08/31/2012 11:16 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Why The GOP's Coded Homophobia is Surprisingly Cruel and Cowardly

There was something surprisingly cruel--and equally cowardly--about the way Republicans glibly touted their exclusionary position on marriage in this week's Convention. "The man who will accept your nomination," said VP nominee, Paul Ryan in the obligatory "values" line of his speech praising Mitt Romney, "is prayerful and faithful and honorable. Not only a defender of marriage, he offers an example of marriage at its best. Not only a fine businessman, he is a fine man, worthy of leading this optimistic and good-hearted country."

On the surface, it looks like the typical throwaway line to the conservative base that signals a commitment to values of religious belief, banning abortion and denigrating gay people. It was that, but this year it was both more muted and more invidious. Perhaps because the acceptability of anti-gay sentiment in polite company is waning even in some conservative circles, that sentiment was especially truncated this year. The three words, "defender of marriage" were the only ones in Ryan's speech referencing the same-sex marriage question. Romney's own speech last night reinforced the message by saying simply that he would "honor the institution of marriage"--a harmless-sounding phrase meant to set him apart from the adulterous Bill Clinton and the gay-marriage-loving Barack Obama.

But the cavalier juxtaposition Ryan drew of Romney's position on marriage and his experience in marriage--gays must not be allowed to do what Romney does so beautifully--was stinging. It evoked, for me, the stark imagery of anti-black and anti-immigrant exclusion by supremacists and chauvinists who feel entitled to their unearned status.

When I was six, my family joined an all-white country club in a black area of Philadelphia (actually, word was that Bill Cosby was a member, but I never saw him there). As a kid I rarely stopped to consider how the African American residents of the neighborhood might have felt passing by the high brick and iron walls, glimpsing the lush blanket of grass tennis courts peopled by white-skinned players clad in the required white tennis clothes. I'm not sure I even wondered the obvious until years later: why was I allowed in, and they weren't? (The club's make-up diversified greatly in subsequent years).

But I'm pretty sure I felt something similar when I heard Ryan's words this week. Romney will be a great "defender of marriage," we were told. Against what or whom was unsaid. Why marriage needed defending was unexplained. How the GOP would do it--by ripping a hole in the U.S. Constitution to take away, for the first time, a whole population's rights--was not mentioned. Everyone knows, of course, or those who are paying attention, that the threat is us, gays and their sympathizers. Romney will insist that some people--those whose relationships are lesser to him and his Party--must not be able to join the club, while sauntering onto the courts of exclusion in his lily-white outfit, the unworthy peering in through the gates at what they can never attain. For his discrimination, he'll be called a "fine," "worthy" and "honorable" man, an example to the rest of us--unless you're gay and you're not welcome to even try to live as worthy a life. That's what's most insidious about Ryan's remarks: a Party that seeks to be aspirational, that claims to believe in meritocracy, freedom and individual initiative, is summarily shutting out a whole segment of the population from following the example of its aspiring leaders--and sneering as they do it.

When I talk to straight acquaintances who oppose same-sex marriage, one of the most delicate, awkward and usually-avoided thread lines is the reality that they are seeking to deprive me of something they themselves enjoy--and never with a sound rationale (because I have yet to hear one). I've always believed in good-faith discourse among people who disagree, including these difficult conversations among unequally situated individuals. Equality opponents should be able to state their position even if it means saying to someone in the room, "I should get what you can't have."

Yet there's a level of basic sensitivity--and if you're a genuinely thoughtful person, perhaps a motivation to re-think your position--that seems compelled by the experience of sharing directly with another human being your belief that they shouldn't, by law, have what you have, or even the option to pursue it.

Ryan's words not only fell short of that principle (not surprising in today's Republican Party) but cruelly and callously rubbed in the faces of millions of Americans his belief that we are lesser, and that while the rest of America ought to come together around the honorable values espoused and exemplified by the GOP's leaders (to be clear: his point, not mine), gays need not apply. In fact, they're the threat to those values, the enemy from which Republicans must protect the good and the decent.

This is also why the GOP remarks were cowardly. Neither Ryan nor Romney had the courage to spell out how draconian and anti-gay their Party's position is, instead speaking in code to those who already get it, avoiding offending those in the middle. On Medicare, Ryan thundered, "we need this debate." But on the social values that Republicans claim stand at the core of their being, they want no debate, just underhanded cues to appease the social conservatives in their fragile coalition.

The discourse around same-sex marriage today, despite much progress on the issue itself, remains as impoverished as my boyhood brain's limited understanding of racial injustice. When journalists ask political leaders their views on the matter, they seldom compel them to offer any rationale for their position--for why they believe it's necessary, beneficial and just to exclude gay people from marrying their partner--instead preferring a simplistic checklist of positions.

Anti-gay leaders must be held accountable for their positions. Coded sops to the far right must not go unnoticed or undiscussed. Anyone seeking to lead this country should have the courage of their convictions, and when they fail that test, Americans should question whether they're leaders at all.