A married lesbian couple bring their children to a restaurant. The host refuses to seat them because, as he explains, interaction with gay people violates his religious beliefs. The mothers speak to the manager, who reminds the host of the restaurant’s non-discrimination policy and demands that he seat the family. Who is the victim? The mothers, who must explain to their children why their parents’ mere existence is, for some, a despicable sin? The children, who were forced to watch their parents shamed and humiliated in public?
None of the above, according to New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat: By his moral calculus, the host would be the true victim, the family the “victors,” and the hypothetical—which is far from fanciful—demonstrates not the continuing threat of discrimination in America, but, rather, the marginalization of devout Christians at the hands of bellicose pro-gay forces.*
In his most recent column, Douthat strives to reframe the current debate about anti-gay discrimination (and even segregation) into one about sincere believers being brutally trampled by gay rights activists eager to bury religious freedom. It’s a failed effort, but a useful failure nonetheless. Arizona’s anti-gay bill may be dead, but several more are alive and kicking, and Douthat neatly anticipates the many straw men, euphemisms, and verbal chicanery anti-gay forces will deploy to make their case.
In fact, Douthat’s column is such an effective piece of homophobic apologia that I expect many red state politicians to borrow from its playbook in the coming months and years. To make their job easier, I’ve laid out the most effective means of disguising raw hatred as religious liberty and rounding discrimination down to “dissent.” If you’re thinking about introducing an anti-gay discrimination bill to your own state’s legislature, you should pay close attention.
Step 1: Put your tail between your legs.
Douthat’s piece is so self-pitying that he actually has to spend a paragraph explaining why he doesn’t mean to be self-pitying. This is a brilliant move. By conceding straightaway that nationwide gay marriage is basically inevitable, and describing anti-gay conservatives “negotiat[ing] surrender,” Douthat immediately earns our sympathy. This pity distracts us from the absurdity of his claims: That the “national debate” over gay rights is nearly over, that gays will soon have won, and that what’s left of the anti-gay “religious subculture” could be crushed by “state power” in the near future. Given the horrifying ubiquity of LGBT workplace discrimination, the jarring lack of state and federal laws protecting gay people, and the continuing lack of marriage equality in most states, Douthat’s theory is ludicrous at best and insulting at worst. But because he waves the white flag so early on, we’re tempted to accept his premise as realistic pragmatism.
Step 2: Make homophobes the real victims.
Only a tiny handful of business owners have been sued under LGBT anti-discrimination laws in the minority of states that have them. Douthat, like most state legislators who have defended “religious liberty” bills, explicitly cites that infamous trio: a florist, a photographer, and a baker, who claimed their Christianity required that they deny service to gay couples. There’s a reason these same three cases pop up time and time again: They tell a very human story of a small-business owner suddenly trapped in the labyrinth of a lawsuit, the victim of the gay rights movement run amok. Never mind that the real victim isn’t the business owner who acted on his hatred, but the customer who suffered from his discriminatory policies. If you tilt the looking glass just right, you can reverse these roles, turning a bigot into a principled entrepreneur and a wronged minority into entitled bullies.
Step 3: Find an audience-appropriate euphemism for “discrimination.”
Douthat knows the typical Times reader is sophisticated enough to see past the hackneyed doublespeak of “religious liberty,” so he lands on a clever new euphemism for anti-gay discrimination: “dissent.” According to Douthat, the Arizona bill was just a way for “religious conservatives” to “carv[e] out protections for dissent.” He refers to anti-gay Christians as “a dissenting subculture,” and hopes more states pass Arizona-style laws that “let the dissenters opt out.” By rebranding anti-gay bigots as dissenters, Douthat transforms them from retrograde homophobes to virtuous objectors, unwilling to bend their beliefs to match public opinion. This makes them seem appealing—until you remember that their “dissent” is a hatred of gay people so vehement that they’ll violate non-discrimination laws just to make sure they never, ever have to provide a gay person with a basic service. That’s not the kind of righteous political dissent Times readers like to see, but Douthat shows us that with enough elisions of logic, the two can be made to bear some spurious resemblance.
Step 4: Dog whistle to homophobes.
How can Douthat distinguish religious homophobia from religious racism? He can’t, of course: As ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser explained, racists across America raised analogous—indeed, often nearly identical—objections to non-discrimination protections for blacks, which were definitively struck down by a near-unanimous Supreme Court in 1981. Yet Douthat scoffs at these comparisons, labeling them “mendacious and hysterical.” I’d love to hear a strong argument as to why religious homophobia is so much more acceptable than religious racism, but sadly, Douthat doesn’t even attempt to give us one.
Since this argument—that there’s no parallel between 2014 Kansas and 1960 North Carolina—is really the crux of Douthat’s column, I wish he’d given us even a glimpse into his rationale. But I have a decent idea of why he didn’t. At the core of Douthat’s argument is a tacit shrug that, well, obviously anti-gay discrimination isn’t as bad as racism: The Bible’s hostility toward gays is a good deal clearer than its distaste for blacks. But Times readers would have no truck with such base bigotry, and so Douthat slips it between the lines, embedding it in the scaffolding that holds up his central premise. By the internal logic of Douthat’s piece, homophobia is simply more defensible than racism. Nothing else could explain why denying gay customers is OK while denying black customers isn’t.
What’s scary about Douthat’s column is how easily a casual reader can inadvertently consent to this implicit thesis. And as more and more states consider bills like Arizona’s, we’ll learn whether the rest of America is ready to concede that businesses turning away gays at the door is an evil this country can live with.
*Correction, March 4, 2014: This post originally linked the words "far from fanciful" to a TopekasNews article that claimed a restaurant had ejected a gay man telling him "no gay eating here." The article is a hoax. The words now link to a Chickasha Express-Star article about a gay man who alleges he was ejected from a Walmart store.