After Obergefell: A Contexts Symposium

I’m one of a bunch of social scientists weighing in on the effects of the Supreme Court on same sex marriage.  The sponsor is Contexts, a sociology journal explicitly charged with addressing contemporary issues and addressing a broader audience–not just academics.

The contributors include experts on the family, gender, sexuality, adoption, and the law.  I think it’s interesting stuff.  Take a look:


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The new politics of gay marriage, 2 (the losers).

The Obergefell decision was a resounding defeat for opponents of same sex marriage, and the groups at the core of the anti-equality (traditional marriage?) movement are casting about for new ways to continue their battle.  It’s going to be tough.

Social movement organizers promote urgency and optimism in order to mobilize support. This means emphasizing both the threat represented by opponents and the prospect that coordinated action can lead to political victory. But projecting optimism and the prospect for influence has just become far more difficult. Outrage only last for so long as a motivator.  Although saints and psychopaths are willing to continue to fight for a lost cause, most people want to believe their efforts might matter.

The campaigners against homogamy haven’t gotten used to losing, and until relatively recently, they haven’t had to.

Until 2003, when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (Goodrich v. Department of Health) established marriage equality, opponents were used to winning, in courts, in the legislatures, and particularly in referenda and ballot initiatives. Even after Massachusetts, advocates of traditional marriage continued to win until the last few years, when opinions changed and the political winds shifted dramatically.

Many opponents conceded ground on civil unions and civil rights, seeking (unsuccessfully) to forestall demands for marriage.
Increasingly, marriage equality opponents have endured defections.  (Two years ago, I posted: how the anti-gay movement faces defeat.) A few Republican notables admitted that coming to know gay people, often their sons and daughters, helped change their minds over time. As opinions shifted, even a few core activists began to reconsider. Look at David Blankenhorn, a long time campaigner for traditional marriage. Blankenhorn was the “expert” witness against gay marriage in 2010 in the federal court trial on California’s Proposition 8. The failure to find other experts, and the judge’s ruling to dismiss Blankenhorn’s testimony as “untrustworthy” was a signal that things weren’t going his way.


By 2012, provoking opposition from longtime allies, Blankenhorn announced that he had changed his mind. Making a virtue of necessity, he redefined his priorities. Traditional marriage was still the best, he said, but preserving its exclusivity was a lost cause that had taken on a nasty anti-gay animus. Abandoning a failed strategy, he announced that he wanted to try something new, “to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same.”  (I haven’t yet seen reports of that coalition’s efforts.)


Falling back and redefining the policy frontier like this is one obvious strategy for survival. Several of the Republican aspirants for the presidency have already signaled that they are adopting this tack (Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio).  While describing their disappointment, they’ve acknowledged the court’s decision as law, and called for a focus on protecting the liberties of religious people, presumably the liberty to discriminate against gay people.  This stance might reflect an honest appraisal of American opinion and/or a calculation about potential electoral support.

But others in the party have called for redoubling their efforts politically, or even sponsoring a Constitutional amendment (Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker).  (By the way, you want your opponents spending their time and money on trying to amend the Constitution.)  Again, this may reflect their honest (if not particularly perceptive) evaluation of American opinion and/or a calculation about their potential base of support.

At this point it looks like the anti-marriage equality groups are still in the outrage phase.
Concerned Women for America compared the decision to Supreme Court rulings of the past that they see as outrageous, like Dred Scott (compelling the return of escaped slaves) or Roe v. Wade, but expressed confidence that with hard work, they could change the culture back… The National Organization for Marriage declared the Obergefell decision illegitimate, and announced a campaign to defend the first amendment (as a right to discriminate.)  Meanwhile, religious conservatives have declared that they will redouble their efforts to bring Christian values back to the political realm, recruiting pastors to run for office (e.g., American Renewal Project).

They face a tough road ahead.  Tearing up the court papers from the Court decision and stomping on them might play well with the stalwarts–for a while–but it’s not likely to reach beyond those who already agree–a diminishing population.

Meanwhile,  the increased visibility of gay couples, and the World Cup victory of the US women’s soccer team are likely to create favorable facts on the ground. The remaining of a marriage ban for gays and lesbians will demand more comprehensive statements of principle that will make converting others even more difficult. The groups will need to choose between finding new support and servicing an increasingly homogenous and demanding base. It’s a tough prospect that leads to ugly politics.


