American Culture

GOP waving white flag on gay marriage: V-LGBT Day is a landmark triumph in the culture wars

CATEGORY: LGBTIt’s been an interesting few days.

  • The American Benefits Council and 278 employers, organizations and municipalities have filed a friend of the court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in a case regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
  • Earlier today the far right Drudge Report was linking to a story outlining a new study that suggests gay marriage may save lives.
  • A large and growing list of prominent Republicans “have added their names to a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to declare that gay couples have a constitutional right to wed.” The list includes Mitt Romney, “prominent commentators and strategists Alex Castellanos, David Frum, Rich Galen, Mark McKinnon, Mike Murphy and Steve Schmidt; Mary Cheney; Ben Ginsberg, counsel to the Mitt Romney presidential campaign; George W. Bush administration officials Kevin and Catherine Martin, and Mark and Nicolle Wallace; and operatives ranging from Ken Duberstein, former chief of staff to Ronald Reagan, to Ken Spain, part of Washington’s younger generation.” It also includes a former director for Marilyn Musgrave, the barking dingbat who was once named the most conservative member of Congress.
  • And, just for fun, Clint Eastwood signed on, too. You might remember Eastwood – he’s the guy who lost an argument with a chair during last year’s GOP convention. I know, I know – Clint has always been pro-LGBT rights. It would have been more fun had he mentioned that during his debate with the furniture.

That list of companies signing the amicus curiae includes some very prominent names, too. For instance:

  • Adobe Systems Inc.
  • Aetna Inc.
  • Alaska Airlines
  • Alcoa Inc.
  •, Inc.
  • American International Group, Inc. (AIG)
  • Apple Inc.
  • Bain & Company, Inc.
  • The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation (BNY Mellon)
  • Bankers Trust Co.
  • Biogen Idec, Inc.
  • BlackRock, Inc.
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Inc.
  • Boston Scientific Corporation
  • Broadcom Corporation
  • Car Toys, Inc.
  • CBS Corporation
  • Cisco Systems, Inc.
  • Citigroup Inc.
  • Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC
  • Deutsche Bank AG
  • eBay Inc.
  • Electronic Arts Inc.
  • EMC Corporation
  • Ernst & Young LLP
  • Facebook, Inc.
  • The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.
  • Google Inc.
  • Intel Corporation
  • Intuit Inc.
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Levi Strauss & Co.
  • Liberty Mutual Group Inc.
  • Marriott International, Inc.
  • Mars, Incorporated
  • The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
  • Microsoft Corporation
  • Moody’s Corporation
  • Morgan Stanley
  • New York Life Insurance Company
  • NIKE, Inc.
  • Orbitz Worldwide
  • Partners HealthCare System, Inc.
  • Pfizer Inc.
  • Qualcomm Incorporated
  •, Inc.
  • Starbucks Corporation
  • Sun Life Financial (U.S.) Services Company, Inc.
  • Thomson Reuters
  • Twitter, Inc.
  • UBS AG
  • Viacom Inc.
  • Walt Disney Company
  • Xerox Corporation
  • Zynga Inc.
  • Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce
  • Greater San Diego Business Association
  • Greater Seattle Business Association
  • Long Beach Community Business Network
  • Portland Area Business Association
  • Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce

Some of those companies are predictable liberal hippie Silicon Valley outfits, of course, but a closer look will reveal many businesses with nary a progressive bone in their bodies (yes, corporations have bodies – they’re people, remember?).

In other words, the battle for marriage equality is over. Sure, there’s some mopping up to do, and the flat-earthers in the more socially conservative parts of the country will fight on as long as anybody pays them any attention. But make no mistake: today we’re celebrating V-LGBT Day.

This is wonderful news, obviously. What rights and privileges our country accords its citizens, they should be accorded equally. No nation that calls itself a democracy can deny to one segment of its citizenry that which is granted to others, especially when the denial of these rights is based on factors over which people have no control. Factors like race, gender and sexual orientation, for instance. Especially when those being discriminated against are hurting no one. Especially when their behavior actually strengthens the social  and economic fabric.

