Gay Marriage Went From Unthinkable to Inevitable. Here’s What It Means for the Change You Want to See

The momentum behind the legalization of gay marriage came from grassroots action, not from court cases.

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Not long ago, same-sex marriage in America was not merely an unpopular cause; it was a politically fatal one—a third-rail issue that could end the career of any politician foolish enough to touch it. The idea that gay and lesbian couples would be able to legally exchange vows in the United States was regarded, at best, as a far-off fantasy and, at worst, as a danger to the republic.

“Anybody who does not believe that gay marriage is going to be the law of the land … isn’t living in the real world.”

It can be difficult to remember how hostile the terrain was for LGBT advocates, even in recent decades. As of 1990, three-quarters of Americans saw homosexual sex as immoral. Less than a third condoned same-sex marriage—something no country in the world permitted at the time.

In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman and denied federal benefits to same-sex couples, passed by an overwhelming 85-to-14 margin in the U.S. Senate. Figures including Vice President Joe Biden voted for it, and then-President Bill Clinton signed the act. “I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages,” he said at the time.

When the Vermont Supreme Court ruled to allow civil unions in 1999, Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer called the decision “in some ways worse than terrorism.” The decision, which was reversed by the state’s voters, sparked nationwide backlash.

As recently as 2004, conservative strategist Karl Rove, seeing a potent wedge issue, pushed to have “marriage protection” amendments placed on the ballot in 13 states. All of these passed, in what one newspaper called a “resounding, coast-to-coast rejection of gay marriage.” Ambitious conservatives with their eyes on higher office—such as future Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—campaigned aggressively for the bans.

Today, these seem like scenes from an alternate universe.

Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages, a number that is increasing at a brisk rate. An ever-growing majority of the public expresses its support in national polls, and statistician Nate Silver projects that majorities favoring marriage equality will coalesce in even deeply conservative Southern states by 2024. Surveying this landscape, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch has conceded that “anybody who does not believe that gay marriage is going to be the law of the land … isn’t living in the real world.”

What is striking about this is not just the seeming suddenness of the reversal. It is that the rapidly expanding victory around same-sex marriage defies many of our common ideas about how social change happens.

This was not a win that came in measured doses, but rather a situation in which the floodgates of progress were opened after years of half steps and seemingly devastating reversals. It was not something enacted thanks to a Senate majority leader twisting arms or a charismatic president pounding his bully pulpit. Instead, it came about through the efforts of a broad-based movement, pushing for increased acceptance of LGBT rights within a wide range of constituencies. The cumulative result was to change the terms of national debate and turn the impossible into the inevitable.

This is perhaps the most important point: Rather than being based on calculating realism—a shrewd assessment of what was attainable in the current political climate—the drive for marriage equality drew on a transformational vision. It was grounded in the idea that if social movements could win the battle over public opinion, the courts and the legislators would ultimately follow.

For those interested in promoting further transformation in the United States and beyond, there are few ideas more worthy of careful and sustained examination.

A bit of theory

For the tradition now known as “civil resistance,” the triumph of same-sex marriage in the United States is a remarkable example of what happens when a critical mass of people withdraws its willingness to cooperate with an existing state of affairs, and when the support of social institutions for an idea or a regime falls away.

The drive for marriage equality drew on a transformational vision.

Civil resistance has historically focused on the question of how strategic nonviolent conflict can be used to overthrow dictatorships. Ideas from the tradition are most commonly used to understand rebellions in places like Poland, Serbia, and Egypt. Nevertheless, theorists in this school of thought have introduced a number of concepts that are useful for understanding change in democratic contexts as well.

In particular, they present a theory of how groundswells of popular defiance, aimed at shifting public opinion, can create social change. This process often leaves politicians, when they finally catch on, scrambling to adjust to a dramatically altered political landscape. The elected officials now in contortions over LGBT rights can be taken as “Exhibit A.”

