May 14, 2012

· Sociology · Books

Michael Dorf and Sid Tarrow have an Op-Ed piece today on CNN titled “How the right helped launch same-sex marriage movement.” It’s a clever argument about the role that the conservative movement played in galvanizing and even decisively re-orienting the direction taken by one of its antagonists, to its likely long-run cost:

How, in less than a decade, did America go from being a country in which some states punished gay sex with criminal penalties to one in which the highest elected official in the land now champions the right of same-sex couples to marry? The answer can be found in the interaction between supporters of marriage equality and the Christian conservative movement over the past few decades. As late as the 1980s, same-sex marriage was on virtually no one’s radar screen. … It happened like this: In 1993, in the case of Baehr v. Lewin, the Hawaii Supreme Court decided that the state’s prohibition on same-sex marriage was discriminatory. In 1998, Hawaii’s voters passed a referendum giving the legislature the right to declare same-sex marriage illegal, but in the meantime, social conservatives had taken the issue to the national stage, where it promised to pay handsome dividends. Same-sex marriage was still so unpopular that in 1996, tremulous Democrats joined Republicans in overwhelmingly passing the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, signed by President Bill Clinton. … DOMA was thus a preemptive strike by the opponents of marriage equality.

But the act helped to call into being the very marriage equality movement it aimed to combat. Encouraged by their surprising, if temporary, success in Hawaii, and outraged by the blatantly homophobic arguments that had been made in favor of DOMA, the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender movement reluctantly began to turn its energy and resources toward the goal of marriage equality.

This was a fundamental shift, not made without controversy within the movement, where many worried that calling for marriage equality would unleash the fury of the Christian Right. Whereas many activists had given higher priority to such issues as employment discrimination, HIV/AIDS education and protection against hate crimes, the denial of marriage equality now came to be seen as a broad symbol of second-class citizenship for LGBT Americans.

And thus did we start down the road toward the unlikely spectacle of a Black President endorsing gay marriage. Nice—counterintuitive, compelling, and more than a little ironic. But while I was reading this it struck me that I had heard this argument made somewhere before. Where? Oh yeah.

In her 2008 book, helpfully titled How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism, Tina Fetner argues, in part:

To many, it may have appeared that the push for legislation on same-sex marriage was driven largely by the lesbian and gay movement, but in the early 1990s few lesbian and gay movement organizations were engaged in activism around this issue. There had been a few unsuccessful court cases in which same-sex couples challenged marriage-licensing practices, when one case in Hawaii caught the nation’s attention, as well as that of the lesbian and gay movement. In Baehr v. Lewin … the Hawaiian state supreme court ruled that the practice of denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples would be unconstitutional unless the state could provide a “compelling state interest” for it … Up to this point, same-sex marriage had not been a top priority for the lesbian and gay movement. Many in the lesbian and gay community oppose same-sex marriage as a patriarchal, heterosexual institution … Others saw [it] as an equal rights issue and, indeed, supported an assimilationist tack … Rather than spark a major internal debate … most lesbian and gay movement organizations simply ignored the issue putting it on the back burner in light of other priorities such as non-discrimination ordinances and anti-gay violence. …

Religious right activists, on the other hand, saw their opposition to same-sex marriage as an issue with strong cultural resonance and popular support. Many leaders in the religious right considered marriage to be a tipping point for conservatives who had not yet joined the movement. … From this perspective, to allow two men to marry would trample upon a holy gift. The idea of two women or two men marrying each other evoked such passion among conservative, evangelical Christians that the religious right considered this to be an issue worth pursuing.

Pursue it they did, in a massive grassroots mobilization throughout the country. At the federal level the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was quickly passed by the Senate and House and signed into law by President Clinton. … Leaders in the religious right may have thought that this issue would be an easy victory, given how important the symbolic aspects of marriage are to many people. … However, perhaps unexpectedly, this issue has also mobilized the lesbian and gay movement in response, including many lesbian and gay people who had not previously been involved in activism (Pinello 2006).

Dozens of new lesbian and gay movement organizations emerged to fight for same-sex marriage. National organizations began to devote resources to the marriage issue and, to varying degrees, to partnership issues more generally. To a greater extent than ever before, lesbian and gay movement organizations began to frame lesbian and gay rights in terms of relationships and families, rather than just individuals.

And thus did we start down the road toward the unlikely spectacle of a Black President endorsing gay marriage.

Of course, Dorf and Tarrow might have come up with this idea themselves: they’re smart people. If they did, I can see why they might want to claim it as their own—it’s a good idea! Too bad. It seems to me they were scooped fair and square by someone writing five years ago, and they should have acknowledged it. I suppose it’s not outside the realm of possibility that while researching the question of how the religious right shaped lesbian and gay activism they never came across How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism. Either way, it looks like a case of credit where credit’s due. I’m well aware that the literary conventions of Op-Eds do not accommodate the tedious mechanics of scholarly attribution. But there’s plenty of room for a single “As sociologist Tina Fetner has argued in her book …” —if not in this particular Op-Ed, then at least next time round.

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I am Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m also affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Read a brief overview of my work or my Curriculum Vitae.

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