The reason I’m so interested in these events, though, has less to do with the actual policy and more to do with an argument I have been waging for years. In short, while this is a political victory, it’s one that emerges whole-cloth from shifting cultural dynamics, not overt political activism.

I’m a culturalist. I grew up a creature of popular culture – television, movies, sports, genre lit, rock & roll – and compounded the problem by earning a doctorate from a heavily cultural studies-oriented PhD program at the University of Colorado. I write poetry, but I also write lyrics for musical artists like Paul Lewis and Fiction 8. I love art galleries, but I also watch pro wrestling (a cultural descendent of medieval passion cycles, when you get right down to it). I’m right at home watching subtitled Eastern European art flicks, but my favorite movies are Blade RunnerAnimal House and Caddyshack. I have taught hard lit, but ask some of my former students about watching Tetsuo the Iron Man and certain Nine Inch Nails videos in my classes.

More to the point, while I’m an inherently political creature, I’m not politically active in the way so many of my colleagues, friends and acquaintances are. A point I have made, more times than I can count, is this: if you win the cultural war, the politics will take care of themselves. That’s what I care about, and it’s why I bang away at this damned keyboard instead of canvassing door to door.

Not many of my political friends seem to believe me, though. I have been on multiple politics lists, including one very, very high-level and very secret one (as in, you can’t say the name out loud). In these environments, I tried to foreground the importance of cultural issues at every turn, but I got used to the sound of crickets chirping. Nobody was hostile about it, they just ignored me.

So I left. I walked away shortly after a panel I had put together with some like minds on the various cultural battles being fought (and in need of fighting) was rejected for Netroots Nation. I think the world of applied political activism is important, make no mistake. But it’s one piece of the puzzle, not the whole puzzle. You can go door-to-door all you like, but if your opponent is winning the cultural battle, you’re going to have a tough time of it.

Consider the role music plays in American culture. Back in the ’60s, artists were vocal advocates for social and political progress. Give me Dylan and The Beatles and Woodstock and I’ll take my chances in whatever social conflict you like. Popular music was central to youth culture and it energized and empowered a generation. These bands got played on the radio, too. All the time. Our airwaves were dominated by hippie peace freaks.

Flash forward to the last decade. When three talented young women from Texas made the mistake of saying something unkind about our president, they learned an important lesson: shut up and sing. There’s no telling what Natalie Maines’s comment cost The Dixie Chicks, but they were more or less disappeared from the airwaves. It’s to their credit that they refused to back down, but what can we learn from comparing their case to that of Dylan, of John Lennon, of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary and hordes of others from 30 years earlier? In the ’60s, you made a career off of dissent. Today, dissent ends your career.

Once upon a time, concerts were held to oppose the war. In the Bush years, Clear Channel Communications, a corporate radio monster with close ties to the administration, staged pro-war rallies. In the ’60s, popular culture exerted tremendous pressure on government to end an unjust war. In the 2000s, not so much.

Win the culture, the politics will take care of themselves.

Which brings me back to the gay marriage issue. In April of 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out in the famous “Puppy Episode.” This was a landmark moment – Ellen wasn’t the first famous gay person in entertainment, but previous stars (Liberace, Rock Hudson, Jim Nabors, etc.) had the good sense to keep quiet about it. Ellen went all Jackie Robinson, though, and suddenly Hollywood had hauled homosexuality out of the closet and into America’s living room, insisting that everyone pay attention.

Since DeGeneres made that brave stand, what has happened? Well, there was Will & Grace. And Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. And Queer as Folk. Kurt on GleeMark and Justin on Ugly Betty. Multiple characters on OLtL and As the World Turns. Jack on Dawson’s Creek. Omar on The Wire. John Cooper on Southland. Cam and Mitch, our gay parents of two on Modern Family. And how about that storyline on Necessary Roughness?

And on. And on. And on.

The thing to understand is that for 15 years now, the writers, directors, actors and producers responsible for our popular culture fare, those responsible for the TV we watch and the movies we attend, have been normalizing gays. Once upon a time, it was a big scary deal to even think about a gay character (or openly gay performer). After awhile, though, it was no big deal at all. It was common. It was expected. Just like a few decades ago when it was a big scary deal to put a black on the screen in anything other than an overtly subservient role.

