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Culhane: But are they "bigots"?

It’s been much remarked lately that those who oppose marriage equality have been trying to stand the facts of the world on their heads. In a move that’s been at least partially successful, some of them claim that what we’re trying to do is to silence them, to drive their views from “the public square” (one could create a drinking game based on Maggie Gallagher’s use of that term), and to label them “bigots.”

So they are the “victims” – not those of us who are denied basic equality. Read this recent interview with Gallagher in the wake of the New York victory – it won’t take you long to find the words “bigotry”, “silenced,” and – of course – “public square.” [Glug.]

This strategy makes sense, from their perspective. As it’s become glaringly apparent that they don’t have convincing legal or policy reasons for excluding us from the benefits of and protections of marriage, they attempt to shift the terms of the debate by labeling us intolerant.

Broadly speaking, this move generates two responses. One is to try accommodating this view by compromising with civil unions and religious exemptions. That this move can be effective is shown by current events in Rhode Island, where the governor seems poised to sign a civil unions bill with exceptions so broadly written that they erode existing state anti-discrimination law. This is hardly progress, and in any case doesn’t appease the oppositions – the Rhode Island arm of NOM still opposes the measure.

The other is to yell back: “Well, yes, you are bigots! Own it!”

This is tempting. It’s worth noting that many of the marriage equality opponents have resisted every single advance in LGBT rights along the way, not just marriage. Gallagher, for example, once wrote a column in which she belittled the idea of passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by enclosing the word “discrimination” in ironic quotation marks.

But to those of us insistent on full equality yet determined to be respectful to our opponents (no matter whether such decency is reciprocated), this primal response also seems unwise. But is it?

Let’s take a hard look at the word “bigot.”

Here’s a fairly standard definition of the word, drawn from my Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.”

Let’s concede (maybe not accurately) that at least some of the oppositionists aren’t “intolerant” – that’s a fuzzy word, anyway.

But the definition provides a choice: to meet the definition, devotion to an opinion can be either intolerant or obstinate. — it doesn’t need to be both. And I do think that at least those whose opposition is based on religious can fairly be called “obstinate.”

Here’s the first definition of obstinate: “…adhering to an opinion, purpose, or course in spite of reason, arguments, or persuasion.”

That exactly what’s going on with those who insist that opposite-sex marriage is “God’s plan” or who rail against (sigh) “Adam and Steve.” Nothing will persuade them otherwise, because religious belief isn’t based – isn’t even supposed to be based – on reason or logic. It’s based on…belief. And that applies across the political spectrum. Whether religious folks are for us, or agin’ us, to the extent they base their views on religion, they don’t ground them in “reason, argument, or persuasion.”

Is this perverse? The dictionary says it is; I left that adverb out of the definition above in order to discuss the point without characterizing it. I’d say that some of those who aren’t religious find this impermeability to reason perverse; religious folks, of course, disagree.

Does that mean that everyone who opposes marriage equality is a bigot? Not at all. But it does mean that anyone who opposes it without “reasons, arguments, or persuasion” – in short, based on belief alone – is, in fact, a bigot.

Deal with it.

John Culhane is a law professor, a blogger, and a contributor to Slate Magazine. He is also the editor of, and a contributor to, Reconsidering Law and Policy Debates: A Public Health Approach.

  1. Jay
    July 1st, 2011 at 09:08 | #1

    They’re bigots all right. They also love to cast themselves as victims. Let them deal with it.

