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."

Moscowitz's general point is well-taken; assimilation is a loss as well as a triumph, and its rewards don't always extend to those who, for whatever reason, can't or won't fit themselves into the  wedding cummerbund society demands. But is it really "ironic" for gays or lesbians to take on their partner's name? Does that really mean the couples in question are blind to patriarchy and property ownership? As an analogy: Moscowitz is in the academy, an institution which long restricted or outright excluded women. Is it ironic for her to be writing as a woman or advocating for gay rights in that context?  Or does it show, not that Moscowitz is deluded, but that institutions can change? Similarly, when a woman takes another woman's name upon marriage, it could be seen not as ironic capitulation, but as an insistence that the rituals of marriage are about two becoming one in the name of love, rather than about property ownership. Assimilation is often seen as being a one-way process, in which a minority becomes more like the majority. But I think it could instead be viewed as a dialectic, which changes not just the assimilated but the assimilator as well.

This is not to dismiss Moscowitz's concerns. She's certainly correct when she emphasizes that the egalitarian potential of gay marriage will only be met "if the conversation about marriage…remains focused on the ummarrieds as well": Gay people shouldn't need to get married to be recognized as human, nor should only married gay people have equal rights.

"Marriage inevitably values heterosexual hierarchies and lifelong monogamous commitment," Moscowitz says — but that "inevitably" is exactly what's at stake in the marriage equality debate. Conservatives who insist that gays marrying will change marriage as we know it are correct. As Stephanie Coontz has shown, marriage has changed a lot over the last hundred years; it's a dynamic institution. Accepting LGBT people into marriage will change marriage. Which is a bad thing if you value patriarchy more than love, and a good thing if you value the reverse.

It's worth remembering that while there are certainly problems with marriage, those problems aren't "inherent," as Moscowitz calls them. On the contrary, the massive change in attitudes towards gay marriage suggests that qualities seen as inherent to marriage can in fact change with remarkable quickness. Perhaps the reason opinions on marriage equality shifted so quickly is that gay marriage is forward rather than backward looking; it ties in to the increasingly prevalent view of marriage as individual choice rather than as an economic partnership or a machine for producing heirs. More and more, marriage is what we want it to be — and if gay people have taught the media and the rest of us to want it to be more equal, then so much the better for everyone.