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How Should We Frame the LGBT Movement?

As far as political issues go, is the gay rights movement more like the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century, or the abortion rights debate of today?

By Kate Wheeling


People gather outside of the Stonewall Inn as a vigil is held following the massacre that occurred at a gay Orlando nightclub on June 12, 2016. (Photo: Monika Graff/Getty Images)

Since Omar Mateen opened fire on a packed Orlando nightclub this weekend, killing 49 people and wounding more than 50 others, American citizens across the country have struggled to come to terms with the massacre, and what it means for the LGBT community in America.

Gay rights have rapidly expanded in the United States — Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004, and the Supreme Court legalized it nationwide just last year. But the LGBT community’s victories for equal rights have incited backlash among conservatives, some of whom feel that certain gay rights, like marriage, impinge on their own religious freedom.

The question is, are attacks like this one — which targeted a gay club during LGBT pride month — a sign that the progress the gay community has achieved so far is on a pendulum poised to swing back in the opposite direction? As far as political issues go, is the gay rights movement more like the Civil Rights movement, which brought about racial integration and (at least until this election season) drove overt racism mostly underground, or more like abortion rights — a contentious and largely unsettled debate in many states across the country?

At The New Republic, Nate Cohn argued in 2013 that there seemed to be more evidence for the latter:

Evangelical and Republican opposition to same sex marriage hasn’t budged. According to Pew Research, Republican support for gay marriage has only crept up by a net-7 points since 2003, from 22–71 to 25–67. White evangelicals have moved a little quicker, but they still oppose by a 75–19 margin — a net-15 point improvement from 2003. In comparison, the public as a whole has shifted 30 points toward gay marriage — despite being held back by Republicans and evangelicals. Generational change isn’t helping very much, either. Just 30 percent of 18–34 year old evangelicals support gay marriage, which isn’t a huge improvement from the 25 percent who supported it in 2003. Young Republicans are a little more supportive of gay marriage than young evangelicals, but they still oppose gay marriage by 15 points, 39–54.

The reluctance of evangelicals and Republicans to flip on gay marriage doesn’t mean their opposition will endure indefinitely, as it has in the context of abortion. But if much of the remaining opposition to gay marriage is founded on firm religious and moral beliefs, not bigotry or animus, evangelicals will probably hold out for a long time. That possibility casts doubt on the theory that universal support for gay marriage is inevitable.

Approval for same-sex marriage among white evangelicals is still just 27 percent. And while not every conservative politician spews the same rhetoric toward minority groups as, say, the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, many still try to sweep the dangerous consequences of homophobia under the rug. Despite the fact that the brutal attack occurred during a Latin-themed night at a gay club — during LGBT pride month, no less — Politicoreports that most Republican officials’ statements following the shooting failed to mention the hate-crime aspect of the massacre. As Sabrina Vourvoulias wrote at Philadelphia magazine:

This was a slaughter of LGBTQIA folks, many of them Latinxs and people of color, during Pride month. We cannot, and should not, hide from these facts.

It seems no coincidence that this massacre takes place as the nation engages in an increasingly vitriolic argument about gender-neutral bathrooms which portrays trans people as predators; or during an electoral season in which one of the presidential candidates has shamelessly characterized Latinxs as rapists and criminals. In fact, expressions of hate toward these two (overlapping) groups have become so normalized they’re commonplace in tweets, Facebook posts and elementary school bully refrains.

So the gay-rights movement may seem more similar to abortion rights, if only in the ferocity of its opposition. But there is at least one way in which the movement is more like other Civil Rights advances such as racial integration and women’s suffrage: Only one side of the debate—proponents of gay rights—can truly make a rights-based argument, David Leonhardt and Alicia Parlapiano wrote in the New York Times last year:

People who favor abortion rights can point to a woman’s right to control her body; people who oppose abortion can point to a fetus’s right to live. People who favor gun rights can point to a gun owner’s right to bear arms; people who favor gun restrictions can point to Americans’ right not to die and be injured by gun violence. The death penalty debate also has fainter echoes of a rights-based argument, on both sides. And no matter how important you may believe action on climate change to be, the argument does not start with self-evident truths about freedom.

It’s true that opponents of same-sex marriage have tried to make rights-based arguments — to say that they are harmed by others’ marriages, just as opponents of interracial marriage did in decades past. But these arguments lacked any evidence that one couple’s marriage was damaged by another’s.

If Leonhardt and Parlapiano are correct, then both public opinion and laws in support of the LGBT community will inevitably win out.