Marriage Equality: What’s the Big Deal?

In this article, the author looks at how marriage equality has become one of the most popularized social issues du jour in American national politics. By examining racial attitudes and the Obama administration’s evolving stance on the matter, LGBT activists are brimming with hope that a reelection of Obama could pave the way for a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the legalization of same-sex marriage on a federal level by 2016. 

By Matthias Pauwels, 31st March, 2012

‘They’re losing California. Inch by inch, sit back and watch it go.’ 

If film director Gus Van Sant ever decides to follow up on his critically acclaimed Harvey Milk biopic with a Proposition 8 film adaption, ‘Losing California’ by Canadian rock band Sloan could easily wind up on the film’s soundtrack, voicing the bitter and biggest defeat gay activists in California have faced since Milk’s unabashed activism of the 1970’s.

The United States has always liked to boast its much vaunted liberalism on social issues, but when Californians cast their ballot vote in favor of a state-wide constitutional ban on gay marriage in November 2008, it not only marked the end of same-sex unions in the Golden State, but also of the most expensive social-issue ballot in American national history. A triumph for social conservatism, Proposition 8 had crushed the LGBT community’s hopes that California would become one of the vanguards for the legalization of same-sex marriage across the nation, and turned liberal America into an emotional wasteland. To many, the actual passing of Proposition 8 defied all logic, especially in the context of  California’s rich history as a historical trailblazer in the fight for gay rights. And even though New York  fared a better deal with the passing of the Marriage Equality Act in a tight majority vote in 2011, it was a legislative tour de force fuelled only by a favorable power momentum in the New York Senate amongst Democrats and Republicans.

From a concept cradled by John Locke to the dominant political force in the Western hemisphere today, liberalism has triumphantly survived two world wars and major ideological challenges from fascism and communism. For several centuries now, a strong focus on human rights has been one of the paramount liberal tenets. But for gay men and women everywhere, the harsh reality of liberalism’s shadow side often revealed that human rights did not encompass gay rights, a perception which was publicly invalidated only last December by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at International Human Rights Day in Geneva. The gay community has come a long way since New York’s Stonewall riots in the late 1960s or Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978 but  nonetheless the 21st century was ushered in without absolute gender equality.


‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, a controversial military policy barring openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers from military service was only recently repealed under the Obama administration, setting the official end date of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for September 20, 2011. Furthermore, the sodomy law in Texas, classifying consensual, adult homosexuality as illegal sodomy, was only struck down in 2003 in the landmark Lawrence vs. Texas Supreme Court case.

For the past five years, the intensifying debate over same-sex marriage has become the new social issue du jour, marking a clear and distinct cleavage between religious traditionalism and progressivism.  Widening the gap between social conservatives and liberals, the issue of marriage equality echoes the growing pains of gender equality in the 21st century. Its global legislative struggle fully testifies to the fact that it is still a deeply divisive and emotional issue on both sides of the fence. From the majestic Golden Gate Bridge to the Big Apple, the United States has been a perpetual arena of conflict and contention on the issue of marriage equality. The religiousness of America’s social conservatives and their moral objections have more than once provided a filibuster on the matter, but what the Rick Santorums or Kirk Camerons of this world fail to see is that gay people’s longings to be wedded is fundamentally conservative, as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni notes. Once denounced as sexual libertines who brazenly flouted society’s norms, the fundamental message of the LGBT community is that marriage is an institution worth aspiring and fighting for. In a time where more than half of births to American women under 30 happen outside marriage and the divorce rate estimate of first marriages flirts with the 50% mark, the LGBT community is surprisingly pleading for a return to conservatism – only to be told by many, including political leaders, that that’s not O.K. either. So is the only possible takeaway for gay couples then to remain outliers forevermore, unworthy of the experiences and affirmations accorded others?

Not recognized on a federal level due to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) [1], same-sex marriages are state-bound with marriage rights granted in Massachussets, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Iowa, plus Washington D.C. and Oregon’s Coquille Indian tribe. Earlier this year, Maryland approved a draft bill to legalize same-sex marriage. The Maryland vote came one day after Washington became the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage, adding to national momentum for gay nuptials across the States.

