Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Pop Culture's Journey Toward Marriage Equality

The video above from the ACLU shows the history of the move to marriage equality in the USA against a backdrop of pop culture. This is an interesting approach, and also appropriate, since many people experience social change through pop culture.

However, the change hasn’t happened as quickly as many people think.

On May 18, 1970, two students at the University of Minnesota, Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell, applied for a marriage licence in Minneapolis. The Hennepin County District Court clerk, Gerald Nelson, refused solely because the applicants were both male.

Baker and McConnell sued, contending that Minnesota's marriage statutes had no explicit requirement that applicants be of different genders, and that restricting marriage to opposite-gender couples would violate the First, Eighth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. It became the first lawsuit arguing for marriage equality in the United States. The trial court dismissed their claim.

The pair then appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and on October 15, 1971, the court ruled against the plaintiffs, upholding the state’s exclusion of same-gender couples from marriage.

Baker and McConnell then appealed the Minnesota court's decision to the US Supreme Court. On October 10, 1972, the Supreme Court issued a one-sentence ruling: "The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question."

Some two decades later, the Hawaii case of Baehr v. Miike set off the rightwing crusade against marriage equality, including 1996’s infamous "Defense [sic] of Marriage Act". However, it would be nearly another decade before any state actually had marriage equality, when it finally arrived in Massachusetts in 2004.

Beginning in 2004, voters started approving referenda to ban same-sex couples from marrying, and by 2010, they’d done so 28 out of 30 times (one of those two, Arizona’s, was later passed on a second attempt). The last real referendum to pass was in 2009 when Maine voters voted to repeal marriage equality, something they then reversed in 2012, approving it. I don’t count the 2012 special vote in North Carolina because it was so obviously rigged.

All of which is why the pace of change seems so rapid: In 11 years, the USA has moved from zero recognition of marriage equality, through a frenzy to ban it, and on to the verge of 50-state equality. A recent USA Today poll found that by a margin of 51% to 35%, Americans think that it's no longer practical for the Supreme Court to ban same-sex marriages because so many states how have marriage equality. The same poll also found, like all reputable polls do, that a majority of Americans support marriage equality (it also found that Americans are suspicious of the so-called “religious freedom” laws the rightwing has been promoting as a sort of last stand against LGBT equality).

As this history has played out, pop culture has reflected what’s been going on. While pop culture always lags behind the pace of change, at least somewhat, its reflection of change has nevertheless been important both for reinforcing that change, and also to reassure Americans that everything will be okay—because it will be. That’s why the ACLU video is so apt.

In another decade or so, all this may seem like ancient history. Or, we may still be fighting peripheral skirmishes with our far-right anti-LGBT adversaries. But however it plays out, we know two things: Pop culture will reflect it, and, more importantly, the ACLU will still be in the fight, just like always.

A footnote: As of December 2012, some forty years after the US Supreme Court rejected their appeal, Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell were still together, a retired couple living in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


rogerogreen said...

While of course you are correct about the Minnesota case, (which I learned about only in the past decade, quite possibly from you) chronologically, it really was an outlier, sort of like those black baseball players who played in the 1880s, until players like Cap Anson refused to share the field; this in no way negates Jackie Robinson's action in 1947.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

Oh, absolutely, and chronological order is nowhere near the same thing as order of importance, and you're right: Baker v Nelson was certainly an outlier. In fact, up until Baehr v. Miike, no one on the Left or the Right seriously thought marriage equality was possible for at least a generation. And Baehr v. Miike didn't even actually decide anything—it just launched the radical right religionists' anti-gay crusade against marriage equality, which is its main importance today.

Other cases actually advanced marriage equality, the first of them was Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, which brought marriage equality to Massachusetts in 2004. It was the first time a court had found that same-gender couples had a right to marry, and many of the cases since have referred to the Goodridge decision.

Baker v Nelson, meanwhile, took on a new life as fodder for opponents of marriage equality, who used it to argue that same-gender couples had no right to marry. Republicans in the US House used it to argue in support of DOMA, and proponents of Prop 8 used it in their defence, too.

History isn't a straight (so to speak) line—more like a web, really, with lines meandering and criss-crossing all over the place. I just like to help make sure that some of the earliest parts of the web aren't forgotten.