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Home » Culture Shock

What’s the matter with gay marriage?

Submitted by on July 14, 2011 – 5:38 pmNo Comment

Photo by Heather Tirado Gilligan.

By Heather Tirado Gilligan

Heather is the editor of The Public Intellectual. She holds a Ph.D. in English and a master’s in journalism. Heather has taught literature, black studies and women’s studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Rutgers University.

“Obama doesn’t need to endorse gay marriage. Last I checked it was doing fine on its own.” A tweet from 6/27

“The inability of opponents to articulate a rationale, or even a pseudo-rationale, is both a cause and a symptom of the gay marriage’s shockingly rapid progress.” Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, 6/28


The LGBT rights movement has been defined by an emotional rollercoaster for the past ten years.

Supporters cheer monumental wins – like legalized marriage in places like Iowa – and wince at painful defeats like the passing of Prop 8 in California. The marriage struggle is an ever-unfolding drama and has captured our attention like no other issue in today’s struggle for gay rights.

Just a few weeks after the battle for gay marriage was won in New York, it seems like a good time for reflection.

Should the struggle for same-sex marriage define the LGBT rights movement?

Despite all of the painful and joyous ups and downs, LGBT leaders must do what other civil rights movement failed to do: have the foresight to recognize that winning legislative battles like gay marriage is not the end of inequality.

That’s the lesson from our earlier civil rights movements: don’t forget to consider the ultimate goals of a cause that represents people from so many different walks of life. When the LGBT rights movement is deemed finished, will its victories include substantial improvements in the lives of all LGBT people, cutting across race, class, nationality and gender? Will it have accomplished more than the legislative victory of getting same-sex couples the right to marry?

These questions are important because this kind of long-term view and wide reach are what make social change stick. America’s monumental struggles for civil rights have petered out while still unfinished because we haven’t seen a social movement that has that kind of reach. And that’s what will happen to the LGBT rights movement too, if marriage becomes the overriding goal.

Maybe that’s a downer of a sentiment, but there’s also a silver lining: with a broad-reaching agenda, the LGBT rights movement can light a real progressive fire in the United States. But first, advocates and analysts must recognize that marriage can’t be used as the sole measure of the movement’s progress and ditch the narrative about the inevitability of LGBT equality.

Why gay rights aren’t inevitable

Same-sex marriage discussions prompt a lot of talk about the inevitability of social acceptance for gay and lesbian people. Changing social attitudes is difficult, deliberate work. But you wouldn’t know that from all of the discussion of how the younger generation is going to change the world – simply by getting older.

“Although most conservatives will be loath to admit it,” Paul Waldman wrote in The American Prospect just after Iowa and Vermont legalized same-sex marriage, “this battle is over, and they have lost.”  Waldman drew his optimism in part from the data of Nate Silver, who developed a formula to predict the year of majority voter support for same-sex marriage on a state-by-state basis. Most of New England would fall in line by the end 2010; Mississippi would be last in 2024. California, Silver predicted, would see majority support for same-sex marriage by 2010.

“The good news for supporters of marriage equity is that — and there’s no polite way to put this — the older voters aren’t going to be around for all that much longer,” Silver wrote in a later post. “They’ll gradually be cycled out and replaced by younger voters who grew up in a more tolerant era.”

Generational replacement has become quite an old chestnut in discussions of moving past homophobia. But will an upcoming generation of newly tolerant young people really stamp out homophobia? Maybe not. Only twenty-five percent of change in attitudes about same-sex marriage can be attributed to generational change, say political scientists Alison G. Keleher and Eric R.A.N. Smith. And though their work examines the increased support for LGBT people over the past 20 years, they note that the country is far from tolerant.

Bullying makes the generational replacement theory even more suspect. When Tyler Clementi jumped off of the George Washington Bridge in 2010, he was the fifth teen in three weeks to commit suicide after anti-gay harassment. Gay and lesbian teens have a suicide rate that is five times higher than their straight counterparts, and part of this difference is attributable to how these kids are treated by their peers, according to a study by Mark Hatzenbuehler in the journal Pediatrics. I don’t think these facts indicate that the next generation will be free of homophobia.

