I used to think being gay was wrong. I supposed that if you asked me, I would have said “being gay” wasn’t wrong, but “choosing to live as a gay person” was. I’m not sure I made that distinction at the time. I also thought it was appropriate for the state to encode its objection against homosexuality in its laws. While I probably would not have supported outlawing gay sex or instituting/continuing a formal program against gays, I believed the state shouldn’t offer any protections to gay people as gay people.

For example: In 1992 (I was 18 then), Cibolia had an amendment up for consideration by voters that would have invalidated then existing civil rights protections for gay people. These were laws that Danvar and a couple other cities had adopted to forbid discrimination in housing, hiring, and other practices based on sexual orientation. I supported that amendment, not so much because I bought into the “special rights” argument that amendment supporters invoked. I supported it because I thought such anti-discrimination laws meant the state “legitimized” and therefore implicitly recognized that being gay was acceptable. (For the record, the amendment passed and was overturned by the US Supreme Court 4 years later, the first of a string of decisions written by Justice Kennedy that led to Obergefell.)

My views then made up an almost textbook case of “bigoted position.” I can see that now. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t see that then. It took me a long time to change my mind on such issues.

The principal reasons I changed my mind were the following, in descending order of importance:

1. I noticed a pretty strong disjuncture between the Lockean idea of consent of the governed and the need for civil liberties with laws restricting gay rights.

2. As I grew up and from a variety of personal experiences and revelations, I came to have more empathy for gay persons.

3. Gay rights activists forced me to try to justify and rethink my position.

No. 3 was in last place for a reason, and in my opinion, was the least important for my conversion. My anti-gay views at the time certainly had a hearing at Cibolia State University, but it was a minority view there. I don’t think I ever voiced it, in part because the pro-gay rights position, as I heard it, was of the shaming sort, similar to what we find in Sam Wilkinson’s post Over There. It wasn’t uncommon to hear any objection to gay rights be answered with “why are you insecure about your sexuality?” or with a lecture about how Ancient Greeks thought homosexuality was good, so we should, too.

One thing the activists accomplished, however, was to compel me to justify, at least to myself, why I opposed gay rights. The stark reasons I mention in the first paragraph of this post solidified as my own answers to activists’ positions. As later events challenged and undermined those reasons, I began to see them as I see them now, as bigoted positions.

Perhaps my position would have changed sooner if the activists had tried to engage people like me more empathetically than they did. Perhaps not. But I realize that the goal of such activism isn’t necessarily to change my or anyone else’s mind or to honor my position on the matter. It could be to rally those who already agree, or to marginalize a certain position as bigoted or beyond the pale. In 1992, it was probably as much of a defensive posture as anything. Matthew Sheppard’s murder still hadn’t happened yet. And not only was Cibolia State University very close to where the murder would happen, it wasn’t a comfortable place to be gay or to support gay rights despite what seemed to me at the time to be the majority pro-gay rights view. There was one story  of a person wearing a “straight but not narrow” button being physically assaulted, assuming I’m remembering things right.

Even now, in 2015, the righteous, crusading, vengeful tone we see in Sam’s post is probably not wholly about righteousness, crusading, and vengeance. It’s still probably not safe to be openly gay, regardless of what the Supreme Court says about the right to marry. Still, perhaps that tone ill serves the cause, as several on that thread, including Will and Mr. Blue from Hitcoffee, have tried to note there.

About the Author

48 Responses to A bigot comes out of the closet

  1. Sam says:

    You yourself acknowledge that your positions amounted to bigotry. You were opposed to gay marriage/protection not because of anything substantive, but because gay people weren’t straight people, and thus, should be treated differently. I suppose you can police my tone as much as you’d like – your use of empathetically is particularly interesting – but what exactly are you expecting of me? Should I look the bigot in the eye and say, “I want to understand why it is that you hate gay people?” Do I have to do this even if I know the answer?

    I continue to be completely baffled as to why I’m expected to pretend that bigotry isn’t bigotry. And, as before, I welcome an argument in opposition to gay marriage that is also used in opposition to some straight marriages. When that happens, we can have a conversation about something other than bigotry. But until it does, I see no reason to waste my time on fumbling excuses for why gay people should be treated differently, nor do I see any reason to be pretend as though those fumbling excuses are anything other than what they obviously are.

    • First, thanks for reading my post.

