Gay Marriage Wins: In Which We Celebrate and Also Push Forward

Many of us were overjoyed at this time in 2008, when Barack Obama’s historic presidency began. But many of us were also, at the same time, despondent: Prop 8 had passed the same night that Obama had been elected, and while the rest of the country was celebrating, we had this private grief to deal with. This year, things look very different. While Obama’s victory was still closer than many of us felt comfortable with, we had something of a landslide when it came to marriage equality. Four different states – Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington – saw voters defend marriage equality at the ballot in an unprecedented instance of the majority voting on the rights of a minority and doing the right thing. In the days after the election, many are wondering whether there’s some kind of new era at hand, whether we’re looking at the beginning of something different than we’ve ever seen before. For queer communities, this question is maybe even more urgent. Votes on marriage equality look very different now than they did a few years ago, but does that mean this is change we can believe in?

The most obviously important thing to note about these victories is that only three years ago, they seemed impossible. Maine and Washington both had votes on marriage equality in 2009, even more recently than Prop 8, and in both cases voters decided to deny gay citizens the right to marry. We were reminded by a barrage of media sources that when the question of granting gays marriage rights was left up to the public, they had never once decided to extend to us the same rights that straight people enjoy. We were forced to wonder whether winning marriage equality by a vote was not just unprecedented, but impossible. So for even one vote to come out in favor of gay marriage only three years later would have been historic; the fact that all four votes did so is nothing short of incredible. That’s something more than worth celebrating. And it seems that these votes really do reflect a measurable difference in how the nation feels about us. While gays and gay marriage have been polling better in general in recent years, and many people notice anecdotal progress, it can be hard to know what exactly that means or why that is. But new studies show that this isn’t just a result of younger, more socially progressive people reaching voting age; older people are now saying they feel differently about gays than they did previously, which means hearts and minds are actually changing.

 Some marriage advocates have posited that the mammoth growth our country has seen in support for allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry has been primarily caused by younger, more accepting voters replacing older ones in the population. But new data released in our new report, The Big Shift, shows that this phenomenon only explains one quarter of the total movement since 2004, while 75% of the shift was caused by Americans of all ages — including your parents’ and grandparents’ generation — changing their minds.

Even better, gay activists can actually take credit for this shift. Nathaniel Frank of Columbia’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law says that the difference we’re seeing is a result of “one of the most sophisticated issue campaign operations ever deployed.” “Why Marriage Matters,” a “tightly coordinated” campaign that refuted anti-gay myths like the “teaching of gay marriage in schools” and simultaneously worked to associate gay marriage with the ideals of commitment and stability, just like straight marriage.

Its message was “love, commitment, family,” with no mention of rights or benefits. On the surface, it looks like any garden-variety public education campaign, a little vague, a little sappy. But this message was the result of several years and millions of dollars of research. It signaled a sea change in the way gay advocates pled their case. This was a way to invite straight people to empathize with gay people, to reassure the majority that gay people wanted the same things that they did, and to shift focus from minority rights to points of commonality. The year Why Marriage Matters rolled out, 2011, was also the year that a slew of polls first showed majority national support for same-sex marriage.

In this sense, we can feel good in knowing that these victories on the ballot are reflective of something real. We really do live in a different America, in measurable ways, than we did in 2008 and 2009. But in the same way that Obama’s election reflected progress on racial issues, but doesn’t mean that racism is suddenly over, these ballot victories aren’t a sign to pack up our campaigns and go home because the work is done. We’ve long known that it’s wrong to let the majority vote on the rights of a minority, and history shows that it nearly always results in a preservation of the privilege status quo. The fact that these votes are the exception to the rule is amazing, but it doesn’t change the fact that trying to pursue our rights through an avenue that requires others to approve of our relationships is dangerous. Winning states on an individual basis isn’t a strategy that makes sense; for real change to happen for couples across America, sweeping legislative change on the national level is required, and unfortunately convincing Congress is a whole different proposition from reminding friends and family on Facebook that a vote for Romney is a vote to reduce your personhood.