But why do some states succeed in legalizing gay marriage where others, such as New Jersey, have failed? In the end, does it all depend on a favorable Democrat vs. Republican power momentum in the State Senate? There are two main elements that are instrumental in gaining state-wide support for a gay marriage bill. Firstly, any bill  – especially those which touch upon the social fibres of society – trigger a period of lobbying to build support for the respective piece of legislation, which can be a long and tedious process. On the issue of same-sex marriage, New York saw its judicial system stymied by a political cat-and-mouse game between the Assembly and the Senate that eventually dragged on for seven years. Each time, a draft bill was approved in the Assembly but shot down consecutively in the New York State Senate. As Senators came and went and a long process of shadow diplomacy unfolded, it was eventually the adding of a discrimination clause for religious institutions, allowing them the freedom to refrain from performing same-sex marriages, that provided the much-needed swing vote in favor of the Marriage Equality Act. A similar clause was paramount to the legalization of gay marriage in Maryland and has also been added to a draft marriage bill introduced in the Illinois House of Representatives in February.

Across the pond, the United Kingdom faces the exact same challenge. The UK government has launched a 12-week consultation in support of a process that would legalize same-sex marriage by 2015 for England and Wales. And while Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said that the state should rejoice in people’s desire to marry, senior church figures, as well as a number of conservative MP’s, were getting in gear to oppose the measure. Here the inclusion of a discrimination act, regarding protection against discrimination lawsuits for ‘benevolent organisations or religious groups refusing to provide accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges related to the solemnisation or celebration of marriage’ could appease members of the Church of England, giving the Cameron administration an incentive to unequivocally approve on the measure.

Gay people have a dream too: the racial minority vote on legalizing same-sex marriage

Another interesting factor relating to the perception of gay marriage is how the racial factor will play out. In the aftermath of the narrowly approved Proposition 8 in California and in the search for answers, it did not take long before another well-publicized story made national headlines, pointing the finger at a rather surprising culprit for swinging the ballot in favor of Proposition 8: California’s racial minorities. Exit polling indicated that roughly 70% of blacks had cast their ballots in favor of Proposition 8, together with 53% of Latino Californians, 49% of Asians, and 51% from those of other racial or ethnic identity.  The American media quickly dubbed this the ‘Obama effect’, since the 2008 presidential election happened to coincide with its Californian state counterpart, causing racial minorities to cast their votes in large numbers. These figures quickly sparked the debate that Latino and black Californians had backed the proposed same-sex marriage ban at rates higher than whites, aiding to provide the margin of victory. These results were disappointing to many gay rights activists who had hoped that the election of Barack Obama to the White House would usher in a new era of advances on gay rights, but gave cheer to Proposition 8 proponents who believed that the issue of same-sex marriage had been revealed to be a potent issue dividing liberal Californians on the basis of race and ethnicity. In California, the evangelical community was well aware of the black community’s sensitive stance on gay rights, and chose to target Californian African Americans in a manner they saw fit. Just days before the general election on the 4th November 2008, the ‘ – Yes on 8’ campaign targeted African Americans in Oakland and the San Francisco Bay area with rather misleading mailers featuring Obama and several African American pastors, suggesting that Obama heavily favored a ban on same-sex marriage. Efforts to target the black and Latino community were primarily channeled via a clerical framework, and since both ethnic communities traditionally strongly identify themselves with Christian movements, the stakes were high for Evangelicals in reeling the Latino and black communities in to join their crusade against same-sex marriage.

Religion is a powerful tool that has been shown to structure attitudes across an array of issues, and it is particularly relevant to the discourse-framing dynamic investigated here, given the importance of gay issues to religious communities and churches. While Latino and African American communities tend to embrace traditionalism on matters of morality and are highly religious, they usually affect ballot voting in different ways, with strongly Latino districts traditionally enhancing support for gay issues, and strongly African American districts depressing support for them. However, this theory can easily be undermined. In the case of Proposition 8, registered Latino voters clearly did not support the concept of same-sex marriage as gay activists would have hoped.  Gay marriage has recently become legal in Maryland, but a draft bill on the issue died in the Maryland House of Representatives last year following strong opposition from several African-American lawmakers. In fact, race has proven to be a sharply divisive factor on the issue of same-sex marriage in Maryland. Maryland Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers of the legislature, are sharply divided by race. A Washington Post poll published in January showed that among whites in Maryland, 71% back same-sex unions, while only 41% of blacks support it. Button, Rienzo, and Wald’s research [2] indicate that while African Americans tend to support the notion of equality opportunities for homosexuals, they tend to be less supportive of civil rights advancements or protections, which in the case of Propostion 8 could explain the alleged high number of African American proponents. Moreover, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released in March 2012 showed support for marriage equality amongst African Americans at 50% – which may prove that there still is a great deal of division amongst the black community on the issue.

But is the ethnic community really to blame for America’s sluggish and capricious advancements on gay marriage? Not really. A number of important characteristics that shape Americans’ view on many important political issues – including party identification, ideology, and religiosity – have simultaneously played strong and pivotal roles in determining the choices of individual votes. Research has shown that a thorough analysis of the structure of black, Latino and white attitudes on same-sex marriage finds that after accounting for differences among demographics, partisanship, and core values, interracial group differences in opinion on the issue are unsubstantial.

In California, all Latino, black and Asian registered voters were still a minority compared to its Caucasian counterpart. Even if all Latino, black and Asian registered voters had voted against the ballot initiative, Proposition 8 still would have passed due to the high number of Caucasian voters eligible to vote, and their high support for the same-sex marriage ban.

Earlier this week, confidential memos were made public in a courtroom in Maine, revealing the National Organizaton for Marriage’s attempt to drive a wedge between the LGBT and ethnic communities during its winning campaign to ban same-sex marriage in the US state of Maine. The documents detail the anti-gay organization’s active interest in fanning the hostility between the LGBT and the black and Latino communities in an attempt to stymie any advancement of gay civil rights in Maine. For anti-gay lobbying groups, the stakes remain high in targeting ethnic communities to endorse the crusade against same-sex marriage. But with the tides of time turning and support for same-sex marriage reaching an all-time high, how long will a conservative approach on the issue hold out?

The Obama administration and marriage equality

So where is marriage equality to go from here in the United States? As gay activists nationwide count their wins and losses, the only certainty they seem to have is that any advancement on LGBT rights is highly dependent on who is in the White House.

During his 2008 presidential election campaign, Obama took what many on both sides of the gay marriage debate viewed as a straddle. While publicly denouncing the California ballot proposition measure, he also communicated his opposition to same-sex marriage, leaving gay activists puzzled by his unwillingness to endorse gay marriage. And although Obama criticized the divisive and discrimatory nature of Proposition 8, the abstruseness of his argument was reflected in how he squared his position for overall equality with his refusal to embrace actual equality in marriage.

Once elected, Obama has upped the ante in conveying his equality message. Although having never publicly endorsed same-sex marriage, the Obama administration has been adamant towards communicating its progressive stance on equality in a post-Proposition 8 era. By repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, endorsing initiatives such as the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, offering hope and support for LGBT youth who are struggling with being bullied, and hosting a high-profile LGBT event at the White House in 2011, the President of the United States has made no secret of his firm belief in equality for all. And for those willing to read between the lines, Obama’s opposition to a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman, indicates that his full endorsement of civil unions with federal benefits for all is similar to his understanding of the institution of marriage, although his Christian beliefs do not allow him to communicate this. Praising New York in 2011 on the legalization of same-sex marriage while tiptoeing around a public endorsement of the issue testifies to the aforementioned.

If anyone has taken the least equivocal stance on gay marriage, it has to be First Lady Michelle Obama. In March, while campaigning for her husband’s second term in the Oval Office, Michelle Obama reminded people twice that it is the president who makes appointments to the US Supreme Court and that those appointments could impact gay marriage.

Asked about the First Lady’s comments, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney later issued the following statement: ‘the president and first lady firmly believe that gay and lesbian Americans and their families deserve legal protections and the ability to thrive just like any family does. The first lady has said she is proud of his accomplishments, including the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ ensuring hospital visitation rights and calling for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and obviously our actions attached. Our decision not to defend DOMA is well known.’

Having famously remained neutral on the same-sex marriage issue throughout his first term, Obama has communicated he is ‘evolving’ on the issue. But what does evolving really entail? Is that just a clever word politicans throw around not to take a stance? An unexptected surge in support to place same-sex marriage on the Democratic Party platform at the August 2012 convention has energized LGBT advocates and complicated an already delicate situation facing Obama’s reelection campaign. Gay activists are brimming with hope that any evolvement which will affect their civil rights further on a federal level will happen in his second term in office. Obama has done reasonably well during his first term in office on gay rights, and a reelection could give him the political green card to further push for equality and possible tackle the Defense of Marriage Act.


The issue of LGBT rights and marriage equality has already proven to be an important factor in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, and it will be incredibly interesting to see how this social issue will play out in an Obama vs. Romney showdown.

[1] The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), enacted 21st September 1996, is a United States federal law that defines marriage as the legal union between one man and one woman. The law passed both houses of Congress by large majorities and was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton on 21st September, 1996..

[2] Button, J.; Rienzo, B.; Wald, K., 1997. Sexual Orientation and Education Politics. Gay and Lesbian Representation in American Schools. In: APSA (American Political Science Association), 1999 Annual Meeting.

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