What the Gay Community Lost While It Was Winning Gay Marriage

A new book highlights the shortcomings of the campaign for marriage equality—but is it too pessimistic about what its success means for the LGBT community?
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

In 1990, 75 percent of Americans believed homosexual sex was immoral, and gay marriage was illegal in literally every jurisdiction in the world. Not quite 25 years later, a majority of Americans support gay marriage, and among young people support is as high as 70 percent. That is a breathtaking transformation; if you'd told LGBT organizations and advocates a quarter century ago that they were on the verge of a public relations coup of this magnitude, almost none of them would have believed it. Even now, it's hard to credit. How on earth did it happen?

 

Leigh Moscowitz's new book, The Battle Over Marriage: Gay Rights Activism Through the Media doesn't set out to answer that question, but it does hint at one possibility: that the public relations revolution was achieved, in part, through the tremendous savviness and hard work of gay rights activists.

In the 1990s and early 2000s antipathy to LGBT people in the media was intense, and appeared in ways both overt and subtle.  Even when the topic was gay marriage or gays in the military, gay life was exoticized: Images accompanying LGBT news items often showed "seedy gay bars or seminaked parade revelers," in the words of an Advocate article Moscowitz quotes. News networks often framed debates in terms of God vs. gays, with gay activists on one side and anti-homosexual religious leaders, with all the respectability that religion lends, on the other.

But, as Moscowitz shows, LGBT organizations figured out ways to respond. They sent video tapes of gays and lesbians in domestic settings—"walking their dog, cooking dinner, coming home from work"—to the TV networks for use as background, or “b-roll,” footage for related news stories. They worked to get LGBT-friendly religious leaders in front of the cameras.

The campaign against negative representation, particularly in the gay marriage debate, was effective. As Moscowitz points out though, the LGBT community’s public relations successes have created some problems as well.  In particular, the push for gay marriage has drawn attention away from other issues. For example, lesbian and gay people can still be fired for their sexual orientation in 24 states; transgender people can be fired in 44.  (A national LGBT employment non-discrimination law is currently stalled in the House.)

More generally, the very topic of marriage equality foregrounds assimilation; those b-rolls sent to the studios presented LGBT people as typical middle-Americans, working middle-class jobs, raising kids, living the American dream.  The half-naked Pride paraders were carefully pushed off center-stage. At the extremes, this trend meant gay people themselves were sidelined, as in the much-maligned failed 2012 Proposition 8 campaign in California, which focused on straight politicians and allies touting gay marriage rather than showing pictures of gay families (though, as Moscowitz says, a campaign in Maine the same year which centered on gay families also failed).

Moscowitz writes that, "in selling one particular version of gay and lesbian life, the movement risks unintentionally casting other forms of gay identity (not being part of a monogamous, married, child-rearing couple) to the margins." She argues that when news media chose LGBT weddings to highlight, they inevitably included couples who looked and acted as much like traditional heterosexual couples as possible. In a couple of instances, Moscowitz says, "one partner took the last name of the other, ironically participating in a heterosexist and patriarchal practice historically rooted in property ownership."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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