Gay Marriage: The Uncomfortable Truth About Definitions

When the boundaries of one word are piously defended in favour of legal inequality and institutionalised discrimination, it’s time to accept the suitability of another word.  As definitions go, the word “bigot” is controversial in its usage but not in its definition.

Opponents of same-sex marriage loathe being called bigots. And quite rightly. It places them in the company of some detestable people, among whom they can count Michelle Bachman and Rick Santorum as allies. They claim that the label marginalises them for merely exercising their democratic right to freedom of expression. The parameters of free speech, however, grant only the right to speak; they have never extended a right of respect over the opinions being articulated. In short, you have a right to express a bigoted view, but when you do so, you will be called out for it.

It seems self-evident that the very process of arguing against legal equality for those outside the heterosexual norm is bigotry 101, but the rigours of any definitional debate should always begin with a quick dictionary consult. The glorious keepsake of meaning, otherwise known as the Oxford English Dictionary, prescribes a “bigot” to be “a fanatical adherent or believer; a person characterized by obstinate, intolerant, or strongly partisan beliefs.”

What belies the simplicity of this official definition, however, is the fact that the word “bigot” is among the most odious labels one can be slapped with. Its application carries the practical effect of stigmatising and disempowering its wearer, automatically rendering his or her views as repugnant ramblings deserving of instant dismissal. As an ultra-loaded word, brimming with negative connotations that frequently share the same breath with other undesirable labels – racist, sexist, homophobe – its propensity to cause stinging offence has seen it reserved as an epithet only deserving of those people so poisoned by prejudice as to be incapable of reason. We’ve been conditioned to believe that a bigot must be in possession of a belligerent “them and us” mentality, a hate-spitting rage-fuelled antagonism and, of course, a parochial and shameful ignorance.

But in the absence of the stereotype – when bigotry presents itself in an altogether more subtle guise – the bigot label is shied away from. It sits most uncomfortably when it is incongruous with all the stereotypical identifiers – when it isn’t poor, uneducated or vitriolic.  The label sits uncomfortably with the luxurious linens and refined lifestyles of those who live in Australia’s elite suburbs. It sits uncomfortably with some of our leading commentators, many of whom are the beneficiaries of the most prestigious Australian education on offer. It sits uncomfortably in Sunday church pews as demurely dressed parishioners imbibe a message of tolerance and love. Hell, it sits uncomfortably with the prestige of the Prime Ministership.  It sits uncomfortably with nice people, good people, charitable people. But bigotry need not be wielding a picket, nor does it require one to be showered in spittle as derogatory abuse is hurled at them. Prejudice can be passive and latent. As one US commentator put it, bigotry can have a kind and noble face.

Opponents of marriage equality have effectively cultivated a distinct shame in bigot-shaming. With exceptional success they have normalised the idea that the arguments against same-sex marriage deserve immunity from accusations of bigotry, simply because they are not exclusively advanced by extremist fringe groups. But since when did mass appeal provide an inoculation against prejudice?

The reality is that bigotry has become so standard in the same-sex marriage debate that it tends to follow a generic and predictable format. Beginning with the declaration of indignation at being sullied with the bigot label, this is followed by the production of flimsy “evidence” to the contrary. The statistical certainty that even they, vocal opponents of same-sex marriage, have homosexuals haunting their family tree is repackaged as “proof”. Apparently, nothing says “I can’t possibly be a bigot” like the sprouting off of a list of gay friends or gay family members.

From there, the speaker assumes impunity to navigate a passage through the scum-filled depths of bigotry to which they swiftly and predictably descend. Couched in the tempered language of “family values” and accompanied by an assurance of their genuine intention to avoid causing offence, it is easy to fail to see this for what it really is. These are the unmistakeable and ever-so-popular opening lines to the “I’m not a bigot, but…” speech.

The utterly unpersuasive and shamelessly discriminatory diatribe of the anti-same-sex marriage platform centres upon the team-line that gays should be excluded from marriage because they can’t biologically become parents. That is, they can’t put a ring on it because they are not in possession of the right “bits”. To witness the defence of this standpoint is to watch with jaw-dropping astonishment as an adult human being of supposed rational thought articulates some of the most embarrassingly flimsy logic to feature in public discourse in recent years. The representation of these views as “argument” would be laughable, indeed embarrassing for those making them, were it not for the fact that Australian gays are currently denied their right to be treated as equal citizens at the hands of this bewildering spectacle of intolerance. Is it any wonder that the gay community is so exasperated with offence?

When gay marriage is referred to as “tearing at the fabric of society”, or as “demeaning and degrading” marriage, the message is one which is fundamentally anti-gay. It stands in conflict with an ever-growing body of academic evidence which shows that children of same-sex couples are just as happy and well-adjusted as children of heterosexual couples, if not more so. Religion has imposed a spontaneous and petulant claim of semantic ownership over the word “marriage”, bestowing an immutability upon it that completely ignores the wealth of historical evidence to the contrary. The abolition of bans on interracial marriages between Aboriginal and White Australians, the creation of no-fault divorce, and recognition of rape in marriage all testify to the evolution of the institution within the last century alone.

It is also important to remember that marriage ceased being a Christian franchise long ago. It is governed by civil law, not the Bible, and in 2010, 69% of all Australian marriages were conducted by a civil celebrant rather than a religious minister.

Given the history of hate and oppression that has plagued the gay rights movement, the legacy of which is still felt in the alarming high number of youth suicides that are connected with sexual identity, the time has come to cease being ashamed of bigot-shaming. Opinions do not enjoy merit merely because they are sourced in divinity, or articulated by those who hold a respectable office. Unfortunately for the opponents of same-sex marriage, being a generally good person does not absolve them from the prejudice of their views. It does not render their intolerant message any more tolerable.

Disagreeing with someone else’s opinion doesn’t make you a bigot, but advocating for laws which entrench discrimination against them because you don’t approve of who they love unquestionably does. Uncomfortable though it may be, this is the indisputable truth of this debate.


Lisa Visentin is an Editor of Woroni. You can follow her on twitter here


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