Fear and Loathing and Proposition 8

Like many of you, my feelings of euphoria after the Nov. 4 presidential election were mixed with bitter disappointment over California’s passage of Proposition 8. Since then, there’s been plenty of finger-pointing, from the left’s complacency leading up to the election, to the influence of the Mormon church, to supposed attitudes of African-American voters. In a previous blog post, I attributed support of Prop. 8 more abstractly to a mixture of hate and puritanical nosiness.

But since the vote I’ve been mulling it over, and I’m not sure any of that adequately explains what happened. It’s led me to larger questions, like where does hate come from anyway? And why hate homosexuality, when there are so many other things for us to collectively disapprove of?

I don’t pretend to have any real answers. But at the risk of trivializing a serious thing, I’ll admit that, whenever I consider the issue, I can’t help thinking that maybe Yoda was on to something: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (Of course, “Yoda” is only cribbing various, more-terrestrial spiritual traditions here, but sadly it’s Star Wars that I’ve internalized.) In other words, hate is both a cause and an outcome. We know what “suffering” it’s caused (Prop. 8), but I think we need to consider its own causes.

So. Fear. But fear of what? Why would somebody be afraid of same-sex marriage? I have to admit I’ve still got trouble wrapping my head around this. There’s rhetoric out there about churches fearing litigation if they don’t perform same-sex marriages, or of schools “teaching homosexuality,” whatever the heck that means. But these are just red herrings, bugaboos designed to lend an air of legitimacy to outright discrimination. They mask rather than reveal the root fears.

In a recent Salon interview, Richard Rodriquez argues that what religious conservatives fear is not so much same-sex marriage or homosexuality, but rather perceived changes in the nature of families and gender relations. So, the chief anxiety is not over whether two men or two women marry each other, but instead over what it means to be a man or a woman in a committed relationship. Imagine the confusion same-sex marriage must cause anyone who subscribes to clearly-defined roles for husbands and wives: if two men marry, then who is the husband, and who is the wife? Do they (*gasp*) both wear the pants in the family? Which partner is subject to Paul’s inexplicably popular injunction for “wives, [to] submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord” (Eph. 5:22)? Maybe same-sex marriage is only the most extreme (or most vulnerable) threat to traditional gender roles. Other perceived threats — like women in the workplace, or even contraception — have too much popular support these days to attack in the open. So same-sex marriage becomes a convenient scapegoat for a whole collection of perceived ills.

Maybe. Or maybe it’s both less complicated and more insidious than that. I recently read about a study suggesting that politically conservative people are inherently more fearful than their liberal counterparts. The authors of the study caution against reading too much into these results, but I have to say that the idea has a certain amount of explanatory power. Surely some people voted for Prop. 8 out of hate, and others out of the fears Rodriguez outlines, but maybe there’s a good portion of the “yes” vote who simply fear change of any kind. For people who are ruled by fear (and I think we’ve all known people like that), something like same-sex marriage represents yet another unwanted change in the status quo, another sure sign that society is going straight to hell in a handbasket. A vote for Prop. 8, then, might have just been a relatively easy way for these folks to temporarily delay the inevitable apocalypse always lurking just around the corner.

Of course, fear also goes hand-in-hand with ignorance. I suspect that a good number of the people who voted for Prop. 8 either don’t personally know any gay people, or they think they don’t. One solution, as Harvey Milk is supposed to have put it, is to “come out, come out, whereever you are.” Still, I think it’s important for us all to disabuse the fearful of their misconceptions. My own wife, who has yet to submit to anything, has written a brilliant post along these lines.


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