And remember – this is the kind of behavior we see in the United States when approval for same-sex marriage is at historic highs. LGBT people are still subject to social scorn, targets of prejudice, ignorance and hatred. This should cast some doubt on the idea that legalizing gay marriage will solve the problem of homophobia.

About those historic highs – let’s consider the volatility of public opinion on gay rights too. Opinion shifted after several key victories, with support dropping significantly in 2003, after Massachusetts granted same-sex marriage rights and the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas.  According to Gallop, popular support for legalized homosexual sex dropped from 60 percent in 2002 to 50 percent in 2003.  The Pew Center points out that 26 states amended their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage after it became legal in Massachusetts.  Keleher and Smith also note significant drops in support for gays and lesbians during the first two presidential elections of the new millennium: “Most notably, George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign promised a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage,” they write, “and a number of states experienced initiative campaigns attempting to define marriage as only being between a man and a woman.”

Right now, 45 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage and 46 percent oppose it, according to Pew. If you think that’s a cheerful statistic – I find it rather pathetic – consider also the regional breakdown: support is at 40 percent in the Midwest and 30 percent in the South. And the number of states that have legalized same-sex marriage: that’s six plus the District of Columbia.

A history of stalled civil rights movements

The LGBT rights movement should know better than to have a narrow focus, because the social movements of the twentieth century made the same mistake.

“Only belatedly, after 1965, did King and other leaders acknowledge the failure of the movement to address the persistent realities of poverty and economic discrimination,” explains historian Anthony Badger.  The string of major legislative victories for civil rights won in the 1960s were “particularly relevant to the growing middle class that was not concerned about the day-to-day problems of economic survival,” William Julius Wilson explains in The Declining Significance of Race. “This legislation,” Wilson continues, “did not sufficiently address the unique problems…confronting [poor] blacks.”

That’s true too for the other major rights movement of the twentieth century, like women’s rights – as daunting as their goals seemed, the movement ultimately reached for too little, not too much. “For the most part, only middle-class women are able to protest about this purely sexist oppression; underprivileged women are preoccupied with racist and economic oppression,” wrote Maren Lockwood Carden in her 1977 report for the Ford Foundation, “Feminism in the mid-1970s.” Carden continues: “In the face of day-to-day problems of survival, self-fulfillment is irrelevant, and, while they are aware of sex discrimination (for example, in employment), they worry much more about unemployment, low pay, the welfare system, or sub-standard housing. It is logical, therefore, that they should attack their own most pressing problems by creating their own organizations.”

Thinking of the civil rights as a middle-class movement – whether by neglect or design – stalled these monumental fights for civil rights.

Once middle-class rights were largely satisfied, the civil rights struggle ended. Race and gender wage gaps, segregation by race as well as class, insanely disproportionate rates of people of color in prison – these examples of discrimination are so commonplace it is cliché to mention them.

But these facts also suggest that even the richest and luckiest women and people of color live in a kind of half-baked state of success: past the apartheid that defined the pre-civil rights era, but still not fully equal – and now without the social momentum to restart a stalled movement.

The LGBT civil rights movement emphasizes the same types of legislative victories that defined the struggles for women’s rights and African American rights. That’s not really learning from earlier mistakes.

Remember too that legislative and cultural victories aren’t the same thing. Given the depth of feeling that structures social expectations about gender and sexuality, this seems like an especially important distinction for the LGBT rights movement to make. Maybe same-sex marriage will be legal in Alabama in 2023 – but does that mean an LGBT person would feel comfortable settling in the state?

Is this what to expect from the LGBT rights movement too? What comes after the legislative battle for marriage? Will the movement have made life better for a wide swath of the LGBT population or just a lucky few?

A broader approach, one that addresses inequality generally, could provide a much sounder base for social acceptance of LGBT people. The LGBT civil rights movement could and should kickstart a broad social justice program, one that reaches out to segments of the population left behind by other struggles for civil rights.

Ultimately, that’s the only way that the fight for LGBT equality can be won.


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