It is perhaps fortuitous that Ender's Game is being released as the Senate is preparing to vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Not only does this offer me this fantastic opportunity at punny wordplay, but it draws attention to how America's present social debate is severely inhibited by stigmas — both against homosexuals and against those who are prejudiced toward homosexuals.
First, for those out of the loop:
Ender's Game is the upcoming science fiction film written and directed by Gavin Hood starring Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield. Although the movie is one of the most highly anticipated blockbusters of the year and the book on which it's based is something of a classic, the flick is sparking controversy as a result of the outspoken anti-homosexual views of the book's author, Orson Scott Card. It's hard to deny that Card's views on gay rights are regressive, from penning a novel in 1980, Songmaster, that offered commentary on homosexuality by conflating it with ephebophilic and pedophilic relationships, to writing an essay in 2008 arguing that "if the Constitution is defined in such a way as to destroy the privileged position of marriage, it is that insane Constitution, not marriage, that will die." Inevitably, this has caused groups like the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and Geeks Out (which focuses on topics of interest in the "nerd" community) to urge the public to avoid seeing the new movie, even though the plot of Ender's Game has nothing to do with homosexuality.
ENDA is a bill that would make it illegal for employers to fire or refuse to hire someone for being homosexual, bisexual, or transgender. Because conservatives largely oppose this bill, Beltway observers are skeptical that it will pass through Congress and become law. The fact that the right-wing criticisms are easy to rebut — the claim that the bill infringes on the sovereignty of private enterprise would (if followed to its logical conclusion) void bills from the past fifty years that protect racial and religious minorities and women from comparable employment discrimination, while the notion that it violates the First Amendment rights of religious organizations ignores the exemptions granted to houses of worship and religiously affiliated organizations like charities and hospitals — has made little difference. At present, ENDA is expected to fail. As such the 29 states that currently allow businesses to fire employees for being gay or lesbian and the 34 that permit termination for being transgender will continue sanctioning the socio-economic persecution of LGBT Americans.
At this point, it's easy to see one of the more obvious links between the Ender's Game and ENDA controversies: both pertain to the issue of gay rights. On a deeper level, however, these issues are connected by what they reveal about the quality of American social and political discourse. More specifically, they expose the degree to which stigmas stifle meaningful debate.
On the one hand, there is the lingering stigma attached to homosexuality, which though significantly diminished over the past thirty years remains strong enough that most LGBT Americans are unable to marry, work in private sector jobs without fear of termination, and generally be allowed the full rights of citizenship that heterosexuals can take for granted. Because that stigma remains disturbingly strong, the same congressmen who would never dream of opposing a bill that prohibited racial, religious, or gender-based employment discrimination feel comfortable thwarting a measure that would do the same thing for LGBTs. While most lawmakers are savvy enough to avoid avowedly opposing homosexuality itself in their arguments (though there are still many exceptions), it is hard to imagine any of them citing free enterprise rights as a basis for corporations to avoid hiring African Americans or the First Amendment as a safeguard for a religious businessman who fires employees for being Jewish or atheist. The fact that economically discriminating against an LGBT individual is viewed as acceptable under certain conditions, even when those same conditions would not permit discrimination against other long-persecuted groups, is telling.
On the other hand, the fact that so many gay rights opponents aren't comfortable directly expressing their views speaks to another stigma — namely, the stigma of being labeled "prejudiced." As various forms of discrimination have been more widely recognized and opposed, the American zeitgeist has deemed the holding of allegedly bigoted views to be not only erroneous, but taboo. People who are found guilty of holding prejudices against racial, religious, or sexual minorities are generally shunned, their reputations ruined and their social status forever marred by shame. While this has arguably helped reduce bigotry against the various groups who have received PC protection, it has also forced those who still hold such opinions to deny their prejudices — perhaps even to themselves — and instead seek ways of justifying discriminatory views that aren't susceptible to charges of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. Should they fail, they know that they will be ostracized, as many gay rights activists are attempting to do to Orson Scott Card. Even worse, if they succeed, they will have made it harder not only for advocates of their cause to openly express their reasoning for certain positions, but for opponents to be able to call their positions out for what they are and effectively argue against them accordingly.
The solution is perhaps for stigmas to be discouraged altogether. People who reveal discriminatory beliefs toward certain groups should not be labeled or shunned, but instead called upon to challenge their attitudes. If nothing else, we should do this to remind ourselves that most of us harbor prejudices of some sort; having a bigoted opinion, though wrong, should be viewed as a flaw, not a source of ineffable shame. So long as the revelation of such attitudes is ruinous to one's reputation, people will fiercely resist having prejudice associated with them and avoid confronting their preconceived notions. If such views are instead regarded as examples of a flaw inherent in the human condition, people can be opposed on that basis without fear of being socially destroyed.
Once this stigma is removed, we can more openly address the anti-homosexual stigmas that underlie the opposition to ENDA. For the reasons why this must happen, I turn to a thinker whose language is far more eloquent than mine, Harvey Milk: "It takes no compromise to give people their rights...it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression."