Steph Herold, writing at Feministe, put up a post that’s been gnawing on my brain for a few days, and I want to post a couple of points arguing with Steph and a larger point offering an answer to her question. Steph asks why the gay rights movement is ahead of the abortion rights movement, observing that “Glee” had an episode with two dudes kissing and it was considered sweet and romantic, and you’d never see such a positive portrayal of abortion on TV. She is right that positive portrayals of abortion on scripted TV—at least, as positive as you can get, which is to say portraying it as an acceptable decision that, while no fun for the woman involved, doesn’t cause permanent damage either—are rare. I can only think of two, one in 1972 on “Maude” and one recently on “Friday Night Lights”. But I would hardly say that the gay rights movement is ahead of the abortion rights movement for that.
To dial this down a little harder, I think Steph is a tad vague on her terms, even saying at one point, “To compare the gay rights movement and the feminist movement is an impossible task,” which I disagree with, since I think few movements in the liberal world have so much overlap. I realize there are liberal feminists and some gay rights activists (mostly male) who don’t see it that way, but overall, I feel that the two movements are functionally fighting for the same goal, an overturn of the patriarchy. It’s natural to ask ourselves why we’re making better ground on this front than that, such as how within feminism you might ask whether anti-rape activism is doing better or worse than pro-choice activism. What I think Steph is talking about is specifically the gay marriage movement versus the abortion rights movement, because her example—the applauding of a monogamous gay teenage romance—is indeed part of the larger shift towards accepting same-sex relationships that follow the models we accept for opposite-sex relationships in our society.
On this front, I dispute that gay rights are doing better. When we talk about “rights”, for instance, we are duty-bound to look at one’s actual rights to do something, and not just certain cultural markers like “will they show this on TV?” Bluntly put, abortion rights are much more widespread than gay marriage rights. You can legally get an abortion in all 50 states in the country, even though it’s really hard to nearly impossible in some. You are still allowed to cross state lines to get an abortion in states that are more favorable to the right. With gay marriage, neither is true.
I also want to quarrel a little with Steph, who switches gears from gay marriage to AIDS activism, to laud ACT UP for its 80s and 90s success in overcoming legal and cultural barriers to a proper response to the the AIDS crisis. She is implicitly contrasting ACT UP from that era to some of the more fearful and small-c conservative pro-choice orgs nowadays, but I have to point out that the pro-choice movement also used to be more like ACT UP used to be. ACT UP is comparable to the Redstockings and groups that organized abortion speak-outs, which are like the pride events that Steph longs for. And in both cases, as the demands were actually met to a degree, the radical activism faded away—the radical pro-choice movement that had ACT UP-style actions faded away after abortion was legalized, and ACT UP hasn’t really been raiding places in a long time, now that HIV is taken seriously as a public health issue. In the gay rights movement, the behemoth orgs face the same criticisms as they do in the pro-choice movement—being fearful and conservative. For instance, many of the big wigs, from what I understand, are trying to avoid a Supreme Court showdown on gay marriage for fear of losing.
I bring these criticisms up because I don’t think that the problem Steph is talking about isn’t there. She’s right that the gay marriage movement has forward momentum and the abortion rights movement has been losing ground since Roe v. Wade, and lately at an accelerated pace. I just think she wants to lay blame on the activists and the movement where it doesn’t apply, and I understand this urge, because our movement is within our control and if it’s just a matter of fixing that, then we win. But I don’t really think that’s it.
There are a couple of alternate theories. One may just be regression to the mean. When a group makes a big leap forward, there’s often a backlash that sets them back. Two steps forward, one step back is the nature of progressivism. You see this with the anti-racism movement, for sure. Desegregation was a major victory, but then there was a backlash that resulted in white flight, a massive de-funding of anti-poverty programs and an escalation of the prison-industrial complex, and so the dream has definitely been deferred. For all we know, anti-gay organizers are already working on the backlash strategy to find a backdoor to depriving gay people of their rights after they’ve been formally recognized across the land.