At the core of civil resistance is a theory of power that was first codified by Gene Sharp—a writer and teacher who is considered the godfather of the field. Sharp argued that conventional wisdom regards power as “monolithic and relatively permanent.” According to this view, power rests in a small number of hands—specifically, the hands of those at the top: tyrants, presidents, and CEOs. These people seem to hold all the cards. They have authority, influence, resources, and, when push comes to shove, the ability to command heavily armed security forces. Sharp contended that people living under dictatorships, implicitly schooled in the monolithic view of power, tend to feel helpless. They are led to believe that there is little anyone can do to challenge the existing regime—unless they somehow have the ear of the tyrant or have amassed a substantial arsenal.

Sharp, however, devoted himself to challenging the thinking behind such despondency. Citing political theorists ranging from the famous (Niccolò Machiavelli) to the obscure (16th-century French philosopher Étienne de La Boétie), he proposed in his landmark work from 1973, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, that the monolithic understanding of power is misleading.

Promoting what he has come to call the “social view of power,” Sharp contends that people have far more power than they typically realize. “[R]ulers or other command systems, despite appearances, [are] dependent on the population’s goodwill, decisions and support,” he writes. If people refuse to cooperate with a regime—if civil servants stop carrying out the functions of the state, if merchants suspend economic activity, if soldiers stop obeying orders—even an entrenched dictator will quickly find himself handicapped. If popular disobedience is sufficiently widespread and prolonged, no regime will be able to survive.

“Pillars of support”

In the years after Sharp first elaborated his theory, a variety of critics complained that his approach was overly individualistic and voluntarist. Sharp’s discussion of power was too focused on personal consent, they argued, and not enough on how power is embedded in social systems and collective institutions.

People have far more power than they typically realize.

A concept known as the “pillars of support” made an important contribution to addressing this concern. This idea was developed by a series of trainers in civil resistance and was first incorporated into the literature of the field in Robert Helvey’s 2004 book, On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict. Helvey, a former U.S. Army colonel, became fascinated with Sharp’s work after retiring from the military and worked as an advisor to dissidents in countries such as Burma.

In Helvey’s theory, power still resides in the general population’s willingness to accept the legitimacy of a regime and to comply with its mandates; however, this power finds expression in institutions both inside and outside the government: the military, the media, the business community, the churches, the civil service, the educational system, and the courts, among others.

These are all bodies that, in one way or another, provide a regime with the backing it needs to survive. Helvey called them “pillars of support.”

The “pillars” concept offers a catchy visual metaphor for the social theory of power. Imagine the various institutions of society as columns holding up the roof of a Roman temple. Social movements are pulling at the various columns. If they remove one or two of the pillars, the building would be weakened, but it might still stand. However, if people pull out enough of the pillars, the temple is sure to topple, and the movements will triumph.

If we imagine a hated dictator sitting on top of the temple, confidently surveying his dominion, the image of the building’s sudden collapse—and the tyrant’s resultant tumble—becomes all the more satisfying.

Beyond providing an entertaining exercise in visualization, the idea of the “pillars of support” does several important things. As a refinement of Sharp’s theory of power, it highlights the fact that people do not interact with a regime as mere individuals. Instead, their decisions about when and how they might cooperate are channeled through their various social and professional roles.

The “pillars” allow for better strategic thinking on the part of those trying to force change. Movements can scheme about how they might undermine one or more of the various sources of social support for the system—removing the backing of the clergy, for example, or prodding the press to adopt a more critical posture—and thus place the rulers on an ever-wobblier foundation.

A revolution begins?

Same-sex marriage has not been won by a unified legislative drive or through the leadership of a single champion in high office. Rather, a movement operating on a wide range of different fronts succeeded in swaying opinion among various constituencies. Together, these efforts turned the tide of public opinion and made previous prejudices untenable. Once the issue tipped, the victories starting coming in furious succession.

Movements can scheme about how they might undermine one or more of the various sources of social support for the system and thus place the rulers on an ever-wobblier foundation.

Some observers, reflecting the overwhelming mainstream bias toward insider politics, have attempted to put the marriage equality victory within a monolithic framework. The results have been unfortunate. In April, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Jo Becker released a book entitled Forcing the Spring, which purported to be “the definitive account of the fight to win the rights of marriage and full citizenship for all.”

Becker placed the U.S. Supreme Court as the central body determining the future of gay rights. Consistent with this, she made the protagonists of her book a high-level strategist, Chad Griffin, and two lawyers—liberal David Boies and conservative Theodore Olsen. These individuals brought the court case known as Hollingsworth v. Perry, which ultimately struck down California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8.

