From “love and support” to “rights and equality” for LGBT people
Applauded by LGBT rights advocates and fawned over by the media, Orrin Hatch’s Senate speech on suicide prevention positioned as LGBT outreach during Pride Month is the latest example of how conservatives make themselves look good by using the language of compassion to mask longstanding political inaction.
More pointedly, it reveals conservatives’ strategy to use language saturated in morality to disguise their moral bankruptcy.
“LGBT youth deserve our unwavering love and support,” Hatch said, in just one of over 10 mentions of the word “love.” “My message today is one of love for my LGBT brothers and sisters.”
Hatch’s call to “love and support” members of the LGBT community, and to show them “dignity and respect,” sounds a lot like the “thoughts and prayers” issued freely as tissue paper from the mouths of politicians — from both sides of the aisle — whenever there is a mass shooting or an environmental disaster.
Yet, to quote former U.S. President Barack Obama: “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” he said after the 2015 Umpqua Community College shooting.
The phrase “thoughts and prayers” is an attempt at political neutrality offered by politicians as a way to avoid real social problems and their obligations to the American people. It is political inaction disguised as political action. As Ben Rowen pointed out at the Atlantic, “thoughts and prayers” are “offered in place of actual policy solutions. There is no logical necessity between praying and not pursuing gun-control policies,” he continued, “but recent history has shown that, in practice, prayer has not been followed up by this kind of policy action.”
Similarly, nothing indicates that Hatch’s latest statement offering “love and support” will translate into positive action — more advocacy for equal rights or efforts at greater inclusion — for the LGBT community. In fact, Hatch’s notoriously anti-LGBT rights voting record alone — recently documented in articles by Sofie Werthan at Slate and by Zack Ford at ThinkProgress — serves as a barometer of his true position on equal rights. His record indicates that not only will he not take legislative action in favor of securing the rights of LGBT Americans, but he will continue to take actions that harm the community, such as continuing to cosponsor the First Amendment Defense Act, which would legalize anti-LGBT discrimination on religious grounds. Let’s also not forget that just days prior to delivering his speech, Hatch celebrated the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling (which allowed a baker to refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding), saying, “I applaud today’s decision. Hostility toward religion has no place in government.” Throughout his career, he has been an ardent supporter of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — he still advocates for “traditional marriage,” boasting on his website that in order “to preserve traditional marriage, I have introduced and promoted constitutional amendments defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.”
In his speech, Hatch’s love-stoned language is paired with that of “civility.” Hatch loves civility — he even wrote about it in an op-ed for Time after the 2017 D.C. shooting at a congressional softball practice. His concise manifesto enjoins us to “speak responsibly,” “practic[e] media mindfulness,” and “venture beyond the comfortable confines of our social circles” in order to help us “restore civility” to the nation. This same language — of “restoring,” “reclaiming,” and “recommitting to civility” — populates the conclusion of his LGBT statement; “civility” appears five times in the final four paragraphs of his speech.
“[R]estoring civility and respect to the public square cannot be achieved through legislation,” he stated. Rather, “[c]ivility starts with the words we use.” This is an odd distinction, since legislation itself is comprised of language. Not only that, it is actionable language; it is language that is imbued with the power of action.
More pointedly, there is a profound irony in Hatch’s comments that civility has nothing to do with legislation, since he has amassed over four decades of voting against other people’s civil rights. What could be more uncivil than that?
Perhaps this is why in his Senate speech Hatch asserted that “ensuring that our LGBT friends feel loved and accepted is not a political issue.” His language is cunning: Divorcing love from politics enables him to create the logical space necessary to distance him — an elected official — from political responsibility.
But the fact remains: LGBT rights and protections under the law are political issues. Identities, especially in America, are political: Historically, the nation’s laws on rights and protections have been unequally distributed based on race, on gender, and on sexual orientation.
His repetition of the word “love,” furthermore, effectively functions as a tautology: How is professing “love and support” effective? What does it do? How is it transformative? How does it ensure the equal rights and protections of LGBT people? Hatch’s romantic language does not demand or promise action — the proposing of LGBT-friendly policy — but encourages passivity and inaction.
Contrast this with language of equal rights and protections under the law; of “rights and equality”— which connotes action, advocacy, and real allyship. The rhetoric of “love and support” emphasizes morality in order to avoid politics and political obligation, while at the same time wholly severing morality from politics. In light of Hatch’s voting record, his rhetoric, furthermore, is downright offensive in its cognitive dissonance. This cognitive dissonance is symptomatic of conservatives’ media strategy; just take Republican party leader President Donald Trump’s campaign assertion that he’s “much better for the gays” than his then opponent, Hillary Clinton, when his administration can’t even issue a statement acknowledging that June is Pride Month.
The petitioning to human emotion is no substitute for politics when it comes to equal rights and protections. Writing laws that secure equal rights for all citizens is how politicians can best demonstrate their “love and support” for the LGBT community. Hillary Clinton bluntly stated as much to a Black Lives Matter activist on the campaign trail in 2015: “I don’t believe you change hearts,” she said. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day, we can do a whole lot to change some hearts, and change some systems, and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them.”
Hatch may possess the soothing moral rhetoric to salve the next national tragedy, but, to borrow the words of U.S. Representative John Lewis, he lacks the “moral courage” to do anything about it.
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