nixon-in-china and same-sex marriage

I am on record as a supporter of full marriage equality for same-sex couples.  And, if you’ve followed the recent news on this front, the last two weeks have been pretty stunning. Led by Iowa’s accepting equal marriage rights quickly followed by decisions in Vermont New Hampshire and Maine (both arrived at through the legislatures rather than courts). New York’s governor announced his intention to pursue a same-sex marriage bill in the coming weeks and DC announced it would recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.  [New Hampshire is right on their heals.]

It seems possible that we’ve reached a moment similar to one Forrest and I discuss in our paper, when the Big Three Auto Companies’ announced in 2000 that they would offer Domestic Partner Benefits. As Forrest and I show, what was once a fringe issue (it certainly was when I started working on it in 1994) has traveled squarely into the mainstream among major American companies.  That process was furthered considerably by the signal that GM, Ford, Chrysler and the UAW sent because it was such a surprise.  These were not the usual suspects who jump on the latest social movement bandwagon; these companies seemed to be acting against type (as Nixon did when he went to China) and the disproportionate impact that announcement had on diffusion of the benefit into the mainstream is demonstrable.

Are we at a similar point now with respect to marriage?  The media is certainly treating the Iowa decision as a ‘Nixon-in-China’ moment.  For instance, Terry Gross interviewed Camilla Taylor, the lead lawyer on the case, and asked her the following:

TERRY GROSS: Was there also like some [unintelligible] function on your mind because like Iowa symbolizes the Heartland. So if you could win in the heart of the Heartland…

CAMILLA TAYLOR: I think that’s absolutely right. I think in many ways, this decision both that it was unanimous and that it was in the Heartland has been more effective than any other marriage case so far in demonstrating that. Really it is the – it is just the common sense and decent thing to do to strike down discrimination in marriage. And that it’s consistent with the most core main stream American values of fair treatment by government for example or commitment to families to end discrimination in marriage and to make sure that everyone is treated equally.

A question Forrest and I are asked a lot (but have not fully answered to my satisfaction) is how these kinds of surprising events happen.  The answer we give in the paper is that it has to be done unobtrusively from within.  But why these companies?  That part wasn’t necessarily clear.  But the Iowa case (and on reflection, it is consistent with the GM/Ford/Chrysler case as well) suggests an answer.  It can be found in the statement Camilla Taylor made just before Terry Gross asked the question I pasted above:

CAMILLA TAYLOR: … in addition to having very strong precedent with respect to liberty and equality, and a tradition of independence in the state courts in Iowa, there was also a long and rich tradition of doing the right thing in a number of civil rights struggles that came before us.  Just to give you a few examples, Iowa was the first state to admit a woman to the practice of law. And Iowa permitted women to own property very early in the 19th century, actually at a time when most other states still considered married women to be property themselves. And Iowa’s courts desegregated Iowa’s schools almost a hundred years before Brown vs. Board of Education, and Iowa was one of the first states, actually, to eliminate its ban on interracial marriage.  So we knew we could rely on Iowa’s tradition of standing up for what’s right often long before other states. And we also had spoken to a number of couples, you know, dozens of couples if not more over a period of years who had been eager for us to bring a law suit on their behalf. And all of these couples assured us that they would be treated fairly and with respect and that we could – we could bring a law suit and have it embraced by the people of Iowa.

So the decision to target Iowa was strategic, in part because Lambda Legal knew it had a good chance of succeeding.  Initially, this gave me pause: if Iowa really has this long tradition of being a softy, then maybe they wont really send much of a signal to the “mainstream” states sitting on the sidelines watching this movement play out.  If so, then–like so many movements before it–same-sex marriage could easily languish; spreading among a few states with liberal leanings, but never progressing to the point of inevitability (or, it could mean we are simply reading too much into the Iowa victory, but can look forward to one that will be truly surprising).  But further reflection suggests an alternative that helps to resolve the question of how initial ‘surprises’ occur. Iowa presented a golden opportunity: it is a state that has a long tradition that activists know leans their way, but also an external identity as resistant to change.  In the case of Iowa, is a quality that did not go unnoticed by another recent major social movement: the Obama campaign.  Obama’s team knew they could win Iowa, but also that a victory in a state as white as white can be for a black candidate sent an incredibly strong signal. This was also the case with the auto-companies.  They have been out on front of a large number of socially controversial benefits (including being the first industry to offer retirement benefits to hourly workers).  So while the perception among the general public was that these companies were conservative, the history told a different story.

So that part is encouraging; this very well may be a turning point.  But there are other aspects which make me think we are not quite there yet.  The most important is the rhetoric that is used to advocate for and justify passage of the legislation.  Forrest and I are working on a follow up paper which concerns the phases of social movements.  One very important transition–noted not only in our case, but in a large number of studies of social movements–is a shift away from a rhetoric based on fairness and consistency with an organizations values to a rhetoric based on “the business case”.  As McAdam showed, movements appear initially where they meet the least resistance and, in many cases, that means initial targets are ones that can most easily be tarred with charges of hypocrisy.  They base their initial claims around the idea that not doing so would contradict a company’s (state’s) core values.  There is a reason same-sex marriage has gotten initial traction in state supreme courts because it is here where conflicts with a state’s stated values are meant to be sorted out.  Its encouraging that the latest “adopters” of same-sex marriage have done so through the legislatures, and not the courts.  But the rhetoric that is employed to get there tells me we are still in the first–values based–phase of this movement.  The real tipping point will come when a state forcefully and clearly articulates that the reason it is moving toward same-sex marriage because not to do so would hurt the state (economically, politically, socially or otherwise).  The recent decisions as encouraging, but not necessarily turning points.


Written by seansafford

May 9, 2009 at 12:43 am

5 Responses

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  1. Small correction. It’s Vermont, not New Hampshire, that recently passed marriage equality through legislature (and in fact overriding the veto of the governor). You’re not too far off, though, because New Hampshire is right on its heels. The bill has passed the legislature but the governor hasn’t decided whether or not to sign it.



    May 9, 2009 at 3:59 am

  2. Interesting post Sean. Which state do you think the movement should target next to push for same-sex marriage legislation? There are at least two factors that matter here (it would seem to me): 1) the susceptibility of the state to movement influence and 2) the perception of the state as being activist resistant. The gay rights movement has to think about both of those factors when deciding where to invest their resources, right? If they push too hard in a state that is completely activist resistant (say, Idaho, for example), the change might never come. So which states are ideal targets?



    May 10, 2009 at 1:48 am

  3. Well, Iowa was pretty good. Missouri? Virginia? North Carolina?

    To me, the state may be less important than finding the rhetoric that shifts this away from a “do this because its the right thing to do” argument to a “do this because if you don’t it will come back to bite you” argument.



    May 10, 2009 at 5:44 pm

  4. Nice post! And intriguing answer!
    I am trying to make the parallel between same-sex marriage movement, and similarly contentious debates: drug control, gun control. With the first one, the debate had started more as a “business case”. And it certainly evolves more and more in that direction, since most of the debates compare the economic aspects of liberalization and regulation (cost of illegal activity, health costs etc).
    In general, I am of the (subjective) opinion that in order to get traction you must employ, sooner or later, business-economics arguments. The question which is nagging me is: does it always have to be like that?



    May 10, 2009 at 7:08 pm

  5. […] Sean Safford on gay rights and the Nixon in China metaphor […]


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