      Second, in part I’m arguing about whether your approach actually works to convince others. As you imply in your comment–and as I try to admit in the OP–convincing others is not the only legitimate goal of calling out bigotry. But if we’re talking convincing others, then I think your approach doesn’t work because it elides certain nuances. Maybe that’s not how it ought to be, but that’s how I think it is. And again, if we’re not talking about convincing others, then maybe your approach is more effective. It’s still not as safe as it should be to be openly gay.

      You disagree with my assessment of your approach, probably, and that’s fine. I’ll also stipulate that when it comes to tone policing–which I admit is what I’m engaging in in my OP–we enter the realm of the subjective and infinitely disputable.

      (By the way, I’m leaving for the day, but I promise to read your response, if any, to this comment later in the day.)

      • Sam says:

        I would imagine, although I do not know this to be certain, that it takes a multitude of approaches to convince enough total people to change course. So is my particular approach enough to win the day? No, probably not. But as part of a broader project? It doesn’t strike me as out of bounds.

        And it especially doesn’t strike me as out of bounds when considering what might broadly be termed the opposition has said and done in regard to even the existence of gay people, much less their desire to get legally married. If one side can imply that gays are a threat to marriage, that gays are a threat to children, and that gays are a threat to society generally, surely the other can reasonably say, “You know what? That’s bigotry, plainly and simply, and here’s why…” without it being policed out of the conversation.

        Or perhaps to put that another way – substitute the word black for the word gay and it becomes much, much, much more difficult to deny what’s really motivating them. How ugly those arguments become when they’re being made about race rather than sexual orientation. But if you believe that orientation is, for most, an entirely settled matter (and that, for those that it isn’t, who cares anyway?), there’s no substantive difference between arguing skin color or sexual orientation.

        • Thanks for your answer. I do think that you’re probably right that your approach, with others, might play some role in changing minds. My own post was in part about approaches similar to yours and how they played a role–albeit indirect and attenuated–in changing my mind.

          I do think bigotry is a little more complicated than someone merely staking out a position that posits him/her as superior to the target of the bigotry. Even my “almost textbook” example of anti-gay bigotry was, I insist, a bit more complicated than I noted it.

          That’s likely to be cold comfort to those who were hurt by my decision to choose a bigoted position, however. And for the record, I do think, as I said in your thread Over There, that that video does deserve to be criticized.

          I know you’re getting it from all sides from those of us who see the issue (a little) differently from how you do. So again, thanks for engaging me here.

      • Jhanley says:

        Maybe the message is that old saw that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

        Or put less prosaically, being an asshole to people isn’t really about trying to change their minds, because there are actually more effective means of that, but about patting ourselves on the back for our superiority.

        • Dale Carnegie via Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

          A man convinced against his will
          Is of the same opinion still

        • Sam says:

          There’s nothing “assholish” about accurately describing a person’s position. If you want gays to be treated differently than straights, and if you don’t have a compelling reason beyond, “Gays are icky!” then that’s bigotry, and every allegedly compelling reason we’ve ever been offered has boiled down to “Gays are icky!” If anything, you’d think that the people opposed to gay marriage would be more than happy to own the descriptor, since that’s plainly what they’re calling for, but it is precisely because they know how the descriptor plays that they’re opposed to it, not because it somehow isn’t what they’re engaged in.

          Good grief, the sympathy pains felt for the people who grievously objected to gay couples being at each other’s sides even at a life’s end simply boggles the mind. “Oh, how can we be so mean about the motivations of people who belief that a man should die alone while his husband is kept from him? Surely we must not DARE describe that position for what it obviously is!”

        • kenB says:

          if you don’t have a compelling reason beyond, “Gays are icky!”

          Compelling to whom? From what I’ve read of your posts & comments, I don’t think your judgment of that is exactly un-biased. You seem to be rather lacking in humility and in charity towards those who disagree with you.

        • Sam says:


          What would “humility and charity” toward those that I disagree with look like exactly?

        • Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:


          It would what you are currently doing, just the opposite.

        • kenB says:

          Humility: “this is the way I see things, but my opinions are shaped by my assumptions, experiences and biases, so I should be extremely careful about judging or coercing others based on my opinions.”

          Charity: “It’s possible that that person’s opinion that I disagree with is the product merely of faulty logic and/or unarguably unreasonable biases and assumptions, but it could be a rational conclusion for him/her based on a different but reasonable set of assumptions and trade-offs. I’ll assume the best instead of the worst about the basis of this opinion, in order to continue conversation and to perhaps learn something new that will broaden my own perspective.”

