Featured Faculty

Sarah Jackson on how the gay marriage movement has evolved

Sarah Jackson

Sarah Jackson, assistant professor of communication studies, explains why public support for gay marriage has increased and how the social movement movement compares to others in American history.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing oral argu­ments on the con­sti­tu­tion­ality of the Defense of Mar­riage Act and California’s gay mar­riage ban enacted by Propo­si­tion 8. We asked Sarah Jackson—an assis­tant pro­fessor of in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design whose research focuses on how social and polit­ical iden­ti­ties are con­structed in the public sphere—to explain why public sup­port for gay mar­riage has increased in recent years and how the social move­ment com­pares to others in the country’s history.

1. Recent national opinion polls have indicated that support for same-sex marriage is increasing. What factors have contributed to the shift?

Increased vis­i­bility of LGBTQ Amer­i­cans, espe­cially since the 1990s, has played an impor­tant role in shaping public opinion. The LGBTQ move­ment did have sig­nif­i­cant moments of public vis­i­bility before this—including the Stonewall Riots in the 1960s, the elec­tion of Harvey Milk in the 1970s, and the work of ActUp in the 1980s.

But the 1990s brought an unprece­dented rise of pop cul­ture rep­re­sen­ta­tion. When Ellen DeGeneres came out on her TV show in 1997, it was a very risky move and many adver­tisers pulled their sup­port. How­ever, her risk showed media-​​makers that Amer­i­cans were willing to iden­tify and empathize with gay char­ac­ters. Soon after, Will and Grace arrived on the scene, and we’ve since seen a huge increase in LGBTQ char­ac­ters both on net­work and cable channels.

These pop cul­ture rep­re­sen­ta­tions have allowed us to see LGBTQAmer­i­cans living lives much like other Amer­i­cans, thus dis­pelling past stereo­types that sug­gested LGBTQ people didn’t embrace Amer­ican values. Adver­tisers have now also rec­og­nized the eco­nomic value of the LGBTQ market and begun to target the very group they were pre­vi­ously afraid to acknowl­edge. Vis­i­bility in pop cul­ture has also served to high­light the vis­i­bility of LGBTQ Amer­i­cans, and the chal­lenges they face, in other parts of the public sphere like pol­i­tics and education.

2. What strategies have gay rights activists most successfully employed to advance their cause? What have they learned from previous social movements in America?

Efforts for social change are one of the pri­mary char­ac­ter­is­tics of human his­tory, so many move­ments have and con­tinue to influ­ence one another. One strategy that the LGBTQ move­ment has used suc­cess­fully that can be linked both to the civil rights and fem­i­nist move­ments is that of main­streaming their agenda. Rather than focus on more con­tro­ver­sial issues that chal­lenge taken-​​for-​​granted norms in Amer­ican society, main­stream legs of the civil rights and women’s move­ments simply asked to be included in already accepted struc­tures and norms. Civil rights orga­ni­za­tions demanded the same access to schools and buses as their white coun­ter­parts, while fem­i­nists argued that they should have the same oppor­tu­ni­ties of employ­ment and pay as their male counterparts.

Sim­i­larly, the LGBTQ move­ment has focused on the idea that LGBTQ people deserve the same access to rights like mar­riage as their straight coun­ter­parts. It’s impor­tant to keep in mind that often such main­stream demands didn’t, and don’t, reflect all the chal­lenges that African-​​Americans, women, and LGBTQ people face, but they are a place to start.

Like­wise, the LGBTQ com­mu­nity has formed orga­ni­za­tions like GLAAD (which focuses on fair and inclu­sive media rep­re­sen­ta­tions), and the Human Rights Cam­paign (which focuses on raising aware­ness and lob­bying for leg­isla­tive change). Orga­ni­za­tions such as the NAACP (in the case of the civil rights move­ment) and NOW (which rose out of the fem­i­nist move­ment) did and con­tinue to do sim­ilar work for their con­stituen­cies. Uniquely, and because of evolving tech­nolo­gies, orga­ni­za­tions that focus on LGBTQ issues have been able to com­mu­ni­cate their mes­sages more quickly and to larger audi­ences than the pre-​​21st-​​century orga­ni­za­tions they are mod­eled after.

3. Do you see momentum from the same-sex marriage fight as a force strong enough to advance other social causes across the United States?

Most social move­ments never end; they simply evolve with the his­tor­ical and polit­ical moment. Unfor­tu­nately, pop­ular opinion some­times implies that if one battle is won the fight is over. The civil rights move­ment faced this chal­lenge with the pas­sage of Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion and other land­mark cases, which, while hugely sig­nif­i­cant, did not dis­solve racial inequality as a problem in America.

Sim­i­larly, if DOMA and Prop 8 are over­turned by the Supreme Court, that won’t solve all the issues faced by LGBTQ Amer­i­cans. How­ever, a poten­tial vic­tory could help to strengthen the movement’s infra­struc­ture in ways that would allow it to tackle other issues that dis­pro­por­tion­ately impact its com­mu­nity, such as poverty, hate crimes, and teen homelessness.

Vic­tory, how­ever, is not nec­es­sary for the move­ment to sur­vive. Every social move­ment in doc­u­mented his­tory faced many defeats in the process of pushing for social change; it was long-​​term resiliency and com­mit­ment that allowed these move­ments to accom­plish even­tual wins.

Article originally posted on news@Northeastern: 3Qs: How the gay marriage movement has evolved