  2. July 1st, 2011 at 09:24 | #2

    Yes, Maggie Gallagher Srivastav and Brian Brown, do “play the victim” being “victimized by “intolerant homosexual bigots” while you try over and over to stampede and steamroll the rights of a USA minority! With the help of millions of dollars.
    I am amused that inspite of your spending of big money in Iowa and the contempible sacking of 3 equality-minded IA justices by IA voters that 2 years later that Iowa marriage equality still stands. (Who ever heard of subjecting state Supreme Court justices to a vote and thus robbing them of judicial independence? In Iowa the voters can and did and that had NOM practically wetting itself with glee.) And equality- minded people in Maine plan to undo the damage you did there after you lied to the people of that state and spend your big money there….. that equality passed in NY inspite of your efforts….. that one day marriage will come to Maryland inspite of your pressuring of our MD legislators by your supporters in my state, that RI civil unions have made it up to the RI governor’s office inspite your toxic influence and that the DC city government bent on protecting the civil rights of its gay citizens stood up to you and told you that it would not cave into you.
    Now you are plan to spend more of your millions, this time 2 of those millions to attack those NY State Republicans who decided to not suck up to you and to in the end do the right thing for equality when they could have kept on being the stereotypical anti-equality obstructionists that have become one the hallmarks of the Republican party in general.
    As for crying about being deemed bigots, you two have done everything to confirm people’s beliefs that NOM is just that, bigots. Bigots like out-of-stater Brian Brown that gloat and cheer when at the end of the day some Marylanders don’t get to be equal to other Marylanders.
    Well Brian, if you can come from out of state to suppress and to oppose the civil rights of others, people can then come from out of state to defend the civil rights of people in other states.

    Brian and Maggie do play the “victim”. A “victim” with millions of dollars to spend coming from your fellow “victims”. So that you can obstruct liberty, freedom, justice, happiness, equality and progress whereever its dares to pop up and to defy your hateful agenda to keep millions of your fellow citizens as second-class citizens.

  3. July 1st, 2011 at 09:25 | #3


  4. coxhere
    July 1st, 2011 at 09:50 | #4

    Excluding your final three word paragraph, in the 3rd paragraph to the bottom of your article, you wrote: “….religious belief isn’t based – isn’t even supposed to be based – on reason or logic.” The Wesleyan Quarilateral, the template for the beliefs of John Wesley and his Methodist followers, say that belief is based upon: 1) scripture, 2) tradition, 3) REASON, and 4) experience.

    (Please see ideas regarding the Wesleyan Quadrilateral through this link: http://www.bing.com/search?q=Wesley%27s%20quadrilateral&pc=conduit&form=CONADR&ptag=A386153407C63430CA0F&conlogo=CT2391419.)

    Wesley wanted to “reform” the Anglican Communion but failed. Rather, he is said to have become the founder of American Methodism. I doubt that the “Xns” of the NOM claim any identity with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that includes reason. However, it seems that John Wesley would think it incorrect to say that “…. belief isn’t based – isn’t even supposed to be based – on reason or logic.” (By the way, I am not a Methodist.)

  5. deletethis
    July 1st, 2011 at 10:40 | #5

    Kind of ironic that you’re relying on a dictionary definition of a word, because that’s exactly what our opponents do with marriage, as if definitions of words are somehow permanent and set in stone.

  6. July 1st, 2011 at 11:30 | #6

    On the one hand, I think we should abandon the use of the word “bigot” as a retort in a political debate…same goes for “homophobe(ic).” First, unless they are dumb enough to actually reveal it to us, it’s really hard to tell what’s actually going on in someone’s head and heart. Second, as you pointed out, John, it allows our opponents to paint themselves as victims.

    I read an interesting article recently that said that liberals don’t understand basic group and individual psychology. When Maggie says something like “Gay rights ‘feel’ wrong to me, and it hurts me when you try too shut me up and push me out of the town square by calling me a bigot,” she’s not saying that necessarily because she believes it. She says it because it’s a brilliantly psychologically calibrated tactic to get most of America–who feel the same way–to empathize and align with her. “If those gays said that to me, I’d feel just like Maggie feels. YEAH!” It’s insidiously brilliant. (Thankfully, the opinion of “most of America” is shifting out from under Maggie, so this tactic will not have a long shelf life).

    When it comes to political strategy (and in a lot of personal strategies that I assist with in my Life Coaching practice), I really advocate a strong focus on being “effective.” Effective means doing what needs to be done to get the job done–as opposed to doing things as we’ve always done them, or doing things as a way to vent our emotions so we can temporarily feel better.

    It’s a lot more effective to turn the spotlight on their lack of peer-reviewed evidence to support their position. (Now, we can’t use the words I just used, because they are too egg-headed and will turn off the average American. We have to learn to dumb everything down.) “Maggie, you can’t show us any evidence to back up what you say. And, when you claim to show evidence, you’re lying about the research. I can prove it.” [Come armed with copies of the actual studies.] “Maggie, we aren’t trying to silence you. In fact, if you have any real evidence to back up what you’re saying, we invite you to present it. But don’t expect us to sit here silently while you lie about the research.”