Furthermore, it’s not clear what these victories might mean for the vast number of gay issues that aren’t marriage-based and also aren’t receiving the support they need. Frank writes about how part of what accomplished this change in attitudes is that the “Why Marriage Matters” campaign moved away from “confrontational” and “demanding” tactics, which proclaimed things like “We’re here and we’re queer!” and “We deserve equal rights now!” He’s right, and the fact is that social progress has historically depended upon a combination of “confrontational” and more harmonious measures.

But the fact is that the reason “Why Marriage Matters” could work is that it was focused specifically around marriage, and it could therefore function by asking straight people to think about their own marriages. Frank writes that:

The group found that when straight people were asked what marriage meant to them, they spoke of love, commitment and responsibility. But when asked why they thought gay people wanted to marry, they cited rights and benefits. Tapping into anti-gay stereotypes, they suggested gay people wanted marriage for selfish reasons while they themselves wanted to express love and commitment.

By helping straight people make the mental leap that (many) gay people wanted to marry their partners for the same reasons that straight people wanted to marry theirs, the coalition was able to accomplish something historic. But it’s not clear how these same tactics would work for issues that don’t have a warm and fuzzy straight equivalency. If the issue is getting funding to organizations that will provide at-risk trans* teens with binders and transition support, or pushing for better training for doctors and EMS workers when it comes to queer and trans* issues, or reducing our dependence on faith-based foster care that hurts gay homeless kids, it’s not clear how appeals to love and commitment will help. These are issues specific to the queer community that can be life-or-death for us, but that the straight community may not even be aware of. The project of making these issues comprehensible to the nation at large is a huge task in and of itself; the project of making the nation at large feel that these are their problems, too, is not one that we’ve figured out how to solve. This is a place where it may be necessary to make the rest of the country that we are here, we are queer, and we do deserve equal rights, because making noise seems like the only way these less photogenic issues can get the attention they need. The “confrontational” tactics Frank refers to were born of the AIDS crisis, when drastic, radical action was needed to convince Americans that the problem of AIDS was real and that the deaths of queers were worth mourning. If we look beyond the issue of marriage, there are still many other ongoing crises for our community that the general public isn’t really even aware of. While the lessons we learned from these campaigns are hugely important, they may not be applicable in all situations.

The fact that for the first time in history, the majority of voters in four states (in any state!) felt called to give their fellow citizens the same rights that they enjoy is incredible, and we should by all means revel in it. Our community worked for that victory, and the lives of families in these four states can now be much more stable and secure. America really is changing. But we shouldn’t take that change as a sign that the marginalization our community has experienced for so long is ending. Instead, it should be a call for us to use the momentum that we have from this election, and to figure out how we can continue to build on the goodwill it appears we have, at least in some corners. The rights of families in four states are now more secure – that means we need to take the next step and figure out what needs to be done to help everyone else, too.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books as well as news and politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel currently lives in Michigan, where she teaches writing at the college level and is pursuing her MFA in fiction. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 714 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. Thumb up 13

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    “The group found that when straight people were asked what marriage meant to them, they spoke of love, commitment and responsibility. But when asked why they thought gay people wanted to marry, they cited rights and benefits.”

    The mentality that leads to this was the most difficult one for me to combat in my own family. It’s a mentality that suggests that gay people are different than other members of humanity on some deeper, fundamental level. It seemed that when all the straight cousins or friends got married it was seen as beautiful, sweet, and touching, but with gay people it was somehow sinister and nefarious. Like all the gay people were secretly plotting to use the extra tax break from being married to kill kittens or something. So strange.

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    Articles like these are making me much more comfortable with the idea of marriage. For a long time I saw marriage in any relationship the same way as some see gay marriage, mainly for the legal benefits. And even though legal security in any relationship is important I am starting to see why people consider it so important on an emotional level.

    I always told myself I would never need to get married, that I could be in a committed, lifelong relationship without all the paperwork. But I am warming up to the idea.

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      Me too!