        • Sam says:

          Cool answer Mike, but I’d like specifics. When somebody says to me, “I want gay couples to be legally recognized as being less than straight couples because doing otherwise offends my own religious sensibilities!” what do I respond with what exactly?

          • trumwill says:

            I favor breaking into a rendition of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” but I am not a good Mickelson Jagger impersonator.

        • Sam says:


          I will happily use either of these responses when confronted with as of yet unmade arguments in opposition to gay marriage. I have only arrived at my current conclusion about gay marriage’s opposition after listening to the woefully inadequate arguments made about it. None of them withstand even the mildest hint of scrutiny, especially if you look at those arguments in regard to marriages straight people are allowed to enjoy (and enjoy, and enjoy, and enjoy).

          As I’ve said elsewhere, if you have such an argument, I’m all ears, but as soon as we start heading down the same roads that we’ve been down 1000 times before, I’m not wasting anymore of my time.

        • Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:


          What would “humility and charity” toward those that I disagree with look like exactly? … I’d like specifics

          Really? You have no idea how to be humble and show charity?

          I find that sad and pathetic, but if you explicitly admit that, I will do my best to try to show you how it is done.

          BTW where was your father when you were growing up?

        • Sam says:

          Enjoy your evening.

    • Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

      Your obnoxiousness is obnoxious.

      Also, just because you keep repeating the word “bigot” doesn’t make someone a bigot.

      • Sam says:

        What makes somebody a bigot?

        • Dr X says:


          That’s a good question. And I think the answer is complicated because there are unconscious as well as conscious dimensions to bigotry. By unconscious dimnesions, I’m not referring to implicit racial bias, but to fantasies, hidden wishes, fears, and psychological defenses.

          GC. Good post on a worthy subject for discussion. Since my life’s study and work has been the mechanisms of human change, I probably have too much to say on the subject. If I get a chance later, I’ll offer my two cents on empathy, guilt and shame in relation to attitude change toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

        • Thanks, Dr. X.

          I’d look forward to reading anything you might have to say about it.

        • Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:


          One can tolerate gay people without being in favor of SSM. Therefore, being against SSM doesn’t make one a bigot per se.

        • Sam says:

          Mike Ray,

          “Just because I want the state to treat these relationships as legally lesser than those relationships doesn’t mean that I’m not tolerant!” isn’t particularly convincing. Maybe to you I suppose, but I’m not sure that arguing for separate but less equal is going to get you as far as you’re hoping.

        • Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

          To me though, that’s why “accept” and “tolerate” are distinct words. One can tolerate something that one doesn’t accept.

        • Sam says:

          One can “tolerate” something that they don’t “accept” but that doesn’t seem to be what you’re proposing. Tolerating something that you don’t accept means allowing for state-sanctioned marriages to occur and then grumbling about it on message boards, not encouraging the state to ruinously interfere in gay relationships and also grumbling about it on message boards.

  2. Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

    In the Seinfeld episode “The Soup Nazi” (and two others) there is a pair of gay bullies named Bob and Ray.

    This thread and the one Over There reminded me of them.

  3. kenB says:

    Causation is hopelessly complicated, so there’s no way to know for sure how effective un-nuanced outraged rants are vs. other potential causes. I know a few people whose minds were changed, but alas I wasn’t in their heads over the course of their conversion — though all I witnessed was (a) friends of theirs coming out and causing them over time to un-other GLBT people and (b) purposeful conversations in my church community during the long debate around ordaining gays & lesbians, who knows what else these folks might have encountered that was working on them.

    I do suspect though that much of the recent shift in public opinion is due less to changing minds and more to the more conservative older generation slowly dying off — even 15 years ago one could look at the differences in opinions among the 60+ crowd vs the under 30 crowd and realize that it was just a matter of time. Probably legalized gay marriage is just one more outcome of the social liberalization and abandonment of explicitly religious morality that started in the 60s.

  4. Dr x says:

    Older gen gradually dying off is no doubt a factor, but I doubt it adequately explains this.


    • kenB says:

      It’s really quite rude of you to use evidence to prove my hypothesis wrong like that.

    • Trumwill says:

      I actually recall seeing a chart that overlayed specifically “This is where we would be if nobody’s views on the subject changed” and “This is where we are” by age (or age group).

