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Homophobia, Racism, and Bad Excuses

[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner]

Several years ago, I was having dinner at a friend's house when there arose a discussion of Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington D.C.'s public schools. My friend had several young kids who attended district schools, and she was attempting to explain why so many of her fellow parents opposed Rhee. In essence, she said, people simply could not stand Rhee's attitude. They found her dismissive, condescending, and insensitive. When I asked about her actual policies—the changes she was pushing, in particular—my friend explained that she (my friend) was supportive of them, as were many of her friends. But they just could not abide Rhee's personality. Supporters of Rhee's reforms, my friend explained, had to understand what was driving people to oppose her.

What was strange to me about this conversation was that my friend and I took completely different lessons from her story. She thought that although people were wrong to oppose Rhee's policies, the parents doing so at least had an understandable excuse. I thought the opposite: if the people opposing Rhee (at least the people my friend was discussing) opposed her policies sincerely, that would be perfectly understandable (whether it would be misguided is a question I will leave to education experts). Instead, these parents were putting their own personal feelings—their bruised egos or sense of being disrespected—ahead of important public policy. What could be more solipsistic? This excuse was not just bad; it inadvertently made Rhee's opponents look small-minded.

In The New York Times yesterday, Frank Bruni addressed a completely separate issue: homophobia in the African-American community. As Bruni writes:

In some perfect world where human nature is less messy and history less fraught, any and all people who had ever suffered discrimination would find common cause, gathering together under one big anti-bigotry banner. In our world there are divisions and even tensions among minority groups, and the quest to legalize same-sex marriage—now permitted in six states and Washington, D.C.—has met particular resistance from African-Americans. This isn’t a topic that advocates for gay rights or their many black supporters relish discussing, because it focuses on a wedge where they wish there was a tighter bond. But polls indicate that support for same-sex marriage lags among black Americans.

Bruni goes on to mention that African Americans voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 8, the ballot measure in California that prohibited same-sex marriage. And he notes that much of the opposition was based on religious grounds. But then he adds this:

But it’s also important to recognize that people lobbying for gay rights have at times given African-Americans pause by appropriating “civil rights” language and arguments in too broad a manner. Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, noted the existence of phrases like “gay is the new black” and said that attempts to equate the persecution of gay and black Americans can be “deeply offensive.” African-Americans were enslaved. And during their brutal struggle for justice, they couldn’t make a secret of what set them apart from others, said Henderson, who supports same-sex marriage, during a phone interview Friday. When gay men and lesbians glide over such details, he said, it feels “inherently disrespectful to the black experience in this country.”

Again, what's fascinating here is that Henderson (and perhaps Bruni, given his use of the phrase "important to recognize"), thinks this explanation of voting behavior is exonerating. Henderson is saying that African-Americans are so offended by phrases like "gay is the new black" that they decide to vote against gay marriage. This is almost an exact definition of reactionary conservatism, and I see no reason why anyone (particularly Henderson and Bruni) should find it exculpatory. I have no idea whether this is actually one of the reasons that African-Americans voted against Proposition 8, and I hope it isn't. But it is disturbing that anyone thinks that it even approaches an excuse, or an understandable explanation for denying gay people the right to marry.