    I think that will be more effective.

    I’ve seen Maggie many times on video. She’s uncannily good at detecting even the slightest overstatement or aggressiveness from her opponent and turning it into a chance for her to call us the bullies and to call her the victim. Let’s not play that game.

    (And I do believe they are either Bigots or “Bigots Lite.” There’s no other explanation for their across-the-board opposition to us or for their intensity. But it’s not worth going there during public debates.)

  7. July 1st, 2011 at 11:55 | #7

    I just finished the Maggie Gallagher interview. I need a shower.

    1) She’s slick, and 2) I wonder if she has any inkling of an idea as to how evil she is?

  8. July 1st, 2011 at 11:59 | #8

    When Maggie talks about “common sense” and “it’s only logical,” we should remind folks that at one time it was “common sense” that the earth was flat, and we backed it up with lots and lots of “logic.” Common sense does not trump science.

    Are people now seeing the evil brilliance in how the Republicans have undermined the validity of science? If they can get the general public to mistrust science, then they can manipulate them easier using emotional “logic.” I saw a bumper sticker here in Baltimore the other day that said, “Doubt Darwin.” Of course, it was in support of a Christian organization.

  9. petenick
    July 1st, 2011 at 16:13 | #9

    You know, I kind of now feel sorry for Ms Gallagher and her ilk. Just look at her face and those “dead” eyes. It’s really a shame and pathetic that some people are this way.

  10. Drewski
    July 1st, 2011 at 17:37 | #10

    Bigotry may or may not be a studied, conscious position. If there is a moral distinction, then the person with a visceral bigotry would seem to be less evil than the one whose bigotry is based on false and specious arguments and justifications. Maggie Gallagher falls in the latter category. She rails against gays, but why? Gays are her distraction from something in herself. All of her cogitating to justify homophobia tells me that she knows at some level that her argument is bullshit. She campaigns against gays to run from something in herself, then tries to play victim after she screws with other peoples’ lives.

    I do wonder if maybe the real issue with Maggie Gallagher and her kind is something closer to some sort of personality disorder. She points to gays as a distraction from something else. Maybe it’s something she’s ashamed of. But targeting somebody else…there’s a point where it stops being a random finger-pointing and turns into a more calculated gesture. It could even be done with overt malice. Moreover, there’s the calculation going on, where she’s always quick to look for a way to manipulate people and words. There’s too much calculation for it to be unconscious.

    Whatever. She’s malevolent, but she’s also on a losing mission. So are the others like her. They are all bigots. The distinction comes in whether or not there’s a conscious effort to justify their bigotry. For some people, a visceral reaction or belief can only be changed by experience, not by words, and that has more to do with process. Other people are entirely aware that they opt to justify discrimination against specific individuals or groups, but they continue to do so for their own needs. That’s where it starts looking more like a personality disorder, and where their bigotry starts to morph into a consciously malevolent series of actions.

    If somebody harbors a belief, and it’s not swayed by reason, I can respect that. I can’t abide somebody like Maggie Gallagher because she’s a scheming and malevolent creature. She chooses to target gays to fill a void in herself–a remarkably selfish and immature gesture. There is nothing about her to respect, unless you count the skill of her antisocial behaviors.

  11. KaninZ
    July 1st, 2011 at 17:38 | #11

    It’s called “The Wounded Dove” defense. It’s a tactic, pure and simple. What happened in the state of Washington proves their lie of victimhood.
    When it looked like marriage equality was gaining ground and becoming a real possibility, they suddenly said they were willing to “give gays everything but marriage.”
    Washington gays came up with Domestic Partnership legislation called, oddly enough, the “Everything But Marriage Act.”

    They fought it tooth and nail saying it was “too close to REAL marriage.”

    They may not be bigots in their own minds. That’s why I refer to them as religious extremists…you know, the same kind of Theocratic fundamentalists we are currently embroiled in a two front war with.

  12. EatMeDrinkMe
    July 2nd, 2011 at 02:01 | #12

    I really wonder how many of those rightwing republicans,
    ~ religiously posing as the faithful ~ ,
    are born from incest.
    Their level of being retarded cannot be normal. A nationwide anti-incest program of DNA testing on newborn children should be established to hinder any increase of this fenomenon. A great idea for a new law !

