What All Progressive Campaigns Can Learn from the Marriage Equality Movement

by Randy Shaw on November 7, 2013

As we now celebrate the Senate passage of ENDA (which would finally bar discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment), there was also a milestone for the gay rights movement earlier in the week. On November 5, Illinois became the 15th state to enact marriage equality (the Governor will sign the bill later this month). That’s quite a milestone. Until recently, passage had been viewed as a steep uphill battle in Illinois.The action followed the recent decision by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to end legal action delaying marriage equality in his state. While part of the lack of national media attention to the Illinois vote may be due to competing stories on Election Day, even progressive media no longer sees marriage equality as unique or controversial enough to justify major attention.

That’s unfortunate. First, because activists in all fields can learn a lot from the success of other movements. But also because as many despair over U.S. politics moving backward on poverty and inequality, the marriage equality movement’s remarkable success deserves greater attention. How did it get this far so fast? It was only in 2004 that Senator Dianne Feinstein blamed San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for costing John Kerry the presidential election by injecting gay marriage into the race. And Barack Obama suffered no political downside in openly opposing marriage equality while running his “insurgent” 2008 primary race. That’s quite an astonishing transformation.

Whenever I talk about activism I highlight the extraordinary accomplishments of the gay and lesbian rights movements. And invariably a fellow progressive will note that corporate interests support rather than oppose gay rights, that many Republicans are gay, and/or that the movement had the advantage of powerful billionaire supporters like David Geffen.

But many of the same arguments were once made about the environmental movement, which has not had nearly as much success on its core agenda. While corporate polluters are a powerful force against environmental progress, gay rights activists had to overcome opposition from the Catholic and Mormon Church, evangelical churches, and the still very influential religious right.

In other words, the gay right’s movement’s success was not caused by its having weaker adversaries. What really distinguishes these two movements, and the gay movement from others as well, is its strategies and tactics.

By All Means Necessary

In my new edition of The Activist’s Handbook, I trace the gay rights movement’s political success from ACT UP in the 1980’s through the marriage equality victories in 2013. And what is striking is how ACT UP’s “By All Means Necessary” approach, which seemed so radical in the 80’s, came to define the broader movement. Every group or prominent gay leader did not adopt this tough approach, but those that did not soon found themselves left behind as the movement went on.

When Barack Obama told the movement in 2009 that he needed more time before fulfilling his 2008 campaign pledge to repeal DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and DADT (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell), activists gave the answer that immigrant rights activists wish in hindsight they had given: they told the President “No.” Gay blogger John Aravosis recognized that Obama didn’t like the “controversy” which surrounded repeal efforts toward both measures, but insisted that “it’s our job to hold him accountable.”

As I detail in my book, the movement did. It prevailed on both issues not because of wealthy gay backers or corporate support, but because grassroots activists made it clear to the Obama Administration that they would make its life miserable until he kept his promises to the community.

Focusing on States

It’s more seizing opportunities where they exist than by all means necessary, but the gay rights movement did not allow itself to be stymied by federal inaction on marriage equality and other demands. Instead, it expanded its base by working at the state level.

For a number of years, gay state activism led to consistent ballot initiative defeats that reversed or forestalled positive change. But by continuing to build and strategize, the tide turn, highlighted by the four winning state ballot measures in November 2012.

Other movements can learn from the marriage equality movement’s shift to the states when federal action was blocked. For example, some believe that the failure of immigration reform this year should lead to state ballot measures effectively granting legalization—or barring deportation—to all undocumented immigrants along the lines of the Deferred Action Plan won by Dreamers.

While marriage equality is not federal law, the fifteen states where it is in effect likely includes a majority of the nation’s gay and lesbians. If California, New York, Illinois and other pro-immigrant states passed state ballot measures allowing undocumented immigrants to work without fear of deportation, a significant percentage of the 8-12 million awaiting federal reform could be protected.

Few want to talk about state options while House passage of federal immigration is still possible. But if Boehner denies a vote, immigrant rights activists should follow the lead of the marriage equality movement and proceed with state ballot measures in November 2014.

Congrats to all those in Illinois who made marriage equality happen, and who never gave up the struggle in the face of long odds.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book is The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century.

Filed under: Archive