Had I known gay marriage advocates would react with vitriol and venom to the passage of California’s Proposition 8 (amending the state constitution to limit the definition of marriage to its traditional meaning: one man and one woman), I might have left my ballot blank on that issue and not voted “no,” as I had. No sooner did it become clear that a majority of voters in the Golden State approved the initiative than angry activists, mostly in Los Angeles, took to the streets to protest the popular result.
More than just blowing off steam from their understandable frustration at the loss, the protesters vilified those on the winning side of the issue. They demonized Mormons, marching from West Hollywood to their temple in Westwood, carrying placards slandering the church and hurling slogans demeaning its members, labeling them “scum” and calling them “vile.” All because Mormons were among the most generous supporters of the campaign to pass Prop 8.
Bill Rosendahl, an openly gay L.A. city councilman, called the faith a “perversion of Christianity.” The name-calling didn’t stop there. The disappointed opponents of Proposition 8 referred to the successful initiatives as “Prop H8″ or “Prop Hate.”
As they called their adversaries haters, they acted out their own hate on proponents of the measure. Other activists defaced a church in Chino Hills, California. When an elderly woman in Palm Springs tried to demonstrate her satisfaction with the election result, opponents harassed her, pulling the cross she was carrying out of her hands, throwing it to the ground, and stomping on it.
Even the New York Times took notice: “Some donors to groups supporting the measure have received death threats and envelopes containing a powdery white substance, and their businesses have been boycotted.”
Camille Paglia, a pro-gay, left-of-center scholar and cultural commentator, faulted those activists for launching a “program of open confrontation with and intimidation of religious believers, mainly Mormons,” comparing their behavior to an “adolescent tantrum.”
I did not want to be associated with such hatred, hence my consideration that maybe I shouldn’t have voted the same way on the initiative as I had. But then I realized that most of those who joined me in opposition to Proposition 8 did not support such public vilification of supporters. They did not leap to label them as “vile” individuals practicing a “perverted” faith.
The animus of various gay marriage advocates extended beyond the immediate aftermath of the election. Accepting an Oscar for his performance as pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk, Sean Penn said those who voted for Proposition 8 should be ashamed of their actions.
Thus, it was nothing new when celebrity blogger Perez Hilton slurred Carrie Prejean, Miss California, calling her a “bitch” for stating her belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. Hilton was just continuing a practice begun at least six months previously; he was just another prominent gay marriage advocate publicly slandering supporters of traditional marriage.
At the Miss USA pageant where he was a judge, Hilton asked Miss Prejean if she thought states should follow Vermont’s lead in recognizing same-sex marriage. Her civil response was not to his liking:
Well I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised and that’s how I think it should be between a man and a woman. Thank you very much.
Miss Prejean lost the title to Kristen Dalton, Miss North Carolina. Hilton said, “She lost it because of that question. … She was definitely the front-runner before that.” On his ballot, he gave her a zero for that answer.
Hilton, as we all know, did not limit his criticism to this low mark. Immediately after the competition, he made a video blog calling Prejean’s response “the worst answer in pageant history” and saying she lost “because she’s a dumb bitch.” He called her response “awful.” With such words, he suggests he finds it offensive when someone civilly expresses an opinion different than his own.
And while her opinion may not be his own, it does reflect that of a majority of the citizens of the state she represented as well as a larger majority of the nation.
We may not agree with her, but should at least respect her for stating her opinion without insulting gay people. We cannot, however, say the same for Mr. Hilton. He did not limit his slurs to allegations of her stupidity and comparisons to female dogs.
And yet while many in the media — including, to their credit, a number of left-of-center pundits and bloggers — took Hilton to task for his remarks, the controversy gave him a larger platform. He appeared on Larry King Live. Watching Larry King toss softball questions to Hilton, I wondered if the CNN host would have been as respectful of a social conservative who had gained prominence for calling gay people “perverts.”
To be sure, Hilton did apologize, but later retracted that apology, claiming he was justified in the smear.
By contrast, in various TV appearances after the pageant, Prejean showed great poise, saying she wouldn’t have changed her answer to the question even if it would have earned her the crown. She refused to attack Hilton personally. As a result, she has found quite a following. Indeed, she appears to have gained more prominence than the pageant’s winner. (A Google search for “Carrie Prejean” yields nearly 200,000 more hits than does one for “Kristen Dalton.”)
While Prejean has gained a following on the right, the gay left has largely been silent on Hilton, with a few even defending his name-calling. A number of gay people have, however, taken him to task. Gay Republican blogger Dennis Sanders said Hilton was “giving aid and comfort to the anti-gay side, because now Prejean will be seen a brave and devout woman standing her ground against the mean-spirited gays,” adding that “we need to be able to show some respect for people at times, even when they disagree with us.”
Such criticism was not limited to right-of-center gays. At the left-of-center blog Queerty, Japhy Grant offered an equally harsh assessment:
At the same time, beyond simple snobbery is the fact that images do matter and even from a short remove, this debate is a ludicrous one. Prejean’s certainly not the first person to state that she believes marriage should be between a man and a woman and Hilton’s decision to call her a “bitch” is ratings worthy, but I’m not terribly sure it does any good for the gay community.
Here in brief is the case against thoughtless, knee-jerk outrage: It’s incredibly easy to call anyone you dislike a homophobe and a bigot. Heck, we use the phrases fairly liberally ourselves from time to time, but when the conversation ends at “you are a bad person,” you’re only making yourself feel better and further solidifying the impression that the differences you have are intractable.
It may make Perez Hilton feel better to slur a woman with whom he disagrees on state recognition of same-sex marriage, but it does little to promote that cause. Indeed, it sets it back.
Gay marriage advocates can learn a lot from Carrie Prejean. She made her case simply and without acrimony. Perez Hilton, by contrast, resorted to ad hominem attacks.
Unfortunately, for those of us who favor a serious debate on gay marriage, Perez Hilton is not a lone voice in the wilderness slamming those who favor the traditional definition of marriage. He has merely gained more attention for his barbs.
I still believe I did the right thing in voting against Proposition 8. But when my fellow opponents behave as did Mr. Hilton this month and as did the protesters last fall, I feel less comfortable being associated with such prominent opponents of the initiative.
If such rhetoric alienates a gay man with lesbian friends who have sought state recognition of their marriages, how will it impact those lacking a personal connection to the issue?
Perez Hilton may have gotten a lot of media attention for his antics, but his rhetoric is nothing new. It’s just another example of the coarsening of public discourse on controversial subjects. And the debate on gay marriage seems to have attracted a more vitriolic exchange than other subjects.
For those who favor a serious conversation about changing the definition of this social institution central to our culture, the prevalence of such vitriol only serves to deepen our disappointment with popular culture.