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How Will the 2012 Election Change Gay Rights Discourse?

November 13, 2012

Same-sex marriage proponents won big on election night last week. The first sitting president to publicly support same-sex marriage was re-elected. Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate. And, most significantly, ballot initiatives legalizing same-sex marriage passed in Maryland, Maine and Washington. Meanwhile, Minnesota (a state full of people who for some reason flinch at any mention of airport restrooms) rejected a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. These electoral victories follow years of defeats for same-sex marriage. Sure, same-sex marriage has done OK in the courts and in state legislatures, but this is the first time voters have approved it en masse.

Many commentators have been calling the 2012 election a “turning point” for gay rights in the United States. And, although Captain Spock once reminded us that “history is replete with turning points,” I have to concur. But, as a rhetorician, I’ve also been wondering how these election-day victories are likely to change gay rights discourse down the road. My working hypothesis is this: we’re likely to see some major changes, but the biggest one will be a reversal of fortunes for what Kathleen Hull and others have called the “democracy frame.” The democracy frame is a kind of ready-made argument in which one dismisses court or legislative victories for same-sex marriage by appealing to the will of the majority, or the “rightness” of voters’ will. After last week’s election results, I suspect that the democracy frame will begin to show up more often in the language of same-sex marriage supporters and cease appearing or appear more infrequently in the language of those who oppose gay rights.

You can hear the democracy frame whenever someone says, “let’s let the voters decide” or “same-sex marriage has never won at the ballot box” or even “every time same-sex marriage is put to the voters, it loses.” These arguments have been commonplace for a long time in the same-sex marriage debate for at least two reasons. First, same-sex marriage proponents had, historically, relied heavily on the courts to advance gay rights (although they’ve won a number of legislative victories in places like New York and Iowa in recent years). Secondly, same-sex marriage hasn’t enjoyed majority support in the United States up until very recently.

After the results of the four ballot issues had all been called, I eagerly turned to the National Organization for Marriage, an anti-gay group that has, in recent years, taken the lead in opposing same-sex marriage. I was most interested to hear how they would frame Tuesday’s results. And NOM President Brian Brown did not disappoint. In a press release issued the day after the election, he wrote the following:

 Obviously we are very disappointed in losing four tough election battles by narrow margins. We knew long ago that we faced a difficult political landscape with the four marriage battles occurring in four of the deepest-blue states in America. As our opponents built a huge financial advantage, the odds became even steeper. We ran strong campaigns and nearly prevailed in a very difficult environment, significantly out-performing the GOP ticket in every state.

Notice how Brown qualifies what was, until recently, an unabashed use of the democracy frame. He points out that the states in which SSM was approved were “blue” states, that the margin of victory was narrow and that their “opponents have a huge financial advantage.” These represent three common rebuttals to the democracy frame:

  1. Those who approved SSM don’t represent the nation at large.
  2. SSM proponents didn’t win by that much.
  3.  Money talks.

This is an interesting turnaround because the “money talks” argument was used to dismiss the “will of the voters” after Proposition 8 passed in California. Anna Quindlen used it back in 2008 when she wrote about the passage of Prop 8:

A state court gave its imprimatur to same-sex marriage in June; the electorate reversed that decision on Nov. 4 with the passage of Proposition 8, which defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. The opponents of gay marriage will tell you that the people have spoken. It’s truer to say that money talks. The Mormons donated millions to the anti effort; the Knights of Columbus did, too. Like the judge who ruled in the Loving case, they said they were doing God’s bidding.

Now that same-sex marriage proponents are the ones doing the outspending, the positions of SSM proponents and opponents have been reversed. Those who support gay rights are in a position to say “the people have spoken” and those who oppose it can say “nah, man, money talks” or “Minnesota is wacky” or some other version of the arguments that are so often used against the democracy frame. However, anti-gay groups will not have the option of using the fourth (and I think most valid) criticism of the democracy frame. They cannot argue that the courts should decide or that people shouldn’t be voting on rights issues at all, which is what gay rights activists have been saying for years. Anti-gay groups can’t say this for two reasons: they have mostly lost in court and they have spent the last two decades or so circulating the argument that the people should decide.

So what’s left for those opposed to same-sex marriage? If Brown’s memo is any example, those who oppose same-sex marriage will continue to try to make large businesses that have committed significant resources to supporting same-sex marriage suffer the consequences of their betrayal of traditional marriage. We can see what this strategy looks like in coverage of a NOM conference call convened after the election (Brown is talking below about their boycott of Starbucks):

“Their international outreach is where we can have the most effect,” Brown said. “So for example, in Qatar, in the Middle East, we’ve begun working to make sure that there’s some price to be paid for this. These are not countries that look kindly on same-sex marriage. And this is where Starbucks wants to expand, as well as India. So we have done some of this; we’ve got to do a lot more.”

“It takes money to go up against someone like Starbucks,” Brown continued, noting that NOM’s resources had been spread thin. “I mean, we’ve got 50,000 people who’ve said, ‘We’re no longer going to purchase Starbucks products,’ but that’s the tip of the iceberg. Has it had some effect? I think so, but it’s nowhere near enough. An example has to be made of some of these companies if we’re going to get this sort of tidal wave of support for same-sex marriage to stop.”

This line of argument might work. Then again, it might not. A NOM campaign to defend “traditional marriage” by advertising in the Middle East might backfire because Americans and people in the Middle East can mean vastly different things when they talk about “traditional marriage.” It might be hard for NOM to defend supporting traditional marriage in places where “traditional marriage” sometimes entails horrible outcomes, especially for women.

As for same-sex marriage proponents, I don’t think they’re likely to adopt the democracy frame wholeheartedly. Take, for example, the following passage from New York Times coverage of the election results:

Adam Umhoefer, the executive director of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group behind a California case seeking to establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, expressed mixed feelings about the developments. They were, he said, the right outcomes in the wrong forums.

“Fundamental constitutional rights like marriage,” he said, “should never be subjected to a popular vote.”

Or maybe gay activists will embrace the democracy frame, like the Human Rights Campaign did when it labeled Tuesday’s results as a “landslide” for equality. We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, though, keep your ears open for the democracy frame. Once you start noticing it, it’s hard to stop.

If you want to know more:

  • The Spock quote is from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In that movie Spock also reminds us that we must have faith “that the universe will unfold as it should.” Oh, and he uses the word “legerdemain.” Spock rules.
  • I take the idea of a “democracy frame” from Kathleen Hull’s 2001 article, “The Political Limits of the Rights Frame: The Case of Same-Sex Marriage in Hawaii” published in Sociological Perspectives.
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