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.