We can get some hints about how this all plays out by looking at Massachusetts, where court-ordered marriage equality has been in effect for more than a decade. Although the Goodridge decision provoked a powerful backlash, the opposition faltered over time. The Massachusetts Family Institute, an affiliate of the national organization, Focus on the Family, promotes “natural marriage,” and vows to fight on, battling generally for religious freedom (to discriminate).  The Massachusetts group is highlighting a campaign against sex education in the schools, while the national group has highlighted God’s displeasure with the decision, offering people the chance to contribute money to fight it.  The Coalition for Marriage and Family, which thrived in the wake of the backlash to Goodridge, is still around and still opposes same sex marriage, but is also pursuing a broader agenda including public education on traditional values and opposing abortion. Each organization supports a very small staff on a very tight budget. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Citizens for Marriage, which sponsored a constitutional amendment in advance of the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision, has disappeared. Also vanished into the internet ether is VoteOnMarriage, a failed campaign after the Goodridge decision to let the voters weigh in.

All this suggests that organized opposition to gay marriage won’t disappear, but will become smaller, more shrill, and less significant over time.

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The new politics of gay marriage, 1.

The battle over marriage equality was never only about marriage. The activists and organizations at the core of movements for and against state recognition of homogamyImage result for marriage equality wanted more, much more. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision (Obergefell v. Hodges), the questions are all about finding the next political battlegrounds.


Marriage and military service didn’t become the major frontiers for the gay and lesbian rights by consensus, but by effective demonstration. Intentionally or not, the architects of the campaigns for access to two major and fundamentally conservative institutions found a recipe for tapping into conventional values even as they challenged them. Once one side starts to make progress–getting attention, mobilizing support, even winning small victories—their opponents are virtually forced to join the same battle. Positions polarize and harden, and the stance on marriage equality, for example, becomes a litmus test for a host of other values.

The Supreme Court was always the target for the initiators of the movement, and as public opinion shifted dramatically in favor of marriage equality, it became the last line of defense for their opponents.

The Obergefell decision changes everything, although it may take a while for everyone to understand how. An authoritative national decision guaranteeing marriage equality means that all of the groups involved have to figure out what to do next. What do you do when you win?

Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry, who has been working this issue for decades, claimed victory and promised to close up shop, announcing that “…the work of this Freedom to Marry campaign is now accomplished. Over the next several months, Freedom to Marry will… strategically wind down its work and document lessons learned, and then close its doors, having achieved its goal of winning marriage nationwide.”



But celebrating a win and then going home almost never happens. Organizations survive. They adjust strategies, tactics, and goals, finding new ways to keep doing some version of what they’ve been doing. This makes sense. For most activists, the marriage campaign was part of a much larger agenda. Second, in pursuit of that agenda, they’ve built organizations and lives that are based around an ongoing battle. There are battles to be fought, Twitter feeds to fill, bills to pay—and, of course, fundraising campaigns to coordinate.
For the winners, groups like Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), Lamda Legal, and the Human Rights Campaign, next steps involve looking at the broader agenda and figuring out the issues that seem most promising or most urgent, those that can hold together the coalitions that supported marriage equality, win political traction, and command activist and funder support. The issues are already there: non-discrimination legislation, protections for transgender people, funding for AIDS education, treatment, and research, and support for youth. Each group will carve out a distinct mix of issues and approaches, and remind supporters that they are continuing the battle.

The challenge is to convince large numbers of people that the new frontiers are as urgent and as promising as marriage became.

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Tainted allies: The KKK weighs in

The worst thing that’s happened to the avowedly non-racist heritage supporters of the Confederate flag this week is the appearance of unwelcome support:  The Ku Klux Klan has been permitted to hold a rally in support of government display of the Confederate standard.Image result for south carolina confederate flag klan

In The Post and Courier, Schuyler Kropf reports that the Klan is well-prepared to fill in meanings between the lines of rather vaguely expressed sentiments about history and heritage.  Kropf called the local Klan’s Grand Dragon, Robert Jones, to understand the KKK’s attachment to the banner.  Jones explained that the murderer of 9 black people at church was a well-intentioned but misdirected warrior, who would have been more effective targeting more dangerous black people (drug dealers, robbers, rapists).  For Jones and the Klan, the flag is about promoting and protecting white culture and white history.

