During yesterday’s parliamentary debate on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – and in much of the on- and off-line commentary surrounding it – one of things that became very apparent was that many of the opponents of equality were extremely upset and angry to find themselves being described as homophobes and bigots. Here, for example, is the Conservative MP for Hendon, Matthew Offord, interrupting the Equalities Minister as she introduced the Bill:
Will the Minister take this early opportunity to confirm that the opponents of the Bill, including many hundreds of my constituents, are not homophobic, not bigots and not barking?
‘Barking’ is, clearly, a term of abuse – albeit a fairly mild one: much milder than the epithets that have been directed at me as a gay man – and as such it’s certainly reasonable to object to it. But ‘homophobe’ and ‘bigot’ are not terms of abuse, they are ordinary words with clearly established meanings, and in many cases they are being used entirely accurately when they are used to describe the opponents of the Bill.
Let’s start with ‘homophobe’. Whatever its roots, the word homophobia has become the generic term for anti-gay prejudice. One may regret the fact that a term that in its most literal sense relates to only one possible cause of anti-gay prejudice has come to stand for the prejudice as a whole, but the fact remains it has.
This linguistic drift isn’t unprecedented. Historically, some people who were opposed to mixed-race marriage insisted that they weren’t racist, but anti-miscegenationist (because they didn’t believe that different races were inferior or superior, merely that the separate-but-equal races should be kept apart). Some of those people were no doubt sincere in what they said – just as some opponents of marriage equality insist that they can’t be homophobic because they support the separate-but-equal provision of civil partnerships – but that doesn’t mean their case was convincing: of course people who made utterly unnecessary and grossly offensive distinctions between people of different races were racist, how could they possibly be thought otherwise?
As with race, so with sexual orientation. Those people who oppose marriage equality do so on the basis that same-sex relationships should be treated differently to opposite-sex relationships simply because they are same-sex. This is, clearly and unambiguously, prejudice – it involves pre-judging a whole class of relationships on the basis of the single characteristic they have in common. And it is anti-gay prejudice because the objection is to the fact that the relationships are formed between two people of the same sex. And since we’ve already established that the generic term for anti-gay prejudice is homophobia, it follows that people who oppose marriages between people of the same sex are homophobes.
As for bigot, well, most of the free online dictionaries seem to indulge in the classic run-around of defining a bigot as a person whose views are characterised by bigotry, and defining bigotry as the characteristic views of a bigot. But this was a fuller definition I was able to track down:
Bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices
So the key feature of a bigot – the thing that separates them from the ordinarily opinionated and prejudiced – is that they are ‘obstinately or intolerantly devoted’ to their opinion or prejudice. Are the opponents of marriage equality ‘obstinately or intolerantly devoted’ to their opposition? Let’s look at the facts.
The opponents of equality are so intolerant of same-sex marriage that they insist it should remain unlawful in all circumstances and for everyone. They are so intolerant of same-sex marriage that a state of affairs in which same-sex couples are permitted to marry, while those who are opposed are offered guarantees that they will never have to participate in or facilitate a same-sex marriage, is unacceptable to them. They are so intolerant of same-sex marriage that they are unwilling to live and let live – only the preservation of an absolute ban on same-sex marriage will be enough to satisfy them. And as for obstinacy: they cling to their absolute opposition regardless of shifts in public opinion, and irrespective of any efforts that are made to accommodate them.
In other words, the opponents of marriage equality have a prejudice against same-sex marriage. They are so obstinate in that prejudice that they intend to cling to it come what may. And they are so ‘intolerantly devoted’ to it that they are utterly unwilling to tolerate same-sex marriage for anyone, under any circumstances whatsoever. This is a textbook definition of a bigot.
I’m sure it’s not pleasant to hear oneself described as a bigot, or a homophobe. The fact remains these terms are not insults – they’re not intended to offend, but to describe. Bigot and homophobe are ordinary English words, like the words toaster or television, which have a widely-agreed definition, and in many cases are being used entirely appropriately. If someone believes a same-sex couple should be prevented from getting married simply because they are a same-sex couple then they are a homophobe, and if they cling to their prejudice so intransigently that they refuse to tolerate the right of same-sex couples to marry then they are a bigot. It’s as simple as that.