06/14/2012 11:32 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

In Defense Of The Word 'Bigot'

I was talking with a friend, who, in the course of our conversation over lunch, told me, "it does not get you anything to dismiss someone as a bigot; the moment you call them a bigot, you end the discussion, you can't convince them anymore." She's right. No LGBT person has ever converted a straight person to the cause of equality by dismissing them as a bigot. (A saying supposedly uttered by Abraham Lincoln come to mind here: "Am I not destroying my enemies by making friends of them?") But -- I wondered -- what if there were something beyond convincing them?

I am known among my friends of being inflammatory, at times, when it comes to politics. In the past, I have called those opposed to marriage equality "bigots;" I have accused those who work against equality for LGBT people of having blood on their hands. I say this not as a rhetorical flourish, but because it is true. Gay teenagers today may be the ones hanging themselves, but it's the so-called "Family Councils" -- the White Citizens' Councils of the 21st century -- who sold these kids the rope they used.

When I say things like this, I am often scolded, "How do you expect to convince anyone, talking like that?" I mentioned in passing to another friend that as a rule I don't befriend people who do not believe in marriage equality -- for much the same reason African-Americans seldom befriend white people who advocate for a return to segregated schools. He asked, "But if you don't befriend them, how else will you win equality?"

It's true -- personal relationships and individual conversations are key factors in the fight for full civil and social rights for LGBT people. But it is often presumed that LGBT people should be constantly willing to educate others; it is forgotten, I think, that we are, in fact, human beings with full lives, not walking, talking, lessons in tolerance and diversity. Why must minorities serve as constant educators of the majority?

Consider, as just one example, a recent debate at Georgetown University. Student body president Clara Gustafson and vice president Vail Kohnert-Yount had promised to lobby for a checkbox on the housing questionnaire form that would allow students to ask to live with another student who identified as LGBTQ-friendly. In an opinion piece in the student paper, another student, opposed to the plan, responded that (emphasis mine), "Having an LGBTQ-friendly box on [the housing form] undermines the experiences in growth and challenge that Georgetown provides its students."

In the opinion of this student, in order to provide for the "experiences in growth and challenge" of Georgetown students, LGBT students should have been forced to possibly live with homophobic roommates in the hope, I suppose, of broadening the horizons of their peers. LGBT people don't get the right to live as they choose: even in their most private space at college -- their dorm rooms -- they must teach tolerance. Perhaps they don't want to engage in a lively discussion of their probable destination in the afterlife; perhaps, instead, they just want to nap. Tough. The need for people with prejudice to have an "experience in growth" means LGBT students, as a minority, are forced to serve as a "moral lesson" every second of their lives.

What if, like me, these students are tired of teaching, and want, simply, to live their lives? What if they are tired of "getting along"? What if they want to enjoy their time at college, and not spend it defending their very right to exist?

Enough. Sometimes, there should be no debate. Incivility is the best way of shutting down a debate that shouldn't happen. So, there is something to be gained by giving up civility. I am not saying that it is always necessary, or helpful, or even good, to do so. But we should always have the option at our disposal; we should be able to choose when and how we go about changing minds and debating our own rights. No one is obliged to spend his or her days eternally defending the way he or she lives rather than actually living.

When a New York University law student asked Justice Scalia (who dissented in the case Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down our nation's anti-sodomy laws based on the right to privacy), "Do you sodomize your wife?" many in the legal establishment were scandalized. But, rather than apologize, the student eloquently defended himself:

Debate is useless when one participant denies the full dignity of the other. How am I to docilely engage a man who sarcastically rants about the "beauty of homosexual relationships" [at the Q&A] and believes that gay school teachers will try to convert children to a homosexual lifestyle [in oral argument for Lawrence]?

It is fundamentally impossible to conduct the debate over marriage equality -- or any other issue related to the LGBT community -- with mutual respect and civility, when one side of that debate is predicated on the denial of the basic human dignity of the other side. As a matter of practicality, it may be necessary for us to enter into these debates, treating those, who denigrate us, with dignity, as a means to achieve full legal and social equality. Yet that does not mean that having to do so is just, and there should be no expectation that we are willing to do it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that in calling for us to love those who hate us, and to turn the other cheek, Jesus was "not an impractical idealist; he [was] the practical realist." Without a doubt: engaging in respectful debate and building reconciliation with those who refused to respect us has been largely responsible for winning us support for our rights.

But "practicality" and "realism" are not the same as "moral" and "just." And just occasionally, it is worth being an "impractical idealist." To call those who do not accord us our dignity "bigots"; to refuse to engage in debates that, by their existence, question our very right to exist; this may indeed be "impractical idealism." But sometimes, at least, we must take that position; sometimes, our dignity or sense of self-worth has become so compromised or damaged -- by a society that tells us so often that we are worth less than others -- that we have to speak the moral truth, not the practical lie; we deserve to be people, not political statements. We are not a subject of debate; we are human.