Why gay marriage opponents lost: The social angle

John just posted a piece about the legal and logical reasons why gay marriage opponents have essentially lost the fight against marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples.

I figured I’d chime in with the other angle, the social one, as to why we went from support for gay marriage being a very small minority to majority support in a rather short period of time.

First, a rather interesting graphic from the always entertaining and insightful xkcd:

Marriage, by xkcd, included via Creative Commons permission

In truth, we have one man to thank for much of it: Harvey Milk.

Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk

One of Milk’s campaign slogans was “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Many don’t remember, but another cornerstone of his campaign for mayor of San Francisco in 1978 was Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, so named after John Briggs, state legislator from Orange County.

The proposition also had the backing of Anita Bryant of the oxymoronically named “Save Our Children.”

Prop 6 would have banned gay people from working in public schools, at any level. The language of the proposition would have also banned anybody known publicly to be in favor of gay rights. That’s right: If you were a school teacher and publicly made any pro-gay remark, you could be summarily fired.

The proposition lost, fortunately, 58-42.

To their credit, opposition to Prop 6 is what led to the founding of the Log Cabin Republicans in 1977. And the chances of defeating the proposition did not look good in September 1978 when it was ahead in the polls, with 66% of Californians in favor of it.

In one of his moments of non-evilness, Governor Ronald Reagan declared that he was opposed to the measure, and even penned an editorial in the LA Herald-Examiner. If you want to hear some real leadership though, check out this video-illustrated audio recording of Mayor Harvey Milk:

That was the start. When the homophobes would have had gay people remain invisible, in the closet, leaders like Harvey Milk were saying it would take the courage of being out, proud, and visible to change how straight people saw gay people. To hide, to be invisible gave unwarranted legitimacy to the position there was something wrong with being gay, something deserving of shame.

This was also the genesis and necessity of Gay Pride parades.

It was a long, long struggle just for ‘tolerance,’ much less the real goal: acceptance. For many years, it didn’t look good. Homophobes like Bryant were successful in repealing anti-discrimination measures.  States like Oklahoma and Arkansas did pass laws banning gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. Many states passed laws banning gay people from adopting.

And of course, we shouldn’t forget how when Governor Reagan became President Reagan, he completely ignored the AIDS/HIV epidemic for nearly six years, well into his second term. Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, actually laughed in 1982 about the fact that an estimated 1 in 3 of those infected were dying. Speakes found it particularly funny that the sick and dying were gay:

Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement–the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President–
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any–
Q: Nobody knows?
MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.
Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping–
MR. SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no–(laughter)–no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.
Q: The President doesn’t have gay plague, is that what you’re saying or what?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I didn’t say that.
Q: Didn’t say that?
MR. SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn’t you stay there? (Laughter.)
Q: Because I love you, Larry, that’s why. (Laughter.)
MR. SPEAKES: Oh, I see. Just don’t put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)
Q: Oh, I retract that.
MR. SPEAKES: I hope so.
Q: It’s too late.

Whenever it seemed like there might be progress — whether it was gays being permitted to serve openly in the military, or the first serious proposals that maybe gay and lesbian couples should have some partnership rights — the door was slammed in our faces. First “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” then the “Defense of Marriage Act.” Sadly, both of these measures had strong bipartisan and popular support.

Something began to shift with the turn of the millennium, however, and most of it was because of what had been happening over the previous 20-25 years. (Not coincidentally, 20-25 years is considered roughly a ‘generation.’)

Back in the 1960s and 70s, you probably would have found only a few people who would say they knew someone gay. The truth is, they probably did, but weren’t aware.  Remember, the whole point of the closet was to be invisible. It would be “oh, just those two ladies who’ve lived with each other for decades.” Or the “confirmed bachelor neighbor” who always seemed to have a handsome friend with him.

By the time we got to the late 1990s, there weren’t nearly as many people who would or could say the same. It seems like everybody knew someone who was gay, and increasing numbers were gay family members.

So along comes 2003 and the marriage cases in Massachusetts. Where the question simply was:

“We know these people are gay. We know they’ve been committed to each other for years and even decades in some cases. Some are raising children together. In every aspect but one — the physical gender of the two adults involved — they meet the traditional definition of ‘family.’ Many have even solemnized their relationships within accepting religions. Who is harmed in any way if we extend the legal definition of civil marriage to include them?”

The answer, of course, is no one. No one is harmed.

The cover of the Arkansas Times.

The cover of the Arkansas Times.