      Bigots became nonbigots. Minds were changed. However one sees it.

    • Dr X says:

      Later, I’ll get to my thoughts about empathy, guilt and shaming as factors in attitude change, but right now I’ll raise another possible influence on rapidly changing attitudes toward same-sex marriage over the past decade.

      The rise of broadband internet service and free porn in the home may have had a significant accelerating effect on changing attitudes. The change isn’t due to porn alone, but I think porn might matter more than most people realize. Again, I could go on too long about this, but here’s a quickie related to my thoughts on the matter.


    • kenB says:

      I’d be interested to see state-by-state equivalent polling summaries if they exist — especially if lined up with state supreme court rulings on gay marriage. Once again talking out of my ass, but I could see where court-directed legalization could have led to a rapid rise in acceptance in the given state.

      • Dr X says:


        “Once again talking out of my ass, but I could see where court-directed legalization could have led to a rapid rise in acceptance in the given state.”

        It would be interesting to see that data. If I were gambling, I’d bet that you’re right.

        One thought on that: it’s possible that legalization exerts a subtle sacralizing effect on moral perception of same-sex relationships.

        Historically, even in hetero relations, the dirty, disgusting thing, sex, becomes clean and acceptable through magical ritual (marriage). A similar sacralization effect through legalization of s-s marriage may be subtle, but perhaps it alters views of homosexuality and same-sex marriage by getting at the pre-rational roots of moral disapproval.

        You’ve probably noticed that there’s a segment of the population that approves of civil unions, but not same-sex marriage, even though civil unions and marriage can be legally identical. So why the obsessiveness about the name? Perhaps those invested in the sacralizing effects of marriage feel that they can legalistically skirt their moral qualms if they simply call same-sex marriage by a name other than marriage. The distinction may reflect magical thinking about the marriage ritual. That isn’t a put-down. It’s just part of the explanation. As rational as we think we are, we’re all shaped by pre-rational influences that contain elements of magical thinking.

        If what I wrote about about sacralization is unclear, I offered more explanation at the link below in a discussion of sex, sanctity and disgust.


        • Dr X says:

          By the way, this is why rational arguments can be so frustratingly unpersuasive. Though we hold completely rational views on some matters, when our views arise through complex pre-rational influences, we overlay reasons, justifications and arguments for our positions. The overlays may or may not be logically sound and valid, but the problem with persuasion when arguing at the conscious level is that rational argument doesn’t reach the underlying pre-rational bases for our views.

    • Sam says:

      For whatever this is worth – potentially not much! – exposure is another thing that has surely taken the edge off of gay marriage. Recognizing that there are gay people in our lives (our family! our friends! that guy down the street! etc…) and seeing that they don’t seem to be the threat that they’re made out to be by some has surely done as much to change attitudes as anything. Or at least, that’s an explanation that feels right.

      • Dr X says:


        “For whatever this is worth – potentially not much! – exposure is another thing that has surely taken the edge off of gay marriage”

        I think it’s worth plenty. This touches on some of my yet to be described thoughts about the role of empathy and guilt.

        I think exposure exerts a significant effect via more than one mechanism. First, as people know more out gays and lesbians, especially G&L persons they’re fond of, there’s more opportunity for empathy. Once we care about the feelings of flesh and blood gay people, anti-gay attitudes can become tinged with guilt and thus more conflictual. For some, this conflict is resolved by an attitude change. This won’t be true for everyone, but empathy and guilt create another psychological nudge toward change of views.

        Exposure may also down-tune disgust reactions and, in turn, moral condemnation. Disgust reactions and corollary moralizing can be up-tuned or down-tuned by culture and exposure.

        So affirming your view of exposure, I think that as more gays and lesbians have come out in recent years, we’ve seen moderating of anti-gay sentiments driven both by down-tuning of disgust, and empathy/guilt pressures.

        This may also explain why acceptance has come more quickly in large cities with substantial “out” populations. Perhaps an exposure feedback loop is also in play. More local out gay people has a softening effect on local anti-gay attitudes, which makes it more comfortable for gay people to be very out. Eventually, you see Pride parades with attendance of a million locals, including families with children, as happened here in Chicago just a couple of weeks ago.

        This phenomenon also affects markets and corporate behavior. Not only are internal corporate policies changed, but corporations become publicly supportive of gays and lesbians. The Pride parades in recent years feature as many corporate floats as local organizational floats.