Consistent with monolithic preoccupations, Becker’s story starts with the genesis of the Perry case in 2008 and reaches its climax with the Supreme Court decision in 2013. The book’s first line, “This is how a revolution begins,” refers to Griffin’s decision to challenge Proposition 8; a single legal case is seen as the lifeblood of the movement. Framed as an inside-the-beltway suspense story, the book was written—in the words of reviewer Adam Teicholz—to be “an upstairs/up-more-stairs drama set in familiar D.C. confines: conference rooms and private booths in the Jefferson, the Monocle, the Palomar, the West Wing.”

Critics, including some of those who know the history most intimately, quickly pointed out that this is a terrible way to explain how same-sex marriage had gone from being a quixotic cause to a political winner. Former New York Times columnist Frank Rich argued, “For a journalist to claim that marriage equality revolution began in 2008 is as absurd as saying civil rights struggle began with Obama.” Likewise, Andrew Sullivan, a prominent conservative libertarian who had long been involved in promoting gay marriage—having written the first national magazine cover story making the case for it in 1989—pointed to the decades of work that predated the narrow, transactional effort of the Perry litigation.

Between 1996 and 2007, Sullivan noted, public support for same-sex marriage in Gallup polls rose from 27 percent to 46 percent—a massive shift. If you start your examination of the issue with one of the Supreme Court challenges that has happened since then, you observe only the endgame of social change. And you miss a far more transformational story.

Adopting the “homosexual agenda”

The Supreme Court’s 2013 decisions in the Perry case and the even more important Windsor case (through which the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act) were critical milestones. But they were preceded by a long series of state-level legislative and legal fights. These include early legal wins in Hawaii (in 1993) and Vermont (in 1999), the establishment of marriage equality in Massachusetts in 2003 and 2004, acts of civil disobedience such as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s 2004 decision to marry same-sex couples in defiance of California state law, and the spread of same-sex marriage to New Hampshire, Connecticut, Iowa, and Washington, D.C., by 2010.

“For a journalist to claim that marriage equality revolution began in 2008 is as absurd as saying civil rights struggle began with Obama.”

Viewed incrementally, many of these early efforts were failures: the initial progress in Hawaii and Vermont, for example, was reversed by state legislation (at least temporarily), and the wins that did hold prompted backlash in other states. Yet their symbolic value was immense. Moreover, their impact was measurable, not in terms of transactional wins, but in terms of steady movement in the polls.

“Of course we would lose cases, just as all civil rights movements have, at the start and even in the middle,” Andrew Sullivan argued. “But the cases, as in all civil rights movements, could be leveraged into a broader and broader public discussion, which could move the polls, which would increase the chances of winning future cases. And that’s the pattern we saw.”

In fact, the struggle was much more varied than even a list of state-by-state battles would indicate. Unlike in campaigns of civil resistance, advocates for same-sex marriage did not rely mainly on civil disobedience and mass protest to generate momentum (although there were notable exceptions, such as Newsom’s actions, the marches on Washington in 2000 and 2009, large-scale demonstrations in California around Proposition 8, and a variety of incidents in which members of the clergy broke official prohibitions to perform same-sex weddings). Nevertheless, advocates worked to turn the power of a wide range of social institutions against the conservative status quo.

Here, the “pillars” theory provides a useful framework for showing how different constituencies contributed to the accumulation of active public support for marriage equality.

In entertainment, actors who had remained closeted for fear that their sexuality would cost them roles began coming out—perhaps most prominently Ellen DeGeneres, who appeared on the cover of Time in 1997 with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay.” An increasing number of TV shows and movies featured openly queer characters and presented them in a sympathetic light. In doing so, they normalized LGBT relationships for millions of Americans and broke taboos that now seem hopelessly archaic, but had long held sway in popular culture.