Indeed, it’s been ridiculously easy for gay and lesbian couples, and their families, to point out exactly how they are harmed by the withholding of legal recognition. Including some 1138 rights, privileges, and responsibilities at the Federal level alone.

As for the objective science, as opposed by the lies and misrepresentations of the anti-gay side, children actually do best in stable, loving families, regardless of the gender of their parents. And one of the ways stability is encouraged is when the adults raising those kids are allowed to marry each other.

The operative word in the repeal of DADT, as championed by OutServe and SDLN and other activist groups, was “fairness.” It was not fair to let gays and lesbians serve, only to be exploited and kicked out whenever a commander felt like it. It wasn’t fair for women to be raped and coerced into silence lest they be accused of being lesbian. It was not fair to ask someone to sacrifice for their country, then discard them because of who they loved.

It’s been the same with marriage equality. I also do firmly believe one day we’ll have ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, it bars job discrimination against gay and trans people under federal law). But I believe here’s why we’ve been winning over the last decade, with a veritable dam breaking in the last year after DOMA’s Section 3 was overturned by the Supreme Court.

It happened because of people like this:


And this:


And this:

indiana gay marriage

A gay couple gets married in Indiana.

And this:

A gay marriage proposal at a Home Depot.

A gay marriage proposal at a Home Depot.

And this:

Pediatrician Paul Melchert holds son Emmett, left, while his husband, James Zimmerman, holds their son Gabriel, at a press conference in Minnesota in favor of gay marriage.

Pediatrician Paul Melchert holds son Emmett, left, while his husband, James Zimmerman, holds their son Gabriel, at a press conference in Minnesota in favor of gay marriage.

And this:


And this:


What do they all have in common? They’re extraordinary in being ordinary.

It’s easy to fear something unknown and unfamiliar. But when your next door neighbors are a lesbian couple raising a couple of kids, or two gay men who, say, throw terrific beer and BBQ parties, it’s hard to keep that irrational fear going. Which is probably why homophobes like Tony Perkins (head of the SPLC-identified hate group, Family Research Council) is desperate to keep his children from learning such people exist. Because his lies and his irrational bigotry would be exposed.

And so this circles back around — because Harvey Milk was right. He has been vindicated. Step 1 in winning civil rights for gays and lesbians (and also hopefully B’s and T’s) is coming out of the closet. When we come out, people eventually learn that there isn’t anything to be afraid of. And gradually, the haters and homophobes become reduced to objects of ridicule and derision, as they should’ve been all along.

Anybody remember this guy? Even the gay-hating far-right distances itself from him now.

Fred Phelps Westboro Baptist Church gay

From GodHatesFags(dot)com

As soon as the courts began to say, “You can’t invoke your religion, or some nebulous concept of ‘tradition’ to justify anti-gay animus” — it was over for them. In case after case, they’re reduced to promoting bogus and easily disproved claims about the purposes of, and state interests in, civil marriage.

Take, for example, this argument put forth by the Republican Governor of Idaho, Butch Otter (yes, that’s his real name). The 9th Circuit decision last week had a field day with this one. (“He,” below, is Gov. Otter):


I leave you with the dyspeptic and forehead-vein-throbbing dissent of Justice Antonin Scalia in the DOMA overturn during the summer of 2013:

When the Court declared a constitutional right to homosexual sodomy, we were assured that the case had nothing, nothing at all to do with ‘whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter. Now we are told that DOMA is invalid because it ‘demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects,’ ante, at 23 — with an accompanying citation of Lawrence.

“It takes real cheek for today’s majority to assure us, as it is going out the door, that a constitutional requirement to give formal recognition to same-sex marriage is not at issue here — when what has preceded that assurance is a lecture on how superior the majority’s moral judgment in favor of same-sex marriage is to the Congress’s hateful moral judgment against it. I promise you this: The only thing that will ‘confine’ the Court’s holding is its sense of what it can get away with. (…)

“As I have said, the real rationale of today’s opinion, whatever disappearing trail of its legalistic argle-bargle one chooses to follow, is that DOMA is motivated by ‘bare . . . desire to harm’ couples in same-sex marriages. How easy it is, indeed how inevitable, to reach the same conclusion with regard to state laws denying same-sex couples marital status.”

Argle-bargle indeed, Mr. Justice.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are!”

Published professional writer and poet, Becca had a three decade career in technical writing and consulting before selling off most of her possessions in 2006 to go live at an ashram in India for 3 years. She loves literature (especially science fiction), technology and science, progressive politics, cool electronic gadgets, and perfecting Hatch green chile recipes. Fortunately for this last, Becca and her wife currently live in New Mexico. @BeccaMorn

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