Three Faces of Canadian Homophobia

Thankfully most Canadians find the homophobic bigotry of people like Rob Ford as repugnant and silly as Ford himself. Of course, it remains disturbing that polls suggest that some 20% of Toronto Area voters seemed prepared to vote for Ford even though he has been disgraced and discredited along so many so many dimensions it is hard to keep track. Perhaps some of these people are bamboozled by Ford’s insistence that he is ‘spendaphobic’ rather than ‘homophobic’. But in wake of Ford’s well-known refusal to participate in Pride celebrations, his boozed and drug fueled rants and his petty (and apparently sober) refusal to support a study of homeless shelter space for LGBT youth Ford has become the ugly face of Canadian homophobia. Ford’s variety of homophobia, replete with familiar hateful epithets and evident anxiety about with even distant association with anything vaguely gay, is easy to dismiss and mock. Indeed, Ford himself is such a buffoon that he provides an unwitting performative self-refutation of this variety of homophobia. Ford simply epitomizes the idiocy of a crude but increasingly marginal variety of groundless homophobia.

But there remain two more superficially respectable faces of homophobia in Canada that give aid and comfort to Ford style homophobia. The first is familiar ‘faith’ sanctioned homophobia that comes in a variety of doctrinal varieties – Christian, Jewish and Muslim. This face of homophobia has more decorum than its street slur cousin. It gets a pass in many contexts because it is considered disrespectful to directly challenge the superstitious beliefs and silly cultural traditions on which this ‘kinder, gentler’ homophobia is predicated. So if the Bible condemns homosexuality or if putatively thoughtful theologians determine that homosexual activity is ‘objectively disordered’ then there is the makings of a ‘religious argument’ against homosexuality that is magically insulated from the normal standards of evidence and inference. Since religious folks holding homophobic views tend to either to keep to themselves or to express their homophobia somewhat politely (e.g., by claiming to only hate the sin while loving the sinner), society grants them various prerogatives that they would not receive if they were expressly racist. They get to teach their “religious values” to children, to discriminate in employment and to refuse marry men who wish to marry men. Some people of faith nobly struggle against this variety of homophobia and try to transform their religious traditions and practices. But many people of faith think their religious traditions provide some grounding for their homophobia. In the public domain, such folk tend to be quieter about their homophobia. But they jealously seek to preserve some domains –e.g., church, school or family – in which it can be politely expressed and enforced.

As my comments suggest, I do not think faith-based homophobia has any more credibility than in your face Ford-style homophobia. For various reasons, we may have to accept intolerance within religious groups. Perhaps we cannot insist that religious officials perform gay marriages or permit gay clerics. (After all, for parallel reasons we tolerate a lot of sexism inside religious groups.) However, the third and most invisible face of Canadian homophobia is what I will call vicarious homophobia. Vicarious homophobes claim to disavow both Ford style and faith-based homophobia. They say that they do not think there is any objection to homosexuality per se and they may be enthusiastic supporters of civil marriage equality. Some of their ‘best friends are gay’. Yet they harbor a kind of sympathy for faith-based homophobia and they worry about how full political recognition of civil equality with respect to sexual orientation may pose a threat to hallowed religious freedom. These are the folks who think that it is acceptable to give public accreditation to law schools or teachers’ colleges who, for ‘religious reasons’, deny admission to sexually active gay people.

Vicarious homophobes are generally seem like nice folk. Many will vigorously disavow homophobia. Yet they are eager – to various degrees – to defend the ‘rights’ of religious homophobes to deny civic equality to gay people. They think that religious liberty needs to be ‘balanced’ against the rights of gay people to equal treatment in the public domain. But once one realizes that religious liberty is no way jeopardized by insisting that educational institutional seeking PUBLIC recognition and accreditation respect the equal standing of LGBT citizens then one must conclude that those defending bigoted admission policies of a university such as Trinity Western harbor some lingering anxiety about homosexuality. They think that discouraging homosexual conduct on putative religious grounds is legitimate in a way that discouraging interracial sexual intimacy is not. But that’s a distinction that does not bear scrutiny, Religious objections to homosexuality are just as weak as religious objections to miscegenation.

Regrettably we have to live with folks who believe their God assigns a lower moral status to women, members of other races or gay people. Such folk have ample opportunity in their faith communities to preach and practice inequality. Religious freedom allows the intolerant to follow their traditions in their religious associations and to worship together. But respect for religious freedom does not require that our public institution valorize intolerance of religious fanatics. Of course, vicarious homophobes would demur at my use of the term fanatic to describe people of faith who sincerely think their faith instructs them to discriminate. But that’s precisely what makes them vicarious homophobes: they entertain the idea that religious objections to homosexuality might be reasonable or that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation really is not analogous to racism. Vicarious homophobes do not want to make the argument but they think that faith-based homophobes might have a point after all.

So don’t be fooled by the beguiling face of vicarious homophobia –support for the accreditation of Trinity Western University’s law school is not really about respect for religious freedom. Rather it is predicated on the unsustainable thought that religious objections to homosexuality have some credibility.


Three Faces of Canadian Homophobia — 3 Comments

  1. Reading this, it seems to me that so many issues are conflated that it’s hard to know where to begin picking them apart.

    Anyway, I’ll just highlight the issue that seems most important to me personally:

    “But once one realizes that religious liberty is no way jeopardized by insisting that educational institutional seeking PUBLIC recognition and accreditation respect the equal standing of LGBT citizens…”

    To me, this goes at the issue from the wrong direction. I’m all for accrediting Trinity Western, for instance, but it’s not MAINLY because of religious liberty. I certainly do think that’s a necessary and legitimate issue for concerned parties to invoke, but since it’s not my religion, it’s not what my MAIN interest.

