book spotlight: how the religious right shaped lesbian and gay activism by tina fetner
Tina Fetner’s new book on gay/anti-gay movement interactions is a very good contribution to the study of gay rights movements, social movements, and recent social history. Drawing from interviews and secondary sources, Fetner unpacks the often complex back and forth between gay rights advocated and their counterparts among religious conservatives.
The book has much to offer. First, this is a welcome expansion of the themes developed by scholars such as my colleague Elizabeth Armstrong, and her student Suzanna Crage, who have examined the organizational development of gay rights politics. By embedding the story within a larger arc of American politics, Fetner shows how the intense anti-gay activism was reshaped by the likes of Anita Bryant in the 1970s and a generation of family values activists in the 1980s /90s.
A second strong point is that the book is a concerted effort integrate social movement accounts with conventional politics. It’s something I’ve pushed in my own articles as well. For example, I liked very much the discussion of how the Democratic party adopted various pro-gay rights planks. It wasn’t from a concerted effort to woo gay voters. Instead, it was a sort of reaction to what the GOP was doing, who in turned were often dragged into this arena by intense conservative activists. If elites in both parties had their way, they would have preferred to just avoid the whole issue. It’s a credit to both sides of the dispute that they could change the party agendas in significant ways.
Let me end this review with a few critiques of an otherwise solid book. Perhaps my biggest beef is same that I had with Isaac Martin’s good book on the tax revolt. We really need to expand movement theory with insights from research in soc and poli sci on interest groups. Basically, Fetner documents how gay politics shifted from contention to rather conventional forms of influence, which triggered lobbying from conservatives. That in turn displaced the original organizational goals. This strongly suggests that we need to draw on research in poli sci about issue niches and their dependence on interest group interactions. Such a theory isn’t explored, but it should be. Another minor quibble is that I wanted more explanation of sources such as interviews and archives. I’m a stickler about that.
I don’t know if this review has the impact that Tina jokingly suggested, but here’s your blurb for the 2nd edition jacket cover: “Tina Fetner’s study of gay rights activists and their opponents is required reading for anyone interested in the struggle for equality in the 21st century. It’ll be discussed in seminars on sexuality and movement politics for years to come.”
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