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.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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