Why women’s rights are moving backwards as gay rights advance

I was asked asked by someone on Twitter this weekend why the fight for gay rights we doing so well of late, especially when some other progressive movements, like women’s rights, seemed to be moving backwards.

Do u think part of the reason gay rights has moved forward while women’s rights backwards is b/c gay rights includes men’s rights?

It’s an interesting question, and a difficult one, because it takes a good understand of both question: Why gay rights have done so well; and why women’s right haven’t?  I know a lot about the former, and while I worked on women’s issue for a number of years consulting with Planned Parenthood, I don’t know them as deeply as I know gay rights.  Still, it’s a point worth considering.

First, as for the gender issue, it’s hard to say.  The conventional wisdom in gay politics has always been that lesbians were the kinder and gentler face of the movement.  That straight men aren’t threatened by lesbians (and even, crudely, find lesbians “hot”).  Whereas they hate gay men, are threatened by gay men, etc.  And gay men represent the sexualized component of our movement, in part because gay men got AIDS, whereas lesbians didn’t in as great of numbers, and the religious right and their GOP allies were happy to use AIDS against us.  So it’s not clear that the presence of gay men made the gay movement more sympathetic-seeming to the outside, but still, it’s an interesting argument.

It’s not just women, the left hasn’t done terribly well the last 12 years

In reality, the issue, and the problem, seems to go far beyond women’s rights.  Ever since September 11, a lot of progressive issues haven’t done terribly well.  Women’s issues, to be sure, but on the environment and gun control things have generally been stagnant legislatively and moving backwards in the polls (up until Sandy Hook changed things on the gun issue, though possibly only temporarily).

Chris handles Wall Street reform for us, and I’m sure he’ll tell you that not nearly enough has happened on that issue, even after the world almost ended in September of 2008.

On health care reform, we eeked out a victory by the skin of our teeth, and it still wasn’t the extent of victory we should have had considering the forces lined up against the Republicans (and conservative Dems) right after the 2008 election.

On immigration, things are only improving after 1) the immigration movement adopted the in-your-face tactics of gay activists; and 2) the GOP freaked out about the Latino vote after the 2012 elections.

Democrats are bad at PR, gays less so

Having said that, the Democrats are in control of the White House and the Senate, so it’s not like America has turned against Democrats and our ideas.  The problem is something else.  I’ve often chalked it up, in part at least, to a lack of political marketing know-how, or even an appreciation of the need for political marketing, among Democrats.  Democrats often don’t know how to fight, at least in the policy realm (for elections, oddly, they tend to do better).  So we don’t win nearly as much as we should, and could, because the people fighting for our ideas don’t do it very well.

On gay rights, the most innovative, and some of the most influential, work in the past few years came from non-standard players.  You had the gay Netroots, Get Equal, Dan Choi and a number of ticked off current and former servicemembers, which included upstart groups like OutServe and Servicemembers United, and some mainstream groups like SLDN.  And all of them were effective because they were willing to exert more pressure than is polite on the administration, and Congress.

Now, it’s an interesting question as to whether gender played a role here, going back to the question I was asked on Twitter, about whether the presence of men in the gay movement made a difference.  I have been told by a number of women that men tend to practice politics, and talk about politics, differently than women, in part because women face far more, and nastier, vitriol than men when they get involved in politics in the first place. It’s an interesting question as to whether an activist group that inclues men acts differently, comes up with different strategies and tactics, and challenges power more than a group made up exclusively of women (put another way, were gay advocates willing to be nastier, and less worried about blowback, because many of the activists were men?). I’m not entirely sure.  GetEqual, for example, was run by a fierce woman, my friend Robin McGehee.  But gender, per se, defines the women’s movement in a way that it doesn’t define other progressive movements, so it’s a question worth asking. It would be interesting to hear from more women as to whether they think a group of women might act differently, in a political context, strategically and tactically, than a group of men and women, or just men.

Back to the independent gay activists I mentioned above, it should be noted that those players didn’t act in a vacuum.  There were other mainstream groups that will say they were influential, and one hopes they were, and the times were a-changin’, and that didn’t hurt either.  As gay people continued to come out to family, friends and coworkers, and as Hollywood and the media increasingly portrayed gay people as human beings, the religious right caricature (lie) of a gay person couldn’t stand against the reality of the truth.

