From Controversial to Mundane; From Unusual to Routine

By Scott Barclay

In the politics of marriage equality, there are six important indicators that the tide has turned for lesbian and gay rights around this issue.

From Unusual to Routine Politics: At one point in time in the last twenty years in seventeen separate states (CA, CT, DE, HI, IA, IL, MA, MD, ME, NH, NJ, NY, NV, OR, RI, VT, and WA), either a state’s legislature successfully passed a bill through both legislatives houses in support of same sex marriage or civil unions OR a state’s highest court judicially ordered the establishment of same sex marriage and/or civil unions. Based on 2010 Census figures, one hundred and seventeen million residents – 38% of the US population – currently live in one of these seventeen states. Although simple math indicates that thirty-three states remain, seventeen states constitutes over one-third of all US states. The important point being that full or nearly full recognition by a state government for lesbian and gay couples in long-term, committed relationships is no longer aberrant or unusual. In fact, there is increasingly a sense of inevitability associated positively with the future prospects of the issue. The very presence of gubernatorial vetoes on this issue, such as in California in 2005 and 2007 or in New Jersey in 2012, and the new possibility of over-riding such vetoes evidences a politics as normal aspect that has become attached to the issue.

The Shift in the Default Category: As researchers and social movement activists have noted, the introduction of civil unions, rather than simple rejection of any relationship recognition, has increasingly emerged as the default position for those opposed to marriage equality. In states that raise the issue for consideration, opposition within legislatures and courts has largely adopted civil unions as their own base position. This is consistent with the framing of published editorials and op-eds in a wide variety of newspapers throughout the 2000s, as noted in research by myself and Daniel Chomsky. Notwithstanding that civil unions now occupy this category, in six states over the last fifteen years (CA, CT, NH, NJ, VT, and WA), either a state’s legislature has successfully passed a bill through both legislatives houses in support of moving the state from civil unions to marriage equality OR the state’s highest court has judicially ordered such a move.

From Controversial to Mundane: Based on the truly muted national media coverage of the legislative and gubernatorial actions in Illinois, Delaware and Rhode Island in 2011, the promulgation of civil unions by a state barely draws sustained national media attention at this point in time. More sustained media attention appears reserved for those few states who introduce marriage equality at this time. Gerald Rosenberg has argued that civil unions are less controversial in general, but the recent media coverage of state legislatures that initially introduced civil unions appears in marked contrast to coverage of similar actions in earlier years in Vermont, Connecticut, or New Jersey.

The Decline in Legislative Opposition: Voting behavior within those state legislatures that have re-visited this issue on several occasions over the last eight years demonstrates a marked decline in opposition to marriage equality. Part of this decline is accounted for by changing legislators, which acknowledges the shifting electoral success enjoyed by supporters of marriage equality. But, part of the change in level of opposition reflects a change-in-heart of existing legislators who are slowly coming to support the issue. This may occur for the electoral reasons noted above or it may be reflecting the change in larger cultural norms around the issue, as noted below. Similarly, in some states, as evidenced in New York in 2011, much (but not all) of the legislative opposition now eschews the stereotypical anti-gay tropes in favor of rejection without explicit explanation of their vote. This action appears to be motivated by their apparent understanding that their use of these former stereotypes risks potential future electoral damage. Interestingly, electoral “backlash” now appears of greatest fear to those who vote against marriage equality or civil unions, rather than their supportive colleagues.

The Decline in Popular Opposition: Gallup is reporting, based on their public opinion polls, that as of May 2011 the majority of adult, US residents are supportive of marriage equality. Polls conducted since that date support this basic finding and the national trend appears well-established at this point. This trend can be expected to be reflected in future voting trends, including the possibility of successfully fending off hostile popular initiatives and state referendum.

The Age and Experience of the Groups: There is now over 20 years of social movement activity — from 1991 to 2012 – to account for in the current wave of marriage equality cases and legislative activity. At this point in time, the major interest groups are now constituted by seasoned political and legal actors who reflect the value of their extensive experience on this issue. Their experience shows in the strength of the movement in terms of its ability to simultaneously maintain local, regional, and national activities, as evidenced recently by the contemporaneous nature of the timing of legislative activities in Washington, New Jersey, and Maryland.

In the complexity of day to day activities, social movement actors can occasionally lose the larger thread of action in ways that over-emphasize either their losses, such as the effects of the California initiative in November 2008, or their wins, such as very recent legislative actions in Washington, New Jersey, and Maryland.  Yet, if we look at these six indicators over time, we can note a marked shift in the general political environment for the recognition of relationships of lesbian and gay couples. It is by no means a completed struggle, but it does reflect positively on the idea that the tide has turned for lesbian and gay rights around this issue.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, LGBT Activism: Has the Tide Turned?

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