It is demoralizing when you spend a significant portion of your life trying to be a good person to be sharply reminded by the universe that you have come up short. Saturday that reminder came in the form of an involuntary rush of joy upon hearing that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is dead.
I didn’t feel good about that endorphin rush. I know that Scalia was a husband and father. I know that he had friends and loved ones who were devoted to him, and who are doubtless in painful grief right now. I know that, while I disagreed with him mightily and constantly, he spent years serving his country in one of the most honorable and difficult jobs there is.
That’s the trouble with these things. I didn’t know him personally. I can assume that there are many people to whom he was everything that is good, but in my heart I only know him as the man who worked tirelessly to make life harder for people like me. And for so many other types of people. It is hard to follow my rule of not speaking ill of the dead – well, the recently dead – when the deceased in question has spent so much time speaking ill of me.
I can try to mitigate that by understanding that Scalia’s position was a gut one, not an intellectual one. He was reported to have a close family member who identifies as “ex-gay.” That doesn’t happen without a tremendous deal of family pressure and emotional turmoil. For all his dressing it up in lofty debate and legalese (amid some vicious gut-punches), Justice Scalia’s position was the same one that lots of people frantically adopt when The Gay hits a little too close to home: Just make it illegal and it will have to go away. Just make it illegal and it won’t be able to hurt me and my family. Just make it illegal and we can all be normal and safe and not have to think about it.
Animus. That’s the word that keeps sliding into my brain. Scalia, who argued that laws against gay sex and gay marriage and LGBT folks in general are like laws against murder and child molestation, also spent time arguing about whether there was any animus involved in antigay laws. From my end of that argument, it’s a bitterly hilarious position to debate: We think that you are so inherently perverse and wrong, so fundamentally an inferior and bad human being, that your highest feelings for another human being should be made illegal. In fact, we refuse to acknowledge that you could have those feelings at all, so we’re just going to reduce any feelings of love you have to sex, and we’re going to make it clear that such sex is filthy and wrong. But hey, nothing personal. There’s no animus there. Just a calm, legalized repulsion for entire categories of human beings.
The night of the first Obama election was the night that California passed Prop 8 into law and temporarily disappeared same-sex marriage in our state. I stayed out flyering for the No on 8 campaign until the polls were closed and then carefully only watched the Presidential results. I protected myself from the Prop 8 results for as long as I could because I knew we were probably going to lose.
The next morning, I finally looked at the results online. Then I went out to look for a newspaper, robotically tried to run some pointless errands, and then came home and sat down on the floor and cried instead. It had finally, for the first time, hit home that that many people in my hippie granola state thought that there was something so wrong with me that I should be set aside from the rest of the population. And so many of those people wanted to tell me and my queer friends and the news that it was nothing personal.
Every now and then when I was flyering for No on 8, a man – always a man – would find a way to sidle right up close to me. And then he would whisper one sentence, “Yes on 8!” as he quickly moved past. It was always a whisper or a mutter, and he always made sure that I and only I could hear. Not that it was anything personal. They always moved quickly, too. One was even on a bike. The cowardly move, of course, was because they knew they’d get called on it if anyone else could hear or if they stayed still long enough for me to respond. These guys knew they were on the side of bigotry, and they knew there was something wrong enough with hissing their hostility that they tried to shield themselves from the certain consequences of saying it out loud.
And I think that is where I will find my nice things to say and think about Scalia: He was not a coward about it. While he seems to have been almost entirely dependent on hard-right media for his news vis-a-vis The Gay, he had to know on some level what people were saying about him when he issued his escalating statements of batshittery about the LGBT community. But he kept on saying them, and saying them loudly. And, much as it hurt me and many loved ones personally, I believe he thought he was doing the right thing. His idea of “the right thing” came from raw fear and deeply ingrained prejudices, but that doesn’t change his intent.
Pretending that Scalia was a monster who was actively trying to cause us harm and strife doesn’t do any good. And it makes us no better than the people who think of people in the LGBT in tired, hypersexualized stereotypes. When I think of Scalia and the pain that he undeniably caused thousands if not millions of people, I will try to take at least a few seconds to remember that he was trying to do what he thought he needed to do to keep himself and the people he loved safe. Just like I do.
He was a husband and a father, and he was deeply and incorrectly convinced, as he had been taught, that any encroachment of queer culture into their world would somehow harm them. Obviously he had a massive failure of listening, empathy, and human connection that kept him mired in appalling prejudice. It does not serve any of us to repeat it.