Gays have the “advantage” of being further behind women, which makes our message clearer

To some degree, I feel that asking why gay rights is proceeding and issue X isn’t is a bit like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. Yes, there were a number of media-savvy, fearless, advocates who were critical to advancing our cause, especially online the past 15 or so years.  But perhaps the gay rights battle did well because we lacked the subtlety of the women’s rights cause.  What I mean by that is that the religious right invested an awful lot of time and money into portraying gay people as something we weren’t.  As that false image started to shatter, so did the prejudice long upheld by that falsity.

Line of women via Shutterstock

Line of women via Shutterstock

Do women face the same demonization?  Maybe, but I don’t think the public perceives it the same.  I think today’s gay rights movement is more akin to the fight for women’s suffrage – a clear discriminatory harm that made it easier to rally against, and eventually easier to poke holes in, than the current battles facing women.  I’m not saying suffrage was easy – I’m saying that as an organizer, a political operative, the battle lines were clearer, and the issue easier to sell, in my view, than the problems women face today.

Women’s advocates, in many ways, are fighting a war of nuance.  Where gays want to get married, women don’t want the right to choose, which varies by trimester, cut back any further by a seemingly-endless series of small, but significant, legislative advances by anti-choice forces that slowly but surely whittle away at the right to choose.  The gay battle lines, and message, are much clearer, and thus an easier sell, I think.

Are women a victim of their own success?

In many ways, the women’s rights movement is a victim of its own success.  As a man, it’s not as easy to see where women are still lacking in rights (that doesn’t mean they aren’t, I’m saying that clarity of the harm isn’t as stark as perhaps it once was).  On gay rights, there are hate crimes that shock the sensibilities.  There were decorated gay servicemembers losing their livelihood simply because of who they were.  And there were loving gay couples who just wanted the chance to settle down like everyone else.  It was easy for us as advocates to define the rights we didn’t have.

From a man’s perspective, you see women getting the same jobs as man as never before.  Women are corporate CEOs, doctors and pilots and lawyers and astronauts (something noteworthy if you’re in your 40s or older and lived through a time when women simply didn’t hold those jobs), and they even become Speaker of the House, and might even become President in 2016.  And, for all appearance, Roe v Wade is still the law of the land, so it’s understandable that some might scratch their heads and ask, what are pro-choicers complaining about?  They’re complaining because in the 40 years since Roe the religious right and the Republican party have so whittled away at Roe as to make it meaningless, according to some lead women’s advocates.  And, even though women now hold many of the same jobs as men, they don’t always get the same pay.  But that takes some complicated explaining, and it contradicts what the public might consider an obvious “truth,” that Roe hasn’t been overturned, so how can it be in danger, or nearly already gone, and women “have the same jobs as men,” so what’s the problem?

And in many ways, African-Americans face the same problem as women.  It’s easy for people to say “slavery ended 150 years ago, and the Civil Rights Act passed 50 years ago, so the African-American struggle is over,” without realizing that, for example, some schools in the south still hold segregated proms.  People see African-American CEOs, doctors, lawyers, astronauts, and might think “they’ve won, employment discrimination over,” without understanding that, in some ways, it may never be over, at least not for a very long time.  But the devil is in the details much more so than it is with gay rights because we’re still fighting for some of the rights that African-Americans got (at least on paper) fifty years ago.  It makes our cause, I think, easier to explain.  It also means that once we get many of our basic civil rights, gays may have the same difficulty fine-tuning those rights once people already think we have them.

Voters don’t do nuance

In a nutshell, people don’t do nuance.  If you have to explain too many details, the public’s eyes glaze over.  And on gay rights, in part because a lot of us are good at messaging, and in part because our message itself, the harm itself, is rather clear-cut, we’ve had more success than many on the left in the past decade.

But it’s not just that.  I’ve written a lot about how much of the professional left, as some like to call it, rolled over and played dead the past 12 years.  And I think a lot of professional gay rights did too, to a degree.  But our activists didn’t.  Which actually raises another issue, AIDS.  Nothing galvanizes a community, and inspires activists, like widespread death and political inaction.  That’s an essay in and of itself.

So I do think that each community has its own unique problems that it faces in selling its message.  But I also think that a big part of the problem is what I called “political marketing,” or public relations.  Aka, knowing how to sell your product (and knowing the value of knowing).  The gays are particularly good at it.  Other lefties in the past ten years, less so.  And the one group that watched our success, and tried to learn from it and emulate it – immigration reform advocates – are now having success of their own, not just because they copied our model, but it helped.

So that’s a modest beginning at trying to explain what the heck happened that made gay rights one of the shining successes of progressivism this past decade.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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