Within mainline Protestant churches (as well as within Conservative and Reform Judaism), there have major battles in the past two decades over whether various denominations would welcome LGBT parishioners, whether openly gay and lesbian clergy members would be allowed to lead congregations, and whether these leaders would consecrate same-sex unions. While conservative religious bodies have been seen as leading bulwarks against change (and, indeed, the Mormons, the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Jewish movement, and Christian evangelicals remain some of the most steadfast opponents of marriage equality), this pillar weakened as the number of welcoming congregations gradually expanded.

In the legal community, a strong consensus in favor of LGBT rights took hold by the end of the 1990s—along with a decided skepticism of legal arguments justifying discrimination. This was pronounced enough that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia complained in 2003 that the “law-professional culture has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda.”

Experts on parenting and childhood development were another important early constituency to move. Conservatives in Congress had long insisted that government has a legitimate interest in preserving heterosexual marriage, since a primary purpose of marriage is producing offspring and “government has an interest in children”—whose well-being would ostensibly be endangered by queer parents.

Advocates worked to turn the power of a wide range of social institutions against the conservative status quo.

Yet these conservatives found it ever harder to produce credible scholars who would back their position. As author and legal analyst Linda Hirshman writes, “A bunch of academic social science types have now concluded that intact biological families aren’t better at childrearing than adoptive or same-sex couples are.” In fact, she notes, “It’s been years since any expert said anything else.” By the time of the Perry case, this pillar had long since fallen, and the defendants in the trial—trying to uphold Proposition 8 on the grounds that it would protect kids—“couldn’t even find anyone to put on the stand and say it,” Hirshman notes.

Changing international opinion further wore away at conservatives’ foundation of support. A landmark court decision in 1999 allowed for civil unions in Canada, and full marriage equality laws passed there in 2005. Holland and Belgium had already acted by that point—as had Spain, a Catholic stronghold. South Africa soon followed.

Additionally, advocates made inroads into the corporate world. As law professor Michael Klarman reports, “The number of Fortune 500 companies offering health care benefits for same-sex partners rose from zero in 1990 to 263 in 2006.”

Youth were a final decisive pillar that began to move early. While being openly gay in high school had once been almost unthinkable in many parts of the country, LGBT student groups grew in record numbers in the 1990s, creating supportive communities for young people who—in previous generations—might not have come out. Klarman notes that the “proportion of Americans who reported knowing someone gay increased from 25 percent in 1985 to 74 percent in 2000”—and that young people were far more likely to be in the new majority than their parents.

Knowing someone who is gay is a strong predictor of support for marriage equality. Accordingly, people between the ages of 18 and 29 have been almost twice as likely as people aged 65 and older to support same-sex marriage.

Interestingly, some advocates who did a considerable amount of work pushing for LGBT rights, recognition, and respect did not necessarily see same-sex marriage as a priority demand. (There is a long history of internal movement debate on this issue, with many activists viewing marriage as too limited and advocating a more radical agenda of queer liberation.) And yet, their efforts were nevertheless crucial in helping create the climate that has made marriage equality possible.

A wave of defections

In 2011, for the first time, polls showed public support for same-sex marriage to be more than 50 percent. Since then we have witnessed a dramatic wave of defections, not dissimilar to the last days of a dictatorship. As Gallup has reported, “For proponents of marriage equality, years of playing offense have finally paid off as this movement has reached a tipping point in recent years—both legally and in the court of public opinion.” As the temple began to crumble, pillars fell like dominos in areas including local government, business, religious organizations, the military, professional sports, and even conservative political groups.

“For proponents of marriage equality, years of playing offense have finally paid off.”

New York, Maine, Maryland, Washington. One after another, between 2010 and 2014, more than a dozen states joined the litany of jurisdictions allowing same-sex marriage. Increasingly, the wins have come via legislation and public votes, not merely decisions by judges.

By the time the Supreme Court cases were being debated in 2013, it was hardly a fair fight. As The Nation’s Richard Kim wrote, the government not only opted against defending the Defense of Marriage Act; “it filed an amicus brief arguing that it violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause, essentially leaving the defense of the bill to House Republicans and a sad-sack list of professional homophobes like the Westboro Baptist Church, Concerned Women for America, and the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays.” Signers of briefs promoting marriage equality went far beyond LGBT advocacy groups, including professional athletes, libertarian think tanks, and corporations such as Google, Nike, and Verizon.

