Be careful about who you call a homophobe

Ryan Connolly


By now I’m sure that most of Trinity is aware of the controversy over the interview with the drag queen Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss, on the Saturday Night Show with Brendan O’Connor. In the interview O’Neill singled out public commentators such as John Waters, Breda O’Brien and members of the Iona Institute as being homophobes who were ‘horrible and mean about gays’ in their opinion pieces on same-sex marriage.

The people named in the interview sought an apology from RTE for what they saw as defamation. At first they were refused, but RTE later relented and offered the apology, along with a sum of money. Incensed by this, the activist group, LGBT Noise, organised a protest against the apology, accusing the Iona Institute and the other journalists of attempting to smother debate and free speech and describing their actions as ‘censorship’. Various public figures, including journalists, TDs and MEPs, lent this viewpoint their support. But does the right to freedom of speech include a right to libel or defame anyone, even public figures?

Supporters of same-sex marriage might disagree that calling their opponents ‘homophobes’ is defamation. But the definition of defamation, at least according to Irish law, is any ‘statement that tends to injure a person’s reputation in the eyes of reasonable members of society.’ The law also specifies that such a statement must be untrue. It’s safe to say that being labelled a homophobe or a bigot can badly injure a person’s reputation. So the question is, was the accusation true? Are the Iona Institute, Breda O’Brien, John Waters, and, indeed, any opponents of same-sex marriage necessarily homophobes?

I strongly disagree with such an assertion. There is a world of difference between seeking to oppose a social policy that is advocated by some LGBT activist organisations and seeking to discriminate against, intimidate, insult or assault gay people. Every gay person wants to be respected, and to live free from fear of violence, discrimination and intimidation. But legislating for same-sex marriage isn’t about ending discrimination; it’s about redefining the institution of marriage. And while many individuals and organisations claim that such a move is necessary to end discrimination, it is a massive generalisation to suggest that these same-sex marriage advocates represent all gay people.

Gay men and women disagree with same-sex marriage for a wide variety of reasons. There are gay Christians like bloggers such as Eve Tushnet or Steve Gershom, who feel at home in their faith and comfortable with its vision of marriage and sexuality. There are gays on the opposite end of the political spectrum who believe that marriage is a conformist, heteronormative institution which they want nothing to do with, like the French activist group Plus Gay Sans Marriage.

There are commentators such as Paddy Manning and Richard Waghorne, who believe that as gay people they benefitted from being raised by a father and mother and that children do best in such a setting.

“There is a world of difference between seeking to oppose a social policy that is advocated by some LGBT activist organisations and seeking to discriminate against, intimidate, insult or assault gay people.”

Some gay activists accuse such people of being self-hating gays, who have internalised the homophobia they have experienced (search Manning or Waghorne’s name on Twitter), but they’re usually lacking in any actual proof for this: the accusation of ‘self-hating gay’ is nothing more than an ad hominem assertion with no concrete evidence to back it up.

Dismissing somebody who disagrees with same-sex marriage as a homophobe is like saying that somebody who disagrees with Israel’s foreign policy is anti-Semitic. It is one thing to advocate discrimination or violence against Jews. It is another thing to disagree with the policies of Israel, which only represents some of the world’s Jews; Israel cannot and does not speak for all those with a Jewish heritage. Likewise, those advocating for same-sex marriage do not represent all gay people. Raising questions or concerns about a social policy supported by those advocates is not the same as discriminating against the members of the group which they claim to represent.

Libel aside, there are other problems which arise when the term ‘homophobia’ is bandied about indiscriminately. Allowing epithets such as ‘homophobe’ ‘bigot’ and ‘self-hating gay’ to dominate the debate on same-sex marriage sets an unhealthy precedent. Ad hominem attacks like this serve only to shut down any kind of intellectual, reasonable discussion on an issue, replacing it with social intimidation. In a mature, democratic society, any change in social structure – especially one as radical as altering the nature of marriage – should be preceded by calm, rational debate which seeks to discover the potential merits and drawbacks of such a change. A mature debate also requires that each side assumes good faith on the part of the other until and unless proven otherwise.

Same-sex marriage raises real concerns regarding the status of fatherhood and motherhood in society, the rights of children to be raised by their biological parents where possible, the prospect of children being ‘commissioned’ through surrogates (to use Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s word), and the rights of individuals to conscientious objection. These are valid concerns, and those who raise them have a right to their good name. If same-sex marriage really is supported by sound arguments that can answer these concerns, then it doesn’t need insults to defend it. The unwillingness of proponents of same-sex marriage to engage in debate seems to suggest that either they have little confidence in the arguments for their own cause, or that they simply aren’t interested in civil discourse and want to sling mud instead.

Let me end with a suggestion. Shane Windmeyer, a US journalist and founder of LGBT activist group Campus Pride, organised a campaign to boycott fast food chain Chik-fil-A, whose owner, Dan Cathy, is a devout Christian and a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage. Cathy donates a large amount of his profits to a variety of groups, including many which lobby against same-sex marriage. In the middle of the campaign, Cathy called Windmeyer, hoping to engage him in dialogue. The two men began talking to one another, each trying to look at the issue through the other’s eyes. Taking on board Windmeyer’s concerns, Cathy ended funding for certain groups that were particularly divisive, without compromising his own beliefs or support for traditional marriage. For his own part, Windmeyer ended the campaign against Chik-Fil-A and came away with a greater appreciation for the sincerity of those who disagree with him. Both made an unlikely friend.

So to those of you think that all of its opponents are bigots and homophobes, I’d like to issue a challenge. Simply sit down and have an open conversation with somebody who disagrees with you. Try to understand where they are coming from. Explain your own experiences to them.

Maybe they will turn out to be a homophobic bigot. But more likely, I think, they’ll be an ordinary human being just like yourself, with genuine concerns about what effect same-sex marriage might have on society. If you’re not willing to do that much to get to know another person, then you’ve no right to label them any kind of bigot. Who knows? You might even change your mind.