Thursday, December 3, 2009


The gay marriage equality initiative in New York was shot down, shortly after another unexpected and devastating narrow loss in Maine.

The proposed solution? Try it in New Jersey.

Now, New Jersey's not exactly hostile to gay people. We actually have a domestic partnership law that's legally required to give all the rights of marriage, without being called marriage. Yes, this is childish. But it still means Jersey is one of the more gay-friendly states in the union. And that's the problem.

It's incredibly frustrating, but one thing everybody learns sooner or later is that being right is often just not enough. You can be right, have all the strongest arguments, and face somebody with a fundamentally flawed position, but if the opposition is better at reading and engaging with the public, you will lose.

It seems to me that civil rights movements have a natural life cycle: in the beginning, when there are truly shocking, stomach-turning, intolerable acts of injustice being inflicted on you, sign-waving and slogan-shouting are appropriate and effective. When you're completely disenfranchised; when you're denied the right to vote; when you're legally not even considered an individual person; when cops are turning dogs and fire hoses on you or arresting you just for being in a disdained minority, you can get a lot of relief very rapidly with confrontational tactics that make you impossible to ignore.

But then you have those early concessions. When your situation changes from "actively oppressed" to abstractly discriminated against, your tactics must change, too. It isn't right that gay couples don't have legal protection in most of the country. It isn't right that New Jersey tries to give the same rights but keep gay people in a separate category. But fighting "we have to take more legal steps than a straight couple and end up with only partial protection" with the same tactics you used to fight "cops brutally beat, publicly humiliated, and arrested me for going to a gay club" doesn't gain you support. Rightly or wrongly, the mainstream community will think you're overreacting, and your point will be undermined.

When active, brutal oppression ends, you have to fight lingering, subtle discrimination with a new tactic: careful, politically savvy incrementalism. If you try to take everything at once, you'll likely lose in the long run. You have to give up the satisfaction of selfrighteously railing against the unfairness. You have to accept some unfair situations gracefully while working on others. You have to speak reasonably with awful, bigoted people, no matter how much they insult you and your life and family, because you're being watched, and will be judged on your conduct. It's frustrating, but it works much better than the emotionally fulfilling methods.

What does this mean for gay Americans? In my opinion, gay equality groups should back off the states where they have marriage and civil unions. Pushing too hard in Massachusetts, particularly in influencing school curricula, has given their enemies an enormous amount of ammunition to use against them, and probably swung Maine and California. For the time being, advocate for civil unions. They're easier for the mainstream to accept, and spreading civil unions gradually from state to state will set a much better tone for the discussion than our current "push marriage everywhere and fail constantly" strategy. And as civil unions spread, it'll change the way people feel about gay relationships, which is what you really need to do to win. At the same time, you'll have branded yourselves as nice people who just want to raise stable families, and are willing to talk it through and come to an agreement. People react better to groups like that than to radicals shouting accusations of bigotry at them. If your state and all the states around it have had gay couples enjoying equal protection for the last decade, people will feel much less wary of just calling it what it's gradually proven to be: marriage.


  1. And it's a lesson the gunnie community should learn as well.

  2. Hell, we're _all_ involved in some minority group that would like more representation.

    Gauging your actual Absolute Oppression Level (or, more accurately, how the mainstream perceives the level of discrimination against you) is a crucial skill for planning a social movement, but it's a hard thing to do objectively when you're the target of the discrimination. It's all the harder when you talk about it mostly in communities of people who agree with you, and unfortunately that's where most folks motivated enough to take action come from.