        All this exposure is extremely difficult for people who still experience significant disgust/sin aversion reactions to gays. It can feel like biological imposition and contamination, perhaps reflected in expressions like “ramming it down our throats.”

        • Dr X says:

          I told you all that I probably have too much to say about attitude change, but if I’m not being off-putting with the lectures, I’ll also address the effects of shaming in another comment.

        • trumwill says:

          I’d love to run a guest post, but then you already have a blog more trafficked than this one.

        • Dr X says:


          Thanks. I’m not really sure where I’d go with it. Many facets to this subject, and it’s much easier to respond in pieces as part of a comment thread.

  5. trumwill says:

    I’m honestly not sure the degree to which it matters whether opposition to gay marriage is born from bigotry or some other motivation. Most of the alternative motivations involve a degree of ambivalence or indifference to gays that the difference just isn’t that great.

    If I have a problem with the B-word, it’s mostly that it’s not very helpfully discriptive. There are people who oppose gay marriage because they consider homosexuals and homosexual behavior to be disgusting and, to those of us who believe otherwise, that’s a pretty bigoted perspective.

    There are others who really don’t seem to have much of a problem with gays per se, but are willing to deprive them rights for some reason or another (and having discussed this issue with open ears, I have heard a great many reasons). This is bigoted in effect, and perhaps it is unavoidably bigoted in intent, but it is a wholly different kind of bigoted.

    To pick another example, Over There another contributor (not Sam) and I have had numerous conversations as to whether or not opposing open immigration – or at least a completely open visa system – is bigoted. He says it is. I’m honestly not sure he’s wrong, but it is a pretty different sort of bigotry than believing that yelling loudly and proudly that immigrants are inherently morally and intellectually inferior.

    These are very different birds, and it is not very clarifying to pretend otherwise, or that these distinctions are unimportant.

      • To elaborate on why I agree, here’s something I didn’t go into in my post. One of the reasons I thought being gay was wrong was that I saw it as a sin. I actually saw gayness as gay persons’ besetting sin, “just like” a straight person’s besetting sin might be (straight) lust, which I (ahem) knew myself to be guilty of at the time. My view was, at least in theory, a “hate the sin and not the sinner, and remember that I have my own sins.” (I admit I’m “remembering” a lot, and it’s quite possible I’m putting words/thoughts/ideas into my 18-year-old self. But I *think* that’s how I approached things at the time.)

        So I was able to tell myself, for example, that even though my sister was gay, I had no right to judge her. In fact, I loved her and looked up to her, and I even really liked her partner (who she’s still with and who now is my sister-in-law). Yet, I was also willing to endorse laws that would hurt her.

        Again, my position was bigoted. But when I say in the OP that my views constituted an “almost textbook case” of bigotry, that’s where the “almost” comes in, on the assumption that the “textbook” in question requires the bigot to believe he/she superior to the target of his/her bigotry. It wasn’t sheerly a belief that I was better than the gay person, although that belief was almost certainly there, along with the disgust factor Dr. X mentions in the post he linked to.

  6. Dr X says:


    And the line between belief in sinfulness and disgust can be quite blurry. A brief reflection on that relationship is here.


    • Interesting (as is your explanation above). I do think you’re on to something when it comes to marriage “sacralizing” gay relationships in a way that civil unions do not, although with civil unions there’ the added worry that they don’t necessary convey the same duties and privileges.

  7. Jaybird says:

    There are two things that you need to show people when you want to change their minds.

    One is the carrot.
    The other is the stick.

    Sam is demonstrating the use of the stick.

    If you don’t want to feel it, maybe you should look at the arguments being given by the carrots over there and tell people you changed your mind because of stuff like Will and Grace.

    You’re going to see this particular dynamic in use again and again over the next few decades (as your ancestors saw it in use again and again in theirs) and the main thing to notice is the types of people who are the first to run to the carrots, the first to run to the sticks, and the first to fold their arms and shake their heads and say “Nah, I’d rather be hit a few times.”

    There’s overlap between all of these groups.

    My theory is that this overlap is morality-independent, as much as we like to think that it’s not.

  8. Dr X says:

    “A stick has never changed anyone’s mind.”

    I disagree with that generalization. Shaming, which is what we’re discussing, can shape both private attitudes and cultural norms for behavior.

    If, when and how shaming will shape attitudes is a more complicated matter.

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