In the military, the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which generated intense debate and backlash in the 1990s, was finally rescinded in September 2011, giving way to widespread sentiment in favor of “open service” by gay and lesbian troops. In a once-unthinkable turn, military chaplains now perform same-sex marriages.

In July 2013, Exodus International, the leading ministry that had claimed to “cure” homosexuality, shut its doors after 37 years, sending shockwaves through conservative Christian circles. Exodus’ director issued an apology to the LGBT community, stating, “We’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical.” (The American Psychological Association adopted a resolution several years earlier condemning the practice of “conversion therapy.”)

The Presbyterian Church voted in 2014 to allow its ministers to officiate same-sex weddings in states where it is legal. Meanwhile, the Methodists reinstated a minister who had been defrocked for presiding over his gay son’s 2007 wedding. As Klarman notes , the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary acknowledged as early as March 2011, “It is clear that something like same-sex marriage … is going to become normalized, legalized and recognized in the culture” and that “it’s time for Christians to start thinking about how we’re going to deal with that.”

Evolution, broadcast live

As of 2006, only one U.S. senator had been openly supportive of same-sex marriage. But, after the majority opinion tipped, the public was introduced to the phenomenon of politicians “evolving” in their views. On May 6, 2012, Vice President Joe Biden sat for a high-profile interview on Meet the Press, in which he stated that he had changed his position. President Obama — who had previously recorded an “It Gets Better” video—completed his evolution shortly thereafter.

An electoral “fear barrier” had broken, and a flood began. In just one week in April 2013, six U.S. senators declared their support for marriage equality. Bill McKibben noted with some bemusement that, just a month earlier,

Bill Clinton, the greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too, had ‘evolved,’ once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe bet.

The 2004 wave of state-level “marriage protection” amendments turned out to be the last gasp of an opposition that had been polarized but was in decline. Now even prominent conservatives have flipped. They include former Vice President Dick Cheney; Republican presidential contender Jon Huntsman; Ohio Sen. Rob Portman; and former Rep. Robert Barr, who sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

“Gay marriage is winning because the battleground has shifted from the court of law to the court of public opinion.”

Same-sex marriage has moved to the bottom of the list of concerns expressed by Republican voters, and even those politicians who have not changed their position would prefer to keep quiet about their views. The Associated Press has reported that, despite his earlier grandstanding, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, now a Republican presidential hopeful, tries to “duck questions about the state’s ban he voted for in 2006.” Conservative strategist Steve Schmidt, an advisor to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, put it this way:

I believe Republicans should re-examine the extent to which we are being defined by positions on issues that… put us at odds with what I expect will become over time, if not a consensus view, then the view of a substantial majority of voters.

Certainly, the battle is not over. Discrimination has not entirely ended for LGBT people, strongholds of bigotry still exist, and same-sex marriage has not yet become a universal right. Nevertheless, it is clear that future struggles will be waged in a fundamentally different setting than those that came before.

While the details of how the endgame is played matters, to focus solely on the transactional conclusion of the struggle is to miss the point. The social view of power allows us to see how the recent deluge of advances in the fight for marriage equality has been overdetermined; these advances have been triggered in multiple, reinforcing ways. As Richard Kim writes, “Gay marriage isn’t winning the day because of some singularly persuasive legal argument; it’s winning because the battleground has shifted from the court of law to the court of public opinion.”

Whether they come through state-level legislation, national legal decisions, or changes in behavior on the part of employers and religious authorities, future gains will represent the codification of a victory that, in an important sense, has already been won.

The change has come about through a mass withdrawal of cooperation from a past order based on prejudice. It could be felt well before it was written into law, and well before it was acknowledged by those leaders now struggling to show that they have “evolved.” Indeed, like the members of a military command who have been caught off-guard by an uprising outside their palace, these politicians—the people typically seen as holding power in our society—were the last to know.

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Paul Engler is the director of the Center for the Working Poor in Los Angeles, movement director at the Ayni Institute, and co-author, with Mark Engler, of “This Is An Uprising.”
Mark Engler
Mark Engler is an author and journalist based in Philadelphia. He is the author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy , the co-author of This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, an editorial board member at Dissent, and a contributing editor for YES!
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