  13. JimR36
    July 2nd, 2011 at 10:06 | #13

    I believe they are bigots. If they are concerned about “family”, they should be dealing with issues to strengthen the heterosexual family instead of spending all their time, money and energy fighting equality.
    I think our side could do a better job framing the conversation. WE are the victims here and to let them tell it differently is our failure to debate the issue properly. Our opponents are anti-family and anti-marriage. They want to deny our children and our families the same rights heterosexuals enjoy.
    I cringe when I hear the debate about “gay marriage”. It is marriage equality or just plain marriage. Our fight is for equality. We are not looking for “special” rights… we want equal rights. While some of our opponents are uninformed, I believe many more of them just hate us and want to make our lives difficult.
    Many of our supporters understand we are the victims. It is our job to educate our opponents as quickly as possible. We are pro-family and pro-marriage. Our opponents are anti-family and anti-marriage. We are the good guys here and they are the bigoted bullies!!! 🙂

  14. July 2nd, 2011 at 10:25 | #14

    They are not bigots because they believe marriage is between a man and a woman. They are bigots because they seek to exclude gay people from marriage. There is a difference and we must counter their bigot arguments with this distinction. I have yet to see anyone counter their claims with what makes them bigots.

  15. July 2nd, 2011 at 20:38 | #15

    Well said!

  16. Jwb52z
    July 2nd, 2011 at 21:25 | #16

    Matthew S McCoy, I think your post about a “distinction” falls into the old saying of “a distinction without a difference”.

  17. July 3rd, 2011 at 09:00 | #17

    They are bigots. And that’s not the point.

    The point is how we can debate them and talk about them without giving them the ability to turn the tables on us and get more support from the average American.

    To the average American (until very recently), Maggie is using “logic and reason” to “defend an institution.” When we call her a bigot and homophobe publicly, it appears to the average American as if we’re responded to a “reasonable criticism” with a personal attack on Maggie’s character. Result: she’s seen as a victim.

    This article inspired me to do some Google reading about Maggie. Here are a few interesting things I ran into:

    – The NOM site lists numerous articles published and speaking engagements at prestigious colleges. It gives the appearance of Maggie being a high powered academic (clout). The bio gave no background on her credentials.

    – The article that John pointed to referred to Maggie as a “researcher.”

    – Maggie actually has an undergraduate degree from Yale in religious studies. Although Yale is an impressive institution and Maggie is obviously very bright, this is not a high-powered credential when it comes to social policy, in my opinion. And her “research” is no more than what those of us who went to undergrad did: we read stuff, form opinions, and write about it. She’s not an experimental researcher.

    – I read the exchanges between Dan Savage and Maggie, and they’re quite entertaining. I did notice one thing toward the end of the exchange is that Maggie posted a few slightly edited quotes from Dan on her blog. She’s brilliant in that the quotes were reasonably accurate; all she did was cut out the swear words and explicit sexual references. However, the snippets were perfectly designed to 1) Make Dan look bad, and 2) Obscure the main points he was trying to make. Her readers responded by saying things like, “I don’t know why those people have to talk like that all the time.” They were hyperfocused on Dan having “potty mouth,” and they saw that as perfectly legitimate justification for denying us potty-mouthed folks our civil rights. It’s as if the constitution is completely replaced by Catechism of the Catholic Church and the judgment of a nun with a ruler in her hand. Ugh!

  18. July 3rd, 2011 at 20:51 | #18

    Given that the “reasons, arguments, and persuasions” have been shown to be hollow, when they exist at all, it looks like everyone who opposes same-sex marriage is, indeed, to some degree or another, a bigot.

  19. SteveHansen
    July 13th, 2011 at 18:55 | #19

    The word “bigot” is a more accurate description of most anti-gay political activists than the word “homophobic” ever could be. They are not irrationally afraid of homosexuals — and hence are not “homophobic”. They are, indeed, obstinately devoted to their own prejudices. So, “prejudiced” and “bigot” are both accurate descriptions.

    We need to USE THOSE WORDS to describe them. The words “prejudiced” and “bigot” are simple. People understand them. And, they are accurate.

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