Joseph Backholm of Preserve Marriage Washington
Like many other GLBTs who follow the debates on same-sex marriage (SSM), I’ve often suspected that the professional marriage traditionalists are not leveling with us about what really drives their concerns. Nor do they necessarily understand their deeper motivations. We know that anti-SSM organizations like the Family Research Council (FRC) and the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) constantly hone their messages and field-test their talking points. It’s for their opponents to guess which of these talking points are still in testing stage, how vulnerable they may be, and how firm a grip the spokespersons have on them.
In February of this year, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill approving same-sex marriage. Earlier this month, opponents of the bill submitted enough petition signatures to challenge the legislature’s decision by public referendum on the November ballot. The referendum’s sponsor is Preserve Marriage Washington (PMW), headed by Joseph Backholm.
In a June 6 live-chat organized by the Seattle Times, Backholm made a curious claim about the “true” motivations of the marriage equality movement. But in so doing, he revealed one of the deepest concerns of his own movement. Here are his words:
Ultimately this movement is not about marriage. Does anyone really think [GLBT] lobbying efforts will shut down if same-sex marriage becomes law in Washington? I think the goal of the movement is to eradicate from the public sector any notion of the idea that there is a difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality. That is why, whether they go to a photographer, an adoption agency, a courthouse, a doctor’s office, or a counselor’s office, they want to make sure they will never encounter someone who feels free to express their belief that there is a difference between heterosexuality and homosexuality. If that is the goal, it can only be accomplished with a significant reduction in freedom for a huge percentage of the population. [italics mine]
Backholm would have us believe the marriage equality movement is part of a sinister stealth strategy aimed at eradicating the difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality—a difference that he believes to be so important that he alludes to it twice in this short statement, using almost the identical words each time. The GLBT movement, in his view, hopes to enlist state power in an effort to suppress all recognition of that difference. Woo-woo!
Anyone who has studied anthropology or social psychology knows that fears of indifferentiation run deep in human societies: social order is based on difference, and any blurring of distinctions—e.g., between male and female, sacred and profane, mother and lover, god and mortal—threatens that order and will almost surely produce minotaurs and cause violators to pluck out their eyes. (See image.) Taboos exist to preserve difference and hierarchical structure, and we moderns are as much in thrall to them as were our early ancestors.
What we need to understand about taboos is that some are conducive to survival—e.g., the taboo against careless handling of blood and feces—while others are purely contingent—e.g., the Mosaic prohibition against eating shellfish. But not everyone does understand this, and Backholm is playing to our ignorance and our fears. If effective use of highly emotive words were our only measure of merit in this debate, then Backholm should be congratulated for homing in on that single word, “difference.” But it is not. Truth claims are still important to some of us and should be carefully scrutinized.
His statement goes off into the weeds on three tangents:
First tangent: The implicit “stealth” claim. There’s nothing stealthy about the GLBT rights movement. Its goals have been fully articulated by legislative leaders (e.g., Senator Ed Murray, D-WA), public intellectuals (e.g., Michelangelo Signorile, Andrew Sullivan), and professional rights advocates (e.g., Evan Wolfson). Put simply, our goals are full equality under the law and an end to state-sanctioned discrimination. Marriage equality represents a giant step toward these goals.
Second tangent: The claim regarding state suppression of ideas, or “notions.” No one holds that traditionalist views about homosexuality or marriage must be suppressed by law. That would be not just undesirable, but impossible. Our hope is to garner popular support for legislation and judicial decisions that will put an end to discrimination. Our goal is to change not only laws but also hearts and minds. That said, many or most of us believe that our constitutional right to equal protection under the law should never be put to a popular vote. In a constitutional democracy such as ours, majorities may not vote to deprive minorities of their rights.
Third tangent: The “reductions in freedom” claim. Backholm’s dire warning to his supporters that they will ultimately lose their freedoms if GLBT activists accomplish their goals is only partly true. No one can deprive Americans of their freedom to believe or profess whatever they like, but our courts have repeatedly placed limits on religious practices for over 150 years. For example, federal and state statutes prohibiting gender or racial discrimination do not typically exempt discriminatory practices motivated by religious belief, except in core religious institutions (churches, synagogues, etc.). Thus, the Catholic church may refuse to ordain women as priests, but a private hospital may not refuse to treat African-Americans, even if it owned by a religious denomination that holds segregation to be part of God’s plan (as Mormons and Southern Baptists once did). So yes, we would like legal protection from discrimination, and this means that some people will lose their “freedom” to discriminate.
So that’s the part of Backholm’s “warning” that is true. What is not true about it is the presumption that GLBTs are united against the “notion” of difference in sexual orientation. This is just frothy nonsense, and he knows it. If he insists on making this preposterous claim, he should be required to offer evidence.
No one wants to “eradicate all differences.” What we would like to see eradicated are differences in treatment and opportunity. This is what true equality means: not that we are identical to one another in every respect, but that each one of us has equal access to opportunities and a fair chance to succeed. Backholm is both bright and well-educated, and there can be little doubt that he is aware of this critical distinction.
Backholm is deliberately vague about this word “difference” and dares not unpack his own rhetoric because it comes so dangerously close to the truth. The talk about loss of freedom to express beliefs about “difference” is code that many in Backholm’s movement are capable of deciphering. The ones who cannot decipher it will take it at face value, which is also fine for Backholm’s purposes. How much of all this he actually understands at a conscious level is anyone’s guess.
So what is the real fear?
It is the same fear that Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage has expressed so often in the latest phase of her propaganda efforts.
It is the fear of the huge shift that is happening in public opinion about homosexuality. That is no small thing to fear, and we must never underestimate its power to motivate resistance to change. Growing acceptance of gays and lesbians has been steadily destabilizing moral discourse around two issues that are always in some sense front-and-center in our psyches and our social interactions: sexuality and gender. What used to be wrong is now right, what was shameful is now a source of pride, and what used to be unspeakable is now considered respectable. As old taboos lose their potency, new ones surface to replace them: anti-gay rhetoric is now more often associated with religious bigotry than with righteousness or respectability, and our movement’s anti-discrimination victories—patchy and uncertain as they are—have radically unsettled the cultural assumptions of millions of Americans.
It’s not pleasant to tell a joke, only to be told it is in poor taste.
It is not pleasant to rant about gays and lesbians, only to realize everyone thinks you are a fool.
It is not pleasant to quote Bible verses condemning homosexuality, only to be reminded that others in your company don’t really give a damn what the Bible says.
It is not pleasant to realize that your nephews and nieces consider your anti-gay views a sign that you are now old and out-of-touch.
It is not pleasant to be stigmatized.
The Civil Rights era was an exceptionally stressful time for many white Americans. The old taboos were being replaced by new ones—their opposites. Where mixing of the races was once taboo, now segregating them was taboo. The familiar polarities of insider/outsider, hateful/good, and right/wrong were reversed in a relatively short period of time, and a whole generation of racists were morally marginalized.
Marginalization looks to be Joseph Backholm’s greatest fear.
What can Backholm and his supporters do to stay in the mainstream? Here’s one idea.