Supporters of the Confederate flag had been eager to promote a non-racialized version of the heritage symbol.  In this regard, black people willing to wave the flag are Embedded image permalinkparticularly valuable.  And they found some.

And then the Klan comes along and spoils it all.

The planned KKK rally is far more likely to prod legislators into striking the flag than the do-it-yourself efforts of Bree Newsome and James Tyson, which inspired those who already agreed with them.

When the lines are drawn and opinion polarizes, you look around at the people on your side to see if you’re standing with the cool kids or the creeps.  After assessing, sometimes you move.


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Strike the flag; direct action version

SALESOUT NARCH EUO MNDTYJust in case all those rainbow flags flying everywhere had obscured the Confederate flag still flying at the state capitol in South Carolina, Bree Newsome climbed the flag poll and took it down.  Police were on top of the situation, helping Newsome and the flag down, and arresting her and James Tyson, her spotter, in short order.

This was hardly the first project for the two activists from Charlotte.  Newsome, a filmmaker and musician, had been working in voting rights campaigns in North Carolina.   Tyson had been working in the environmental movement, and was also a veteran of Occupy Charlotte.

Image result for bree newsome james tysonThe viral video shows politeness and cooperation everywhere, but the activists were arrested, booked, and released by the end of the day.  Although their effort is unlikely to change a single vote in the state legislature, which is set to debate the flag next week, it did spur a wave of attention and support among flag opponents.

Michael Moore tweeted support, promising to pay legal fees and fines.  The NAACP issued a statement comparing their civil disobedience effort to those of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.  And viral campaigns on numerous sites raised far more money than their legal defense is likely to cost.  The attention was even greater.

The  flag was back up on the monument within the hour; there wouldn’t have been a shortage of Confederate flags anyway. A few dozen demonstrators supporting the flag showed up shortly after Newsome and Tyson departed, demonstrating on behalf of heritage–whatever that means.

The pro-flag demonstrators proclaimed that they supported the honor of veterans, the traditions of the South, but most assuredly not racism or oppression.  Oddly, just this rationalization, however twisted, represents the very serious influence of the anti-flag campaigners. Having your opponents adopt your rhetoric and concede your claims, even if not quite accurately, is a part of victory.

Confederate Flag supporters rally at the South CarolinaMeanwhile Bree Newsome and James Tyson made sure the main story of the day was theirs, rather than that of their opponents, crowding the pro-flag demonstrators a little off to the corners of public attention.

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Don’t stop with the flag. #blackvotesmatter

Politicians in the South, mostly Republicans (because it’s mostly Republicans in power in the South), have been rallying around the removal of the Confederate flag from government display.  South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called her state legislature into a special session to vote on striking the flag.  Unconstrained by statute, Governor Robert Bentley ordered the Confederate flags removed from the state capitol grounds in Birmingham immediately.  Legislators in Mississippi and Tennessee are working to remove the symbols of the Confederacy.  And Texas just won a case in the Supreme Court to allow it not to stamp the flag on license plates.

Sixty years after the flag was resurrected to symbolize opposition to civil rights, these welcome moves were a long time in coming.  But they’re not too late.

They are, however, too little.

Removing the standard of an army seeking to maintain slavery, and the chosen symbol of a violent racist group, is a good first respoSefhahrtjrqv32eeimc6nse to #blacklivesmatter, a small step toward rectifying injustice.  The question is whether these politicians mean to be waving the flag at the end of the campaign, rather than the beginning.

There are many other things to do as well.  Here’s one:

Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas all tightened their Voter Identification requirements, starting in 2011–the reflection of a campaign sponsored by ALEC, the conservative policy shop.  Although there’s a smokescreen of talk about voter fraud, requiring a photo ID to vote has the clear effect of depressing black votes.  Sometimes, less savvy politicians even acknowledge this is the intent: black people are more likely to vote for Democrats.

Image result for voter id laws

In Alabama and in South Carolina the focus on tighter voter ID came right after Governor Bentley and Governor Haley were sworn into office.

If #blacklivesmatter, #blackvotes should matter too.  Governors Bentley, Haley, and their allies can demonstrate a commitment by making it easier to vote. It’s a clear next step in cleansing their states of a racist heritage.

