The uproar over Chick-fil-A, the fried-chicken chain that faces boycotts and threats of license denial over its conservative Christian owners' opposition to same-sex marriage, highlights a remarkable fact: in one generation, the stigma against homosexuality has been replaced by a stigma against anti-gay prejudice.
These gains in gay rights are a victory for human rights. But we run the risk of going too far in slapping the "bigotry" label on all conservative sexual attitudes—and, in the process, deepening cultural divisions and stifling legitimate discussion of social issues.
Feminism provides for an interesting comparison. While America has made huge strides toward equality between the sexes, we have been able to accommodate the fact that a large segment of society espouses some degree of gender conservatism. About 35 percent of Americans still agree that it's best for everyone if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the family. Except in rarefied feminist and academic circles, people who support some traditional distinctions between men and women have not been automatically branded bigots. Indeed, in some cases—from combat service to single-sex schools—such distinctions are still permissible under the law.
This is in stark contrast to the way society and law have treated race. There is no such thing as a benign racial distinction. A religious denomination that maintained an all-white clergy would be regarded as a marginal hate group, in contrast to mainstream churches that reserve the priesthood or ministry to men.
Yet on gay rights, we have seen a push to use race rather than gender as a model. Thus, support for domestic partnerships and civil unions with the rights of marriage but without the name is often denounced as tantamount to championing a "separate but equal" system—a term that carries a stigma only in a racial context. Old anti-miscegenation laws are often cited as a parallel to same-sex marriage bans. But bans on interracial marriage are a fairly uncommon phenomenon in the history of civilization; the heterosexual nature of marriage was until recently a universal norm.
Is this radical approach a ticket to progress? Not necessarily. When a large segment of the population finds that its cultural values are being not only displaced but stigmatized and stifled, its opposition to social change is likely to become more bitter. Religious groups may see justification for fears that even civil same-sex marriage will infringe on their freedom of conscience: For instance, could Christian colleges and universities that refuse to recognize same-sex relationships be denied federal tax exemptions, as Bob Jones University once was over its interracial relationship ban?
The reaction to the Chick-fil-A controversy shows that many Americans who sympathize with gay rights are nonetheless uncomfortable with demonizing the opposition. Ostensibly, Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy's free speech rights are at issue. But let's face it, not many would jump to the defense of those rights if he were speaking in favor of racial segregation or donating money to the Ku Klux Klan.
I am a pro-choice feminist who welcomes the last half-century's transformation in gender roles. I also believe abortion and gender issues should remain topics on which good people can disagree—as they can about same-sex marriage. Yes, there are gay-bashers and misogynists out there. But some decent and thoughtful people believe in biblical norms. Others believe that marriage is rooted in sexual distinctions and the mother-father bond is essential to families. Tolerance really does cut both ways.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe. She is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.