      I’ve been reading stuff on weddings to support my friend who is getting (hetero) married, and am hit over the head with the idea that every Real Relationship heads towards marriage at some point. Even the feminist, queer-friendly, childfree-friendly wedding blogs are like this. But phonebanking for Ref 74 and having those conversations with people on marriage has changed my views more than the wedding blog inundation has.

      Two months ago, my (male) partner and I agreed that we didn’t see the point of marriage if we didn’t want kids. There’s immense privilege in knowing that a hospital is probably going to recognize our informal relationship because we’re opposite sex, and that our parents would probably work with us to solve medical issues.

      Gay marriage is now legal in my home state, though not the state in which I currently live. I grew up, like most of us have, under the pervasive idea that gay relationships are not worthy of governmental recognition. Even though I’m dating a guy now, I was lesbian-identified for over a decade. That’s a decade of coming to terms with never having a legal marriage. I don’t know if I rounded down to “well, I don’t want to get married *anyway!*”, but now that it’s legal my whole outlook has felt more marriage-ready.

      Or perhaps I’m just excited and swept up in the enthusiasm?

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    Great article, Rachel (as usual, honestly). I really hope that with a nationwide change in the perception of the LGBTQ* community being normal like everyone else, straight and cis people will be able to recognize “queer-specific issues” as extensions of human rights. But maybe I have too much faith in the potential for humanity because I genuinely cannot fathom the mentality of parents turning against their own children which is a huge problem for our community :( I don’t know what I’m saying – maybe one day we won’t need a special box for “queer” issues.

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    Just wondering about something and wasn’t sure where to ask. Now, I love Autostraddle1,000%,and this is in no way a complaint, criticism, or meant to be negative in any way. Having said that (and please don’t forget that I said it) I’ve noticed that ocassionally in what I percieve to be news pieces (such as this one) that sometimes there is what I percieve to be an opinion thrown in…. Such as in the above article “Four different states – Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington – saw voters defend marriage equality at the ballot in an unprecedented instance of the majority voting on the rights of a minority and doing the right thing.” Doing the right thing is really an opinion, one I agree with with all of my little heart mind you, but still an opinion, no? So my question is just – are pieces like this one meant to be news or news with a spin because it’s on AS?

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    I feel very weird about some language used in the fight for marriage equality. I recognize that certain legal benefits, as well as the profound emotional satisfaction of having your relationship formally recognized are important things that queer people deserve as much as straight people. And I realize that being queer in and of itself doesn’t necessarily mean that people have a more radical perspective on many social, economic, and political institutions. But the idea of showing straight people worried about marriage equality (indicating they either have a lack of education on the issue or a bigoted view – typically both) that we are “normal” and “just like them” and “want the same things” is inherently problematic to me. Much of it is for the reasons Rachel discusses – if we’re taking that approach, how do we apply it to situations and contexts in which we don’t want to just be like straight or cis people? Part of it is because I see the way marriage equality, as a civil institution and a market industry still results in us leaving people behind in order to join it (such as poly people, whose legal relationships still aren’t recognized under permitting same-sex partners). What does this mean? Are we working with the intention of changing things from the inside once we win our own inclusion? Or are we (passively or actively) aligning ourselves with an institution and a group of people (most of whom are straight, but not composed of all straight people obvs) in denying other people’s rights? Or are we just not bothering to think about it much?

  6. Thumb up 2

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    I know there are some (I don’t know how many) in the queer community that feel marriage equality is not the issue we should be fighting for. I’ve been to a talk opposing marriage equality for two reasons: because marriage is historically a fucked up, oppressive institution, and because queer people are not like straight people and our queerness and freedom will eventually be compromised if we march on with a mission of inclusion (http://www.againstequality.org/). I understand and agree with some of these arguments, but I also somehow can’t stop being fucking excited about progress made towards gaining any sort of rights or acceptance from the mainstream. Maybe I am more conservative than my anti-marriage queer brethren. I don’t know. All I do know is that your article, Rachel, says almost exactly what I feel – a cautious optimism.

