Leigh Moscowitz is an assistant professor of communication at the College of Charleston. In her UIP book The Battle over Marriage: Gay Rights Activism through the Media the author examines the aims and efforts of LGBT advocates to re-frame the public image of same-sex unions. She answered some questions about the project.
Q: Your book covers 2003-2012. Why was this a pivotal time for the media coverage of same-sex marriage?
Leigh Moscowitz: This was a period of time in which we saw a tremendous amount of legal contests, political campaigns and public conversations about marriage equality. Certainly, the issue of relationship recognition for same-sex couples had percolated for some time (in the mid-90s, around activity in Hawaii and Vermont, for example). The marriage issue had certainly been a concern of the LGBTQ activist community for decades. But when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom defied California law and began issuing marriage licenses on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall in February 2003, the issue exploded. A big part of that was the media coverage surrounding that moment. Not only local, but national and international news media took notice. Millions of people across the country and around the globe began to consider and confront the issue in new ways. They saw for the first time gay and lesbian couples actually getting married. That moment took what had been an abstraction and made it a reality. Of course, that matrimonial marathon in California wasn’t the only major catalyst for this larger public conversation. The landmark Goodridge legal case was already underway in Massachusetts, and a few months later, that state became the first to officially legalize marriage for same-sex couples.
I would also argue that you would be hard-pressed to find a contemporary issue that we’ve seen such dramatic shifts in terms of legal considerations, political impact and public opinion. Think about it this way: my book covers roughly a decade. When I started this project, one state—Massachusetts—had legal marriage, and public support for same-sex marriage hovered at roughly 31 percent. Last month, our seventeenth state—New Mexico—legalized gay nuptials, and public support is now around 54 percent. This issue has also become a litmus test for young as well as progressive voters, and many conservative thinkers of our time even support marriage equality. This isn’t to imply the battle for marriage equality has been won, or that homophobic rhetoric has eroded into the background–not in the least. But the magnitude and the pace of change are hard to deny. That’s why I argue marriage equality is the defining issue of our time.
Q: Are LGBT rights activists more media savvy than activists for other civil rights efforts?
Moscowitz: That’s tough to answer definitively. With every social justice movement, whether you are talking about the civil rights movement or the women’s equality movement, we’ve seen how activists have employed strategies to work within dominant institutions of power to affect change, as well as strategies that oppose mainstream institutions. Both have been central to each movement’s success. But what has been particularly striking about LGBT activism is the extent to which the media relations and public relations arm of the movement has grown in 50 relatively short years. A few decades ago, “homosexuality” was considered “the love that dare not speak its name,” and there was little-to-no coverage of gay issues whatsoever. Even fifteen years ago, my activist informants told me, they had to fight to get coverage of their community and concerns. Today you have these large, structured organizations, many with full-time staff dedicated solely to media messaging and public education efforts. It has really elevated the status of particular (though not all) LGBTQ issues to the level of “page 1” coverage. Many of my informants for the book were new to their positions, hired in response to the increased need for PR and communications management, especially after the onslaught of media attention about marriage. I think it also speaks to the role of media in our contemporary civil rights struggles in many of informants worked to change hearts and minds through media stories and images.
Q: Has media coverage of the gay marriage debate also undermined the cause?
Moscowitz: In some ways, yes. But let me be clear on this point: The battle over marriage has done a great deal for the community. It has pushed the conversation about gay rights forward in unprecedented ways, albeit though the lens of relationship recognition. It has opened up these commercialized spaces in the media and popular culture to new representations of gay and lesbian life—images rarely seen before in the culture—very human pictures of a gay couple sitting at their kitchen table helping their daughter with her homework, for example. These kinds of images and representations are powerful and have the potential to challenge stereotypes. In the views of some of my activist informants, gaining marriage equality has helped win considerable advances on a whole host of LGBTQ issues, from hate crimes legislation to anti-bullying laws.
So we need to appreciate what has been gained and at the same time consider what has been lost. In particular, I argue media coverage limited the conversation and also spurred a great deal of backlash. My research found that with the nearly exclusive focus on marriage equality, many other issues and members of the community were overlooked. Using marriage, a historically exclusionary institution, as a route to inclusive citizenship is limiting and problematic. We can’t stop there, nor can we assume that everyone’s interests or needs will be met if marriage equality is won. That’s part of my job as a scholar, as a cultural critic: To examine not only who is represented but also who isn’t.
Q: Has the media latched on to the issue of same-sex marriage to the point that other issues of sexual discrimination have been overlooked?
Moscowitz: This has been one of the costs of the unprecedented coverage surrounding marriage equality. It’s certainly given activists a larger microphone to talk about marriage rights, but it’s also made it more challenging to talk about anything else, such as employment non-discrimination, military service, funding for AIDS research, hate crimes protections, bullying in our schools, the politics of coming out, issues related to adoption and immigration. We talk more about sexual orientation than we do gender identity protections. So there are obviously a whole host of issues that the LGBTQ community continues to fight for. For example, it is legal to fire or refuse to hire someone based on his or her sexual orientation in 29 states, and transgender people can be fired or denied employment based on their gender identity in 33 states. The passage of ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) after a four-decade fight in the Senate this past November is a step in the right direction, but there is much more work to be done on this front.
In so many other facets of our daily lives, LGBTQ citizens face discrimination. A reported 9 out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment at school, for example. So if the marriage conversation can open doors to tackling these other problems, then it’s one we should be having. But my work found that the marriage issue made it harder, not easier, to discuss these areas of discrimination. It so dominated the media’s attention that it drowned out other issues and alternative voices. Marriage was portrayed as this end-all, be-all issue that would signify full equality in all walks of life. But problematically, only a select few were able to speak about the issue or be represented. Marriage equality can afford some rights and protections for these couples, and our strides toward greater inclusion in terms of how we define “marriage” and “family” are worthy of celebration. But the conversation about LGBTQ rights can’t stop at marriage equality.
Q: Is there a problem with “inclusionary politics” that offers acceptance of the queer community?
Moscowitz: Well, the problem lies in the ways in which inclusionary politics can be exclusionary. My work showed that only certain citizens within the larger LGBTQ community were represented on the marriage issue, largely those who are part of a monogamous, child-rearing couple. Perhaps not surprisingly, they were more often that not white and middle-upper class. While marriage has afforded greater visibility for those couples and families, I think what we have to ask ourselves is, will we only welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people as full citizens through this rather limited portal of marriage? And do we only welcome those who adhere to these very regulated forms of visibility—white, middle-class couples who do not challenge our rather heterosexist notions of monogamy, marriage and family? Does gay marriage make some gay and lesbian couples and their families “more acceptable” by unwittingly marking other gay forms of loving and living as “unacceptable?” I fear that the marriage conversation in our public discourse—at least up until now—has been too limiting and restrictive. I am hopeful that as we continue to discuss the issues, we will ask these questions, broaden the conversation, and widen the perspectives represented in it.