youth who are accepted by their family, caregivers, and community, LGBT youth who are severely rejected are eight times more likely to attempt suicide, six times more likely to suffer from severe depression, three times more likely to use hard drugs, and three times more likely to be at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. In addition, 40% of our nation’s youth homeless population is LGBT, because they have been thrown out of their homes by parents who have a peculiar way of demonstrating their “understanding of love” to their LGBT children.

It is getting better–slowly

This is what a concerted, state-enforced, nationwide effort to banish a certain set of views—a certain identity—from our society looks like. I genuinely hope Tim understands how difficult it is for LGBT people to look at and experience all of the above and then to try to conclude, “Well yes, but that’s all separate from the fact that it has taken decades of patient, disciplined work by our community to obtain recognition of marriage rights for same-sex couples. Yes, we’re the real oppressors here.”

Tim’s central failing is to focus exclusively on marriage, the one central piece of his identity he now shares with so many same-sex couples nationwide, while ignoring the pattern and history of discrimination and bigotry experienced by LGBT people in so many other aspects of the human experience. I hope, at least, he sees the parallel between what the LGBT community has actually experienced and what he fears his future may hold: stigmatization, dehumanization, and humiliation are not a hypothetical for people who are LGBT.

Tim argues, “the premise here – that opposition to gay marriage is necessarily grounded in bigotry – is wrong.” I agree, and I know many of my fellow advocates do as well. Opposition to gay marriage can be grounded in things other than bigotry. What Tim’s arguments-by-parallel-example fails to mention is that we didn’t outlaw racism. We didn’t banish race-based-bigotry. We didn’t outlaw thought. We outlawed a certain kind of action, regardless of the belief in which that action was “grounded.” His parallel doesn’t even hold up.

Tim’s final claim—that people who believe what he believes are having their beliefs and identities banished from our society—will be much more persuasive when people of his belief are actually in the throes of a rejection similar to that experienced by the LGBT community. And to be clear, that rejection is not an experience I would wish on anyone.

All the same, it’s critical to understand that what Tim feels—anxiety, fear, and discomfort—is real. And it’s crucial to acknowledge that he isn’t alone in how he feels, and that those of us who support the advancement of LGBT rights dismiss the feelings of Tim and his cohort at our own risk. The backlash is coming, and it will likely get worse before it gets better.

But it will get better. We will one day live in a world where LGBT youth are not more likely to be homeless or attempt suicide or suffer from severe depression. We will one day live in world where LGBT adults can go to work in all fifty states without fear of losing their jobs because of who they love or how they identify. We will one day live in a world where the conflicts between LGBT people and people of faith will be squarely in our past, when the mystic chords of memory have again swelled, touched by the better angels of our nature. Our pluralistic republic will carry on, and we will all be the stronger and more resilient for it.

That day is not today, but it is coming. It will get better for us all—including Tim Carney.