John Perilli: Beware, the Marriage Equality Backlash Is Coming
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Last May, Rhode Island became the tenth state to allow for full marriage rights for same sex couples. It was a triumphant ending to a nearly twenty year struggle. Then as if on cue, the barriers for marriage equality in other states began to fall like ninepins. And by the end of 2013, eighteen states had marriage equality, nine more than a year before.
But the resistance wasn't done yet.
In 2014, while the trend of courts striking down laws prohibiting gay marriage has continued, another more disturbing countertrend has arisen. In Kansas and Arizona, state legislatures seriously considered passing what are effectively anti-gay segregation bills which would allow businesses to deny service to LGBTQ customers based on so-called "religious liberty."
With the equality movement making such tremendous strides so fast, it was only a matter of time before the pushback came. But the equality movement cannot fold now. They must be stronger than ever, put some of their hard-won momentum on defense, and stay the course. This will only be one of a series of battles that must be won before LGBTQ rights are fully accepted across America.
Fitting the Pattern
The anti-gay bills in Arizona and Kansas might seem like aberrations, but they are actually part of a longstanding, rather simple pattern in American politics. One that plays itself out whenever we are consumed by a great social debate: Where there is momentum, there will eventually be counter-momentum.
From the backlash against organized labor in the 1920s to the pushback against feminism in the 1980s, our social history is stitched with this pattern. Degrees of severity might differ, but with few exceptions, the basic dynamics do not.
As marriage equality marched across the nation, many observers wondered if, or when, a backlash might come. Some have dismissed the idea of a gay rights backlash, while others were more wary. But with the anti-gay bills in Arizona and Kansas arriving so close together on such a shocking wave of support, there can be no doubt. A strong, institutional backswing against the progress of gay rights has arrived.
This can be taken two ways. For one, it is a compliment to the marriage equality and gay rights movements for how far they have come in such a short span of time. But on the other hand, it is a warning. If the bills in Arizona and Kansas are part of a pattern, then that pattern could certainly spread. Georgia, Ohio and several others have already considered introducing anti-gay laws of their own.
The equality movement can't rest on its victories. What is to be done?
The dominant message of the equality movement has been positive. In Rhode Island and elsewhere, the main theme of the campaign has been that LGBTQ folks should have the same rights as anyone else. It's simple. It's compelling. It doesn't accuse anyone of anything.
However, with the arrival of the Arizona/Kansas legislation, it might be time for a change of plans. Rather than constantly playing offense, gay rights advocates should make a serious commitment to play defense in the short-to-medium term. This involves more than just making an accusatory Facebook graphic or two and writing a few op-eds. This means advocacy groups must invest in permanent infrastructure and staff devoted to combatting the opposition.
Yes, the message ideally ought to be one of openness and inclusion. But nothing would hobble the movement more than if these anti-gay bills began to pass. The bill in Kansas passed one house of the legislature, and was terribly close to passing the other. In Arizona, the bill is on the Governor's desk. This sort of counter-momentum would put the equality movement on a severe back foot. Would we rather play defense for a short while now, or for a long time later?
Holding the Line
In broader terms, though, what's most important for the equality movement to do is to stay the course. With court decisions pouring in from state after state, the push for equality could start to seem, dare I say it, a bit too simple. This cannot be the mindset advocates take. The struggle is not complete. Advocacy groups and campaigns must continue to make legal challenges, pressure state legislatures, and keep up the fight on every front.
Nor will Arizona and Kansas's anti-gay bills be the last obstacle the equality movement must overcome. Marriage equality is an important standard-bearer for gay rights in general, but LGBTQ Americans face many other challenges, from lack of job security, to healthcare issues, to bullying. Marriage is not the be-all-end-all for LGBTQ rights. And even if the United States becomes fully accepting of equality in every way, what of the rest of the world? It is now essentially illegal to be gay in Uganda, and while the Sochi Olympics may be over, the specter of LGBTQ oppression still hangs over Russia.
The road to equality is long, but each obstacle along the way is immediate and pressing when it comes. The recent laws in Arizona and Kansas are only two steps along a series of struggles, but the backlash must be overcome. If it is, though, we are that much closer to equality.
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