    What is MAINLY of interest to me isn’t whether religious liberty is threatened by not accrediting a school like Trinity Western, but what is lost precisely in the PUBLIC sphere by trying to suppress or marginalize such a school. I could give a long statement on this, but there shouldn’t be much need if you’ve read John Stuart Mill, say. Or some of Habermas, for that matter.

    In any case, suffice it to say that I think that what’s most obvious about such arguments as…

    “They think that discouraging homosexual conduct on putative religious grounds is legitimate in a way that discouraging interracial sexual intimacy is not. But that’s a distinction that doe not bear scrutiny, Religious objections to homosexuality are just as weak as religious objections to miscegenation.”

    …is that, well, this is obviously not an argument at all. It’s a string of assertions which are meant to be axiomatic, i.e., it’s obviously question-begging. “Shut up, he explained” is not an argument, I’m afraid.

    In any case, it so happens that I also don’t accept “religious objections to homosexuality” – though I certainly appreciate that many (not to say all) of them are offered as actual arguments, not the kind of “shut up, he explained” liberal totalitarian b.s. above.

    More importantly, however, I recognize that human sexuality and social codes based around it have an inherent and necessary fluidity to them. They are not completely fluid, obviously (i.e., sexual orientation is a fact, not a construct), but the way in which individuals and societies negotiate sexuality is a very complicated business, and it seems pretty clear to me that every settlement will leave something to be desired. So I appreciate religious communities that have thought extensively about what the best way for human beings to live with their sexuality might be, and who try to test out those understandings in their own lives.

    So I don’t plan on ever signing a covenant like the one at Trinity Western, but I’m certain that I have something to learn from thoughtful people who have signed it and done their best to live in accord with it. And I know for a fact that such people exist. Moreover, I think very much the same thing about people who have lived in various sorts of gay communities – and one reason that I gratefully welcome the decline of homophobia is that I’m excited to see what people from those backgrounds will now be enabled to contribute to the broader society (openly, as opposed to covertly). I think that’s a genuinely wonderful, exciting development in the modern world. I also think it would be disgrace and terrible misfortune if communities that represented the incredible wealth of intellect, humanity, and insight of traditional religions (for instance) were somehow suppressed or even stigmatized as a result. We would all lose so many opportunities to be challenged, learn, and improve ourselves as a result.

    I’m aware that this will never be a serious concern for mobs whose natural instincts are to chant something along the lines of “shut up, he explained” at anyone who deviates from the party line in the slightest respect. But one goal of a liberal society should be to make people more tolerant, not less, and so this sort of thing still has to be opposed.

  2. One other point ought to be mentioned too, I think: my reasons for being a “vicarious homophobe” (apparently) are somewhat personal, including in the fact that they’re pretty unique to a country like Canada. But although Canada is a wonderful (and important) place, it’s also moderately unique. But if you think about promoting liberal values in the broader world, I think you have to wonder how it would work in India, Turkey, Russia, etc., if liberals all adopted the kind of “shut up, he explained” approach to disagreement exemplified above. Would it really improve the situation for homosexuals (or any minorities) in those countries? It seems to me like we would be left with two options: religious fanatics and secular fanatics. I can see why the fanatics would enjoy that. But I think that the actual pluralistic history of Canada shows that there are preferable alternatives. But what am I saying? I’m a “vicarious homophobe”, after all – burn the witch!!!! burn the witch!!!! burn the witch!!!! burn the witch!!!!!!! burn witches burn!!!!!!!!

  3. Thanks for your comment John. It’s true that I assume that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is no more justified than discrimination grounded in racial prejudice. I assume that there is now an established public consensus that public institutions are not justified in limiting access to goods, opportunities and service on the basis on sexual orientation. Thus marriage cannot be restricted to heterosexual couples and access to public education or health care cannot be determined on the basis of sexual orientation. That is, moreover a basic liberal position. The opportunity to be a lawyer or a teacher with a credential that is endorsed and valorized by the state is a kind of public good. My view is simply that the state should not endorse institutions (e.g., by accrediting them) that have policies that create unfair access to such public goods. TWU wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to engage in discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation while having its educational programs given public recognition. Does denying accreditation come at the cost of religious liberty? I do not think so. Folks at TWU can worship as they see fit, exclude members of the LGBT community from their churches and even propound expressly homophobic doctrines. They can even have their ‘covenant’ – though one might note that the ‘covenant’ restricts the religious liberty of some people as it denies gay people of Christian faith who might otherwise find a Christian institution attractive access to the university. But the prerogatives at the heart of religious liberty do not include the entitlement to have the state publicly endorse a discriminatory admissions policy. So if TWU insists on its ‘covenant’ as a condition of admission then as a private education it can do so. But TWU also wants to decide the basis on which access to a public good is determined. It’s hard to see how respect for religious liberty requires the state to be complicit in violating the public values it is committed to upholding. In effect, I am suggesting that the prerogative that TWU seeks does not fall within the domain of religious liberty because determining the basis on which citizens have access to a public good is not a protected liberty. Instead what TWU seeks is to have what Ronald Dworkin once called an ‘external preference’ counted in public policy. We do not count the external preferences of homophobes who wish to deny access to marriage to gay people and we should not, in my view, count the preference of TWU to limit access to publicly accredited legal education to gay people. By the way, there is no obstacle to people of faith voluntarily signing a TWU style covenant. But options to pursue a legal education should not be determined by whether one is willing to sign one. I agree that a liberal society should be tolerant but we currently live in a society in which homophobia is a serious problem and religion is an important source of this variety of intolerance.