Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), should we expect a strong backlash from opponents of gay marriage? If so, what will this backlash look like? Right now, we have heard statements from a few key opponents – from Michelle Bachmann to Mike Huckabee. But will opposition grow into a full-scale countermovement, especially as state legislatures increasingly become the site of the gay marriage conflict? I also ask this question in light of the recent French example where the legalization of gay marriage led to significant involvement of both grassroots and elite elements (albeit motivated by different grievances) converging to attack the Hollande government’s legalization of same-sex marriage.
Countermobilization in France around the recent legalization of gay marriage raises several key issues. First, despite the fact that it was well known to activists that protests would not deter the French government from going through with the legislation, protests grew increasingly more intense and continued to do so following the legislation. Second, as I noted in a previous post, it became increasingly clear that what has people mobilized is not so much the right of gays and lesbians to marry but rather, the part of the legislation that deals with assisted procreation and surrogate motherhood for gay couples. Third, as different groups (and interests) have joined the more grassroots elements of the opposition – such as right-wing political elites and the Catholic Church – a split has emerged in this countermovement between moderates and extremists (New York Times, May 26). And, lastly, it seems that the more grassroots elements of mobilization have been coopted by elite forces opposed to Hollande’s leftist government. I believe this last point is especially critical in understanding the politics of gay marriage.
According to SkyNews (May 27), opposition against Hollande’s bill began with a grassroots movement backed by the Catholic Church but has since expanded to include support from political opponents in the government, as well as far right militants already unhappy with the leftist Hollande. The latest protest had an estimated 150 000 protesters ending with 50 demonstrations detained and 96 arrested. Jean-Francois Cope, leader of the opposition UMP party, marched in the demonstration and urged young protesters to join his party to keep up pressure on the left-wing government. Cope then went on to say that “The next rendezvous should be at the ballot boxes for the municipal elections.” Similarly, the BBC (May 26) reported that another UMP member of parliament, Jacques Myard, believes this law is being imposed “by force” and that when it comes to public opinion regarding gay marriage, “there was a “huge gap between this government and the citizens.” While not accurate (one poll shows that 60 % of the French support gay marriage), it is somewhat true that gay adoption is a more controversial issue (although that same poll shows that 50 % support gay adoption). Adoption, as I wrote about in my prior post on gayxtremism, may have been one of the “causes” of this backlash (or at least its intensity), along with other political ambitions among elites to take down the left. The BBC’s Hugh Schofield puts it well when he says that “Opposition to gay marriage has become conflated with all sorts of other anti-government grievances coming from the right and the atmosphere in the country is particularly volatile.”
The right has harnessed popular discontent surrounding gay marriage and gay adoption. Using both institutional and extra-institutional resources, the right has made legalization of gay marriage more about Hollande’s government than gay marriage itself. According to the Independent (May 27), same-sex marriage has provoked the most prolonged and powerful right-wing demonstrations in France for three decades. Similarly, the Daily Mail (May 26) reports that “the protests, which began as a campaign strongly backed by the Roman Catholic Church, have evolved into a wider movement with opposition politicians and far-right militants airing discontent with the unpopular Hollande.” This is not unique to France. In a paper that appeared a few years ago, I showed how the Conservative Party in Canada portrayed the Liberal minority government’s pursuit of gay marriage legislation as an accountability and legitimacy question rather than one about family values and children. One reason they did this, I argued, was that the children/family and religious frame did not resonate well in Canada, neither with the public nor with elites.
There are no doubt many, including political elites and entrepreneurs, who have genuine objections with same-sex marriage and adoption. But an important consequence of using gay marriage as a tool to mobilize constituents against the leftist Hollande government is that the issue of gay marriage will remain open in France as long as organized countermobilization continues. This is not entirely different from what has occurred in the U.S. both in terms of the gay marriage issue and abortion – wedge issues which got right-leaning voters to the polls (especially when gay marriage or abortion issues appear on ballots).
Should we expect a backlash following the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a large part of DOMA? Of course, France and the U.S. have different political, judicial and legislative histories. One important difference is that the Supreme Court’s ruling does not make same-sex marriage legal across the U.S. while the French Parliament legalized gay marriage in that country. Yet, landmark Supreme Court cases do have important consequences for social movements and countermovements in the U.S.. Roe v. Wade is one often-cited example of the important dynamic relationship that emerged between mobilization and countermobilization following the 1973 Supreme Court case. Hurley of Reuters (June 26) reminds us that “just 20 years ago the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that its state constitution could allow gay marriage, prompting a nationwide backlash and spurring Congress and a majority of states, including Hawaii, to pass laws defining marriage as between only a man and woman. In 2003, when the top court of Massachusetts established a right to same-sex marriage under its constitution, the action triggered another backlash as states then adopted constitutional amendments against such unions.” But times have changed and one important change, as has been noted many times, is the dramatic shift in public preferences as well as the numerous political elites (even on the right) who have come out in favor of gay marriage.
The title of Lindenberger’s recent article in Time Magazine Online (June 27) suggests that an ongoing war over gay marriage will ensue following the Supreme Court case. He writes that because the case “stopped far short of establishing a federal right to marriage for same-sex couples, fighting over the issue will continue in courts, ballot boxes and legislatures throughout America, where gay marriage remains illegal in 35 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.” Lindenberger also alludes to an awareness and concern among opponents of gay marriage that this court case truly threatens the traditional conception of marriage. The Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, told CNN the decisions “takes us right up to the brink of nationwide same-sex marriage,” adding, “I think when you look at American history, there are many dates that stand in our constitutional history as what you might call standout, red letter days. This is one of those days.” Is this threat enough to mobilize opponents against gay marriage?
It remains to be seen in the months and years to come whether state legislatures will act as sites of contentious politics and whether we will see strong mobilization-countermobilization dynamics over same-sex marriage. I am doubtful. While Bauchmann, Huckabee and others in the Republican Party have not surprisingly stuck to their message about gay marriage, and others threatening to introduce new bills in Congress defining marriage between a man and a woman, it seems Boehner’s response was perhaps wiser. Nonetheless, his more moderate response to the Court’s decision –meant to be the Republican Party’s official position – was almost immediately rewritten by hardliners in his caucus. An important question to keep in mind is whether, given recent institutional and cultural developments over the last 20 years, there is anything to be gained (at least politically) by opposing forces to pursue anti- gay marriage politics, and whether they can get the public energized around the issue. There are risks involved. Pursuing an anti-gay marriage platform may hurt Republicans in the long run. Ultimately, the majority of the public is not on the side of Republicans on the issue, and there may already be signs of splits within the party about how to deal with the Supreme Court decision and gay marriage more generally.