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Paula Deen and DOMA

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The proximity of Paula Deen's demise and DOMA's should not go unremarked.

Deen has been booted from the Food Network and stripped of several other lucrative contracts after revelations of racist remarks.

One might ask how anyone could be surprised that Deen, a Southerner in her 60's, has ever used the "n-word." And one might wonder whether, given her expressed regrets for using the word, the punishment is disproportionate to the crime. But such queries miss the real problem.

Deen's mistake is not that she once said and did things that most people of her generation and culture have said and done, and which she now regrets. It's that she seems to remain relatively clueless about why there's so much fuss in the first place.

Frank Bruni in the New York Times calls it "willful obtuseness," but it's by no means clear that it's willful, or even that its wilfulness matters much. Even if it stemmed from plain old lazy negligence, Deen's failure to appreciate the ongoing effects of racism is troubling.

(Of course, Deen's credibility had already been tarnished by the timing of her revelation that she has Type-2 diabetes: three years after her diagnosis, and just in time for her to become a paid spokesperson for a diabetes drug -- even while she continued to promote the sort of eating that contributes to the disease.)

In the wake of the "n-word" controversy, Deen appeared on the Today Show to explain herself: "I is what I is," she announced, in a folksy version of the old La Cage Aux Folles number, "and I'm not changing." Well, there you have it.

Racism doesn't have to be explicit for it to be powerful and vicious. Indeed, it's the subtle stuff that can do the most damage, precisely because it's so easy to miss.

And the same is true for homophobia.

In striking down section 3 of DOMA, which denied federal recognition to state-sanctioned same-sex marriages, Justice Kennedy writes:

DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.

Predictably, marriage-equality opponents such as Maggie Gallagher (not to mention Justice Scalia in his dissent) are complaining that Kennedy's majority opinion unfairly paints them as haters. "Animus? Who, me?"

Of course, many of these opponents are the very same people who were arguing exactly a decade before that the state could make it a felony for same-sex couples to engage in private consensual sex. (The DOMA ruling occurred on the 10-year anniversary of Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down those laws.)

They're from the same crowd who analogize same-sex relationships to "man on dog" sex, who claim gays are "part of Satan," and who very recently argued that the Boy Scouts of America, after dropping its ban on gay youth, should be re-named the "Boy Sodomizers of America."

Animus? Don't be silly.

And these very same people will surely point to this column and say, "See! Now anyone who supports the traditional definition of marriage is going to be compared to racist bigots."

Just like that sweet Paula Deen, who is what she is, and isn't going to change.

I've long argued -- and still believe -- that the term "bigot" should be used judiciously. It's a conversation-stopper, and on these issues we generally need more conversation, not less.

But I've also argued -- and still believe -- that anti-gay bigotry is powerful. Even when it's subtle. Especially when it's subtle.

And just as you don't have to be throwing around the "n-word" to exhibit racism, you don't have to be calling gays "faggots" in order to signal that they, and their love, and their families, are less worthy than others.

Our battles aren't over, of course, even with DOMA. Section 2 still stands, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages validly contracted elsewhere. Seventy percent of Americans still live in states that deny gays the freedom to marry. Even in marriage-equality states, there's much work to be done.

But if that work focuses only on animus that is raw, explicit, and self-conscious, it remains incomplete.

John Corvino is the author of What's Wrong with Homosexuality? and the co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage. More at his website.