We do not yet know exactly what led a young man to carry a semi-automatic pistol into the lobby of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian advocacy organization, and to instigate a confrontation that left a security guard with a gunshot wound to the arm. But the suspect's volunteer work for a Washington gay rights group, early eyewitness accounts that he made statements critical of the FRC's mission, and reports that he was carrying a bag of Chick-fil-A — a recent touchstone in the gay marriage debate — have instantly framed his action in a political context.
Although gay rights organizations have been quick to condemn the alleged actions of Floyd Corkins, a 28-year-old Virginian, some on the right have suggested that the Wednesday attack was the result of the demonization of gay marriage opponents. Gary Bauer, a former FRC head, decried "a disturbing level of intolerance and hate aimed at those who share traditional values." A National Organization for Marriage official sought to connect the shooting with the designation of the FRC as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
No matter what Mr. Corkins did or why, an attempt at violence against the FRC is reprehensible and no more representative of the gay rights movement than Jared Lee Loughner's attempted murder of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was representative of the conservative movement. But if this incident leads to a protracted debate about how groups like the FRC should be labeled, it presents a risk for marriage equality advocates nonetheless.
"Hate group" is a loaded term, and FRC's designation as such has provided an opening for social conservatives to complain that gay rights groups are the ones who are intolerant. But the SPLC did not bestow that dishonor on the group just because it opposes gay marriage. Instead, it lists decades worth of efforts by the group to oppose equal protection under the law for gays and repeated attempts to connect homosexuality with pedophilia. The group relies on politically biased pseudo-science and still subscribes to the widely debunked notion that gays can — and should — be "converted" to heterosexuality.
Those ideas are as false as they are hurtful. But despite the group's influence with some conservative politicians, its has also been left behind by the nation's laws and culture. The Supreme Court has struck down laws against homosexual conduct. The medical establishment has recognized that homosexuality is a natural, inherent and immutable characteristic of a certain percentage of the population. Gay characters and themes in popular culture have become unremarkable, gay public officials are becoming increasingly common, and millions of American families openly love and accept their gay friends and neighbors. The question now is not whether views like those the FRC espouses will prevail — or whether they should even be considered a valid part of the public dialogue — but whether the great multitudes who believe gays should be treated fairly and equally can overcome the last, persistent vestige of legal inequality: marriage.
The analogy between the current gay rights movement and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s is imperfect, but it does provide a useful guide for marriage equality advocates in how they should deal with groups like the FRC. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail,Martin Luther King Jr.wrote that "the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice." He continued: "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
King did not hesitate to call the evil of outright segregationism by its name, but he recognized that the path to justice was not in the attempt to convince those who could never be convinced. Rather, it was in making explicit the tension between white moderates' beliefs that blacks should be treated equally with the reality of segregation. His non-violent protests forced the nation to recognize the human dignity of those who were being discriminated against.
The SPLC has its own mission and its own criteria for evaluating organizations. Whether it was right in calling the FRC a hate group is not a debate that gay rights leaders need to have; doing so simply provides an opening for those who oppose same-sex marriage to use the deranged actions of an individual to make the conversation about intolerance and hate. Just as it was in King's day, those who are struggling for equality win by making the conversation about love.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun