Too soon for equality?

April 3, 2013

Much of the mainstream political establishment, including prominent Republicans, have come out in favor of marriage equality--but the New York Times still urges caution.

MILLIONS OF people are hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court will advance the cause of equality and strike down California's Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act when it decides on two major cases this spring. They understand that momentum has shifted to our side when all manner of mainstream politicians, including Republicans, are suddenly rushing to say that they now support the right of same-sex couples to marry.

But not everyone is so eager for a victory. In a recent article, the liberal New York Times warned that a decision in favor of marriage equality might, in fact, harm the cause of LGBT rights--because it could ignite a "culture war."

As proof, the Times article cites Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed a woman's right to abortion. According to the article, the Roe ruling hurt the effort to win abortion rights in the long run--because it happened too quickly, before society was ready for it, and thereby set off a backlash. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a supporter of the Roe v. Wade decision, nevertheless told the Times: "It's not that the judgment was wrong, but it moved too far, too fast."

LGBT rights activists rally for marriage equality outside the Supreme Court
LGBT rights activists rally for marriage equality outside the Supreme Court (David Sachs | SEIU)

Now, the Times warns, history could repeat itself with a too-hasty legalization of same-sex marriage.

It's hard to think of a better illustration of how the timidity of liberalism in the Obama era leads to compromises and concessions, even on issues where our side is winning.

This "don't go too fast" way of thinking not only dismisses the sea change in public consciousness around same-sex marriage and LGBT rights generally, but it ignores the history of how significant social change happens in the first place.

The most important rights and reforms--particularly the civil rights of oppressed groups--come not from bargaining in the courts or begging in the halls of Congress, but from struggles starting at the grassroots that transform the social climate and make it impossible for the courts or Congress to continue to uphold injustice.

Less than 10 years ago, same-sex marriage was seen as a "wedge issue" that the Religious Right could manipulate at will. Today, polls show a rapid transformation of public opinion, as a majority of the population has come to recognize that there is something fundamentally discriminatory about same-sex couples being barred from the more than 1,000 rights that married couples have.

As a result, Democratic latecomers like Hillary Clinton are scrambling to be seen as supporters of equal marriage rights--and dozens of prominent Republicans, many of them one-time vocal opponents of same-sex marriage, have signed onto a brief to the Supreme Court urging the repeal of Proposition 8.

The shift in consciousness--and the subsequent shift in mainstream politics--didn't come out of thin air. LGBT activists and supporters of equality reacted to the passage of Prop 8 in 2008 with outspoken opposition and protest--and less than five years later, even an institution as moribund and out-of-touch as the Supreme Court is having to re-examine discriminatory laws.

Actually, the New York Times' hand-wringing notwithstanding, the same was true about abortion rights when Roe v. Wade was decided. The context for that ruling was a rapidly changing national discussion about women's oppression, which activists played a key role in shifting. With abortion rights under fierce attack today, we could do with less caution--and a lot more outspoken protest.

FOR ANYONE who knows the history of abortion politics in the U.S., the idea that Roe happened "too fast" is ludicrous.

Frankly, it didn't happen fast enough for many women--the ones who became ill or died because they resorted to illegal back-alley abortions, and the many others whose ability to decide their future was stripped away because they couldn't terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

The Roe v. Wade decision didn't come out of the blue, but was the product of a shift in public consciousness around women's issues. Polls taken just before the Supreme Court decision showed substantial majorities in favor of decriminalizing abortion. According to a Gallup survey, more than two-thirds of self-identified Republicans and 56 percent of Catholics agreed with the statement: "The decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician."

The ruling in Roe didn't spark an inevitable backlash. On the contrary, it probably had "an immediately legitimating effect on public opinion," according to legal experts Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel. Greehouse and Siegel point out that polling just two months after Roe showed "a remarkable liberalization of abortion attitudes on the part of all groups and subgroups of American society."

The same is true about same-sex marriage today. Support for equal marriage has gone from around 40 percent in 2004 to 60 percent today.

Ultimately, of course, the Religious Right did mobilize a "culture war" against abortion rights. The attempts to limit and restrict access to abortion began as soon as it became legal under Roe. And the "culture war" wasn't just about abortion rights, either, but all the gains of the 1960s movements. Women and gays and lesbians weren't the only ones on the right's hit list. So were Blacks and Latinos, not to mention unions.

But the point is that the Supreme Court decision didn't set off an inevitable and unstoppable backlash. The Religious Right went on the attack, and they weren't confronted by an opposition that could keep them on the defensive. The wrong side started winning the war.

As the more conservative sections of the women's movement turned their focus to winning advances for a small minority of women in the corporate world and supporting "pro-women" Democratic Party politicians, they shifted the focus from important grassroots struggles, including defending the right to abortion.

In the absence of a sustained and confident movement for abortion rights, the Religious Right was able to reintroduce its anti-women (and anti-gay and anti-Black and anti-union) agenda back into mainstream politics. Over time, the Democratic Party establishment could no longer see the political benefit of standing up for abortion rights, since it could count on the pro-choice vote no matter what they did. So they toned down the pro-choice message and even welcomed anti-abortion Democrats into the fold.

THE SAME lessons carry through to supporters of equal marriage today. When Prop 8 passed the same night that Barack Obama was elected president, Democratic Party leaders told angry LGBT activists that they needed to be patient--and water down their message, too, in order to appeal to moderates.

When a new generation of LGBT activists ignored that message--and organized a 200,000-strong National Equality March in Washington, D.C., in 2009--they were treated with contempt by the likes of leading House Democrat Barney Frank, who called the inspiring event "waste of time at best." A few days before the march, he told a reporter, "The only thing they're going to be putting pressure on is the grass."

Similarly, mainstream LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign told grassroots activists that they had give Obama time and were asking for too much, too fast.

But this didn't deflect the activists, nor the broader pro-LGBT rights sentiment they represented. It's in large part because of the continuing grassroots mobilizations and the wider political ferment that LGBT rights was one of the only issues where our side won concrete gains--such as the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"--during the first term of the Obama presidency. And now, the effort to win equal marriage rights is poised to take another step forward.

Supporters of a woman's right to choose could learn a lot from this experience.

Abortion rights are under drastic attack. North Dakota's governor just signed one of the most extreme and unconstitutional bans on abortion in recent history--with the clear objective of throwing Roe into question.

In this political climate, it can seem as if a majority of people want to overturn legal abortion. But if you actually look at what people think, the story is different.

According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released earlier this year, seven in 10 Americans believe Roe v. Wade should remain law--the highest level of support since 1989. In an August 2012 survey by Republicans for Choice--which asked "Regardless of how you personally feel about the issue of abortion, who do you believe should have the right to make that decision regarding whether to have an abortion?"--71 percent of Republicans, 80 percent of independents and 89 percent of Democrats said they "strongly" feel a woman should make her own decisions.

Abortion rights aren't being chipped away because Roe happened "too fast" or incited the right to wage a "culture war." It's because the people entrusted with defending women's right to abortion didn't fight.

Today, we're seeing a sea change in public opinion around LGBT rights--and it's crucially the result of thousands and thousands of people taking to the streets. This isn't time to slow down--on marriage equality or abortion or any other issue. It's time to push harder.

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