I think the other has to do with the specific nature of Steph’s complaint. She’s comparing gay marriage to abortion, and both these issues fall into the Valley of American Cognitive Dissonance, and the arguments used to justify themselves tend to work out in different ways that have a bottom line impact on long term success in the culture, which is what she’s really talking about. I think it’s fair to say that monogamous gay romantic love leading towards marriage is gaining ground and surpassing abortion in terms of cultural acceptability, for sure. If it’s not there yet, it probably will be before you know it. Why is that?
The big American cognitive dissonance is between our competing values for fairness and tradition. Now, there are straight up liberals who always favor fairness over tradition, and there are patriarchal conservatives who always favor tradition over fairness. But in the big mushy middle—the people you have to win over to win—and in the acceptable political discourse, both tradition and fairness are considered Good Things. The problem with this is that these two values are in direct conflict with each other. Most of our social traditions governing people’s relationships with each other exist to preserve unfairness. Our traditions rank man over woman, straight over gay, white over non-white, rich over poor, etc. Calling for fairness is a direct assault on tradition. Conservatives get this, which is why they appeal to tradition whenever their precious hierarchies are being threatened. But the reason that tradition is valued is not because it’s anti-fair, at least that’s not what people who defend it say. Traditions are justified because they offer stability, continuity, and create expectations and roles for people to fill.
If you can find a way to appeal to fairness without upsetting tradition—i.e. alleviate the cognitive dissonance between these two competing values—you disable the counterarguments. This is the idea behind non-violent resistance, by the way—the argument against anti-tyranny protesters is that they’re disruptive, so they create a situation where the only people being really violent and disruptive are the tyrants. I think gay marriage proponents have done a bang-up job of alleviating cognitive dissonance. Marriage is chosen by individuals out of love and sometimes for pragmatic reasons, but socially, the argument for marriage is one of stability and, above all other things, sexual control. The conservative argument against gay people is that they’re a subversive threat because of their sexuality, and it’s frankly hard to maintain that argument when you’re faced with gay people clamoring to get into the same traditional structures that exist to control and stabilize straight sexuality. Gay marriage is, rhetorically speaking, a perfect way to link the conflicting values of tradition and fairness. Same story with gays in the military. Many feminist victories were achieved in the same way. Women got the vote by arguing that women would constitute a more conservative vote for family and stability, the early 20th century version of “family values”. Women got education by arguing they would be better wives and mothers with it. Even Betty Friedan played this card in “The Feminine Mystique”. Feminist victories against employment discrimination lately have been framed as making sure that households and families have more financial stability, and worldwide, feminists are gaining ground in health care and employment with the same old families-and-households argument.
Abortion has proven hard to reframe in terms of fair-but-not-anti-tradition. Which is weird, because abortion has been around since forever. But I think that the act itself is just symbolic in an opposite way than a gay wedding is. A gay wedding is increasingly seen as a symbol of buying in to traditional American values, but abortion is still seen as a rejection of motherhood, because you’re not going to mother that potential baby. And the abortion decision rarely stands on its own. In the public imagination, I think it’s believed that the decision when faced with an unintended pregnancy is still a choice between marrying the father and settling down, or getting an abortion and rejecting life as a wife and a mother. (In reality, it’s not like that—most women who have abortions are mothers or will be one day.) Abortion is strongly linked with uncontrolled sexuality, and the “choice” language has only managed to reinforce the notion that reproductive rights are fundamentally about allowing women to reject patriarchal marriage. Most feminist victories are achieved once the public has decided that giving women a right isn’t going to stop women from their duties to mop men’s brows and cook men’s meals, and I’m afraid that abortion hasn’t fit into that framework, in no small part because unintended pregnancy continues to play such a major role in getting people who otherwise weren’t married to marry.
I suspect that we’re soon going to find out that other gay rights issues that divert from traditions that establish control, particularly of sexuality, will probably be facing the same problem. The larger task, if those of us who believe in social justice want to win and win permanently, is to bring an end to the tradition argument, so that only fairness is a consideration.
This was a huge post, and I’m pretty busy today, so it’s probably all I can post on, but I figure it’s enough for you guys to chew over!