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      I think that in some cases, the opposition to marriage equality reflects privilege (for instance, I don’t plan on ever forming a long-term monogamous relationship regardless, so it’s not an issue that is pressing to me) and in some cases it reflects a differential understanding of what queerness signifies (in terms of assuming that being excluded from the mainstream in your sexual orientation means you are more aware of and supportive of other types of exclusion – not necessarily the case). I know what you mean – I am happy as well to see progress made and the beginning of validating certain aspects of my identity. I just worry that in the process, we’re ignoring and/or distancing ourselves from the other movements Rachel talks about, in the cases in which queer people, people on the trans* spectrum (and people who embody both), poly people, other cultural groups, etc. are not struggling to prove we’re just like “them.” It’s not the fight for marriage equality itself that I find problematic – it’s the language and in some cases tactics used in going about it and describing it (normal, “just like them”, “want the same things”).

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        I like the recognition that it’s a privilege not to care about (or be opposed to) marriage equality. Rufus Wainwright was against it for what I believe the reason most queer people have been – because we’re different, etc – until he formed a serious relationship with a man from another country and realized how important the right to marry was in order to carry on his relationship – and it became personally relevant to him.

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          I read an interesting article a long long time ago discussing the issue. It took a slightly different approach, showcasing the viewpoints of people who were unconcerned with the term “marriage” and felt the myopic focus on it undercut their ability to obtain basic legal recognition of their relationship in other ways (civil unions, etc.) – particularly people with less money and income, people raising children from previous partners, and people of color.

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          I wouldn’t jump too quickly to the position that being able to not focus on marriage is a function of privilege. The biggest bankrollers of the gay marriage movement have been wealthy, white gays and lesbians privileged on most every other axis besides their sexuality.The marriage agenda is their top priority because it’s the next logical step for them to full assimilation. It’s also worth noting that the benefits of marriage–especially financial– are more applicable when at least one partner has some type of wealth or benefits to bring to the equation.

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    Great article!

    A huge problem that I’ve seen in the political discourse of LGBT rights is that “gay rights” has essentially become synonymous with “gay marriage.” If I were to ask most of my straight ally friends what they though of when I said “gay rights,” I know without a doubt that they would say gay marriage and DADT. While these are huge issues for the gay community, the intense focus on them not only excludes trans* people, but takes our focus away from issues that matter to LGBTQIA people that are lower class or POC. I’m fairly young, and am not planning on getting married anytime soon, nor am I planning on joining the military, but I have had close friends get thrown out of their houses for being LGBT. Homelessness and low access to quality health care are also huge issues that need to be addressed, and we can’t do that if our community (including straight allies) considers gay marriage the end all be all of gay rights. It’s like people thinking that Modern Family is this huge and groundbreaking show just because it has two stereotypical, gay, white, middle class men. Marriage equality is great and symbolic of our progress thus far, but our movement still has a long way to go.

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    I personally really want to get married someday, and I think the fight for equal marriage is important, but I’m also coming at it from a British perspective when the hopefully imminent equalising of marriage is kind of the last thing left on the standard queer rights checklist, at least from the legal angle. We have protection from employment discrimination, protection in the provision of goods and services, the right to adopt, the right to change legal gender, and other kinds of basic legal protections.

    In a place like the USA, where some states are great on queer rights and others are appalling, it does seem like the over-emphasis on marriage across the board is potentially damaging. I’m incredibly happy for my friends in Maine and Maryland who can now get married, but I’m also worried for my friend who can’t move back to Georgia for fear of her adoption of her and her partner’s child becoming invalid.

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    You state that Washington had a marriage equality bill that was voted down in 2009, but that’s not actually true. Washington did not have a marriage equality bill for popular vote until this year. Rather, we had Referendum 71 in 2009 which expanded domestic partnerships to grant domestic partnerships the same (state) rights as marriages, which was PASSED by voters. It was the first time voters in the U.S. had actually voted to expand rights for LGBT peeps, rather than us obtaining rights via court orders and legislative decisions, etc.

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