The rise of the gay rights movement to popular acceptance is probably the most amazing political event of my lifetime, perhaps outside of this nation electing an African-American president. Social movements in American history are for the most part SLOW in advancing, with often decades between any positive institutional change. Then there can often be a big push forward thanks to specific historical circumstances that leads to a certain amount of institutional change, followed by another period of stalling, even as activists continue to fight for change. As I always tell my students, the African-American freedom struggle did not start in 1954 and end in 1968. It started in 1619 and continues today, and if we consider slave resistance broadly, as an identifiable movement for the vast majority of that time. But there have only ever been two periods in American history when enough white people wanted to push forward those rights that the movement could achieve major victories, 1863-70 (or so) and 1954 (or so)-65. Otherwise, too many white people have simply not cared or have been openly hostile for institutional change to create more equal conditions for African-Americans. It’s the same for other movements. Organized labor hasn’t won a nationwide comprehensive pro-worker bill since the Fair Labor Standards Act 77 years ago. The environmental movement can still win big victories in executive action but major environmental bills can win in Congress no longer, and as today’s EPA decision shows, hostile courts can undo them. Lilly Ledbetter was a rare legislative victory for the women’s rights movement in the last few decades.
This story is not entirely untrue in the gay rights movement. After all, there was a tremendous amount of suffering and oppression until fairly recently (and especially in the transgender community, continues today). Gays were routinely murdered on the streets of almost every American city. Clearly the murder of Matthew Shephard was a transitional moment here, akin to the murder of Emmitt Till, that finally started to move heterosexuals toward greater tolerance. Why this particular murder? As with much of history, it’s really impossible to say. After all, my basic theory of change in American history is that you just never know what will capture the attention of the general public, but activists have to fight like everything will in order to be ready to take advantage of that attention. And the gay rights movement does have identifiable antecedents back into the 1950s through the Mattachine Society and other pioneering groups.
But the gay rights movement has advanced at a shockingly fast rate. Even 10 years ago, national gay marriage seemed impossible. I grew up in Springfield, Oregon. In 1992, the Oregon Citizens Alliance passed a city ordinance allowing gays “no special rights,” which was really the right to be recognized as humans. My high school friends were on the streets holding up signs advocating the oppression of gays. That fall and the next couple of election cycles, statewide laws based around that Springfield law nearly passed. In Oregon. Not Texas or Mississippi. Oregon. And one did pass in Colorado. How did we go in 23 years from widespread hatred and revulsion of gays to clear majorities supporting for gay marriage and the Supreme Court granting them that right? That’s a question historians will be debating for a long time.
I also am of the fairly strong belief that the gay rights movement is not going to enter into that long period of stagnation that plagues other movements, although there is some sort of end point toward gay acceptance and legal victories. There’s obvious a lot of fights that still need to be won. First, given Hobby Lobby, it’s entirely possible that the Supreme Court is going allow religious exceptions to corporations for recognizing these gay marriages. Right now, the South is basically going full George Wallace/Orval Faubus against this ruling. We already know that the LGBT community suffers from significant discrimination in housing and employment and in many states there is nothing they can do. And transgender community still suffers the routine murders that killed gay men for years. There’s a long ways to go.
Continued victories are hardly inevitable. It once seemed that the Equal Rights Amendment was a sure thing and support for the women’s movement not only stalled out, but in fact that movement went into decline, taking a defensive posture against declining reproductive rights, fighting against pay inequity that remains stubborn, and dealing with continued misogyny throughout society. Scott pointed this out the other day, cautioning that the only things standing between LGBT people and renewed marriage oppression are the life of Anthony Kennedy and the 2016 presidential election. In a strictly legal sense, this is true. Yet the public support of gay marriage has risen so quickly and really shows little sign of abating. Again, this was also true of abortion in the 60s and 70s.
Here’s what I think the gay rights movement is different. First, lots of gay people are wealthy white men. This is a different kind of underclass than African-Americans and women. These are people who are the overclass except that they are gay. That these are people with access to real power matters. Second, the political campaign to get people to come out to their families and friends has obviously been overwhelmingly successful, even at a sometimes high personal cost to the brave people doing this. The reality is that almost all of us today know people who are openly gay. It’s a lot easier for white people to not know any black people than to not know any gay people. Obviously, we all know women, but as several commenters noted in yesterday’s thread, abortion just cuts differently because of the ability to frame the fetus as a baby. There’s nothing equivalent to this in the rest of American society. That helps explain the stagnation of abortion support versus the still growing support for gay marriage–a support that most importantly skews very heavily to younger voters, suggesting an almost near universal acceptance for people under the age of 30.
Abortion is hardly the whole of the women’s movement and that gets at the potential challenges of the LGBT movement in achieving future victories. As many others have noted, the gay marriage movement was a successful campaign because it was fundamentally conservative. It tapped into the most basic rights in American society, even if marriage politics have always been hotly contested. The African-American freedom struggle also succeeded when asking for the most fundamental of rights: voting rights and the end to the daily routine humiliation of Jim Crow. It’s when you start getting into challenging economic power and personal choice that it gets much harder for social movements to win in the United States. Housing discrimination can be a tough victory. Equality at the job even harder. African-Americans still face routine discrimination in job interviews over something as simple as their name. The women’s movement fight for pay equity has been a decades-long struggle and still has not achieved parity.
So again, you never know what is going to happen. But all trends point toward increasing support for gay rights and the acceptance of gay people into the fabric of American society.