I’ll bet they won’t do it on their own.  Social movement campaigns need to accept victories relatively gracelessly, and ask for more.  Meaningful access to the ballot has been on the agenda for a long time, and now’s a chance to make something more happen.

There’s nothing wrong with reevaluating names of bridges, schools, and streets named for racist Confederate war heroes, but that shouldn’t become a sideshow or distraction from much more important political work.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about guns….

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Start with the flag

The tragic racist killing of nine people at Charleston’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, following a year of activism around #blacklivesmatter, drew unusual attention to a range of issues around political and economic inequality.  Striking the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia from government display is a welcome–and modest–response.  It offers us an opportunity to think about what such symbols mean to organizers and movements.

This Confederate flag came to represent the Confederacy as a whole only after the end of the civil war, serving as an evocative standard for the Ku Klux Klan in the years after the war.  Like all flags, this one was built around a myth.  This one was meant to inspire pride and loyalty from white Southern men, and to terrify and warn others.  Very few people will now claim the second purpose, but that’s one thing such symbols can do.

I can understand how this stuff matters at a visceral level.  As a boy, even seeing the Nazi Swastika Flag - NSDAPswastika made me tense and alert in an uncomfortable way, knowing that standard sanctioned unprecedented racist violence–directed at people just like me.  (Its ubiquity in movies and a stupid sitcom ameliorated this somewhat.)  In the service of an idea of free speech and democratic discourse, America allows people to deploy offensive speech and symbols.

The swastika symbol dates hundreds of years prior to the Nazis, and even the establishment of Germany, and a history of sacred connotations in several Asian religions.  But the Nazi regime, World War II, and the Holocaust crowded out alternative interpretations–at least in the West.

When the American Nazi Party was looking to resurrect itself, it boldly deployed the flag in a march through Skokie, Illinois, a community that was home to a large population of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.  The flag was supposed to make the community scared or angry; it was supposed to provoke a reaction, and inspire young racists to rally around it.  Skokie wanted to stop the march; the state of Illinois wanted to constrain it.  The American Civil Liberties Union, which has always enjoyed substantial Jewish support, defended the Nazis’ right to demonstrate and display the flag.  Doing so was completely consonant with its values, but extremely risky in terms of support; the organization lost money and membership in the service of principle.  The actual 1978 march, when the Nazis were outnumbered by counterprotesters, was something of an anticlimax.  Maybe this is how free speech is supposed to work.

But government agencies in America never displayed the swastika.

The Confederate flag has been resurrected to unite the Klan, and then again in 1948 when Strom Thurmond led a breakaway faction of Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats) in a presidential campaign based on maintaining segregation and white supremacy.  The failed electoral campaign fed into a broader Southern resistance to civil rights, and pieces of the Confederate standard started appearing in counterdemonstrations and in government buildings and Southern state flags.  Framed as heritage or values or history, it was nonetheless rooted in racism.  Over not too much time, politicians of all stripes (and stars), sports teams, and entertainers grabbed that flag too, without necessarily endorsing separatism or white supremacy.

But if the flag were an innocuous symbol, no one would fight to keep it flying.  A troubled young man could find echoes of his beliefs not only the websites of hate groups, but in official displays of local governments.  And that flag meant the same thing to him as it did to millions of others who detested it, but had to learn to project tolerance.

Certainly, there are people who see that flag as a symbol of bravery on the gridiron; others see the American flag as a symbol of imperialism and oppression (Read the recent story about my campus).  And there may still be people who see the swastika as a holy Hindu symbol.  The broad public debate sorts all this out, somewhat, over time.

But government endorsement is quite another thing.  South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley had it right this week, when she called for the removal of the flag from South Carolina State House grounds: “Today we are here in a moment of unity in our state Image result for take the confederate flag downwithout ill will to say it is time to remove the flag from our capitol grounds.  This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state.”

It’s hard to see this as only the right thing to do morally.  Governor Haley, and the phalanx of politicians surrounding her, also understood the politics quite well.  A crazed gunman had made the toxicity of the symbol visible, and those who cared deeply about the old battle flag were no longer powerful enough to worry about too much.

Striking the flag isn’t nothing, but it is the least they can do.

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