It’s easy to demonize the unknown. Hatred feeds on ignorance, and when you refuse to depict something before the public eye, you enable ignorance. But when you choose to depict gays, or blacks, or the handicapped, or the autistic, or whatever, you humanize them. At first it’s controversial. A month or two later, you’re used to it and it’s not a big deal anymore.

And after 15 years or so, the Defense of Marriage Act no longer makes a lick of sense. Not to corporations, not to most regular citizens, not even to Republican lawmakers.

Congratulations to all the political activists, the lobbyists, the legislators, the bloggers, the not-for-profit advocates – you won. We all won.

But the next time you hear me say that if you win the culture, the politics will take care of themselves, remember V-LGBT Day. Understand that this victory owes more to Hollywood than to Washington, DC.

15 replies »

  1. I think there’s still some fight left, and inevitably some social conservatives will try to tear down whatever progress has been made (similar to the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement, what with dozens of states dialing back reproductive rights for women and Supreme Court debating the Voting Rights act this week), but I agree – right now, legislators pushing anti-LGBTQ legislation are on the wrong side of history and in opposition to a pretty sizeable amount of the country.

    • Oh, there are people who will keep fighting. Like those Japanese soldiers on deserted islands who didn’t know the war was over. But trust me, the war is won.

  2. Cultural waves are fascinating things. Amos and Andy, as heinous as it was, was a breakthrough because it showed that white audiences would watch a black sitcom. I put Will & Grace in the same bucket, horribly overstated stereotypes (laughing at gays not with them,) but nonetheless a step forward. Sorta.

  3. I think it’s way to premature to think there is a massive shift occurring within the GOP on this issue. Prominent conservative pundits/politicians may have shifted, but the base is unmoved for the most part. First, the religious right is not moving on the issue. Second, the libertarians are not as quick to support SSM as one might think. A WaPo poll showed that over 90% of respondents identifying as tea party members oppose SSM. There are, in my opinion, two drivers behind the libertarian debate, and both find there roots in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. First is an argument that recognition of SSM will create a protected class of citizens (or, to use Scalia’s terminology, an entitlement of sorts). Second, by allowing state regulation of SSM, there will come with it state regulation of employment, business operations, housing, etc.–in short, an extension of the criticisms of the CRA being enforced through the Commerce Clause, as Rand Paul stated in the recent past.

    You can disagree with these arguments, but they frame the issue of SSM in way that is likely to draw on the most influential demographic of the GOP–the TP/libertarian demographic. As a result, no GOP candidate is likely to, at least not over the next four years, run up against a base that is split on the issue of SSM, and therefore require a candidate to choose a side. Right now, there is till only one side for GOP candidates to take . . . oppose SSM on some grounds.

  4. I think opposition to SSM is more of an age issue, than even a Rep or Dem one. Yes, Dems tend to support it more, but if you look at it by age, there is a clear split even within each party. Young Dems and Reps tend to support gay marriage, older ones tend to oppose. Young Republicans are trending more libertarian, than their older party members.

    I have argued for SSM for 20 years, based on the logical conclusion imo, that if gays should be able to enter into legally binding contracts, be it buy a house, start a business, whatever, then a marriage is just one more legally binding contract. Unless you believe they shouldn’t be able to do the former (which even most social conservatives concede), then they should be able to do the latter.

    A better question would be…why is the state (government) involved in marriage in the first place? I mean, outside of the contractual portion. In a certain sense. perhaps everybody should have a civil union, in the eyes of the law, and if you are religious, you get married in a church. The issue most people have with SSM imo, is they object to the morality of it. But should the state be deciding the morality of something? We get to agree to disagree on most moral issues. I have no moral issue with SSM, but if somebody does, I can respect that! But their approval shouldn’t be required for my friends who are gay to get married!

    Btw, I am Republcan and pretty conservative/libertarian in my beliefs on most issues. What is kind of funny is…I have good friends who are lesbian, who are very Christian, and in some ways, probably more conservative than me! They are great ladies, who just happen to be lesbian! But that is one of the ironies, it should be no surprise, that gays have differing viewpoints on politics, just like heterosexuals! But the GOP has, sadly, turned off that demographic.