Last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decisions solidified two major victories for the gay rights movement and are being hailed as landmark cases for civil rights. As is widely known by now, the Court struck down the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional and, in refusing to rule on the Proposition 8 case in California, essentially resumed same-sex marriages in that state. In covering the historic decisions, news organizations around the globe routinely featured same-sex couples celebrating, oftentimes in a teary embrace, flanked by cheering supporters and pictured with their infants and young children in tow. Under the headline “Rainbow Rulings,” USA Today symbolized the historic decision with an AP photograph—appearing in full color, on the front page, above the fold–of two men kissing in front of the Supreme Court.
The news coming from the Supreme Court last week was only the latest in a series of legal and cultural events that have catapulted the issue of gay marriage to the center stage of public debate over the last decade. In 2000s, the intense news coverage of the divisive issue in the U.S. media has focused unprecedented attention on gay and lesbian life. When I first began investigating media coverage of the same –sex marriage issue in 2003, the image of a gay male couple kissing on the front page of “the nation’s newspaper” would have been unthinkable. At that time, only one state—Massachusetts—had legalized same-sex marriage, and nearly 70 percent of Americans were opposed to it. Today, of course, stories and images of same-sex nuptials are almost passé. Thirteen states (including California) and the District of Columbia have now legalized marriage for same-sex couples, and think tanks and media outlets alike show a sea-change in public attitudes. The most recent survey from the Pew Research Center shows, for the first time in history, a majority support for gay marriage.
To some extent, then, this latest round of media coverage of the Supreme Court decisions demonstrates the maturation of the issue in public opinion and political discourse. It also reflects a decades-long project of the gay rights movement to frame media coverage and shape public opinion, to work within the confines of commercial news media and “sell” gay marriage to a largely unreceptive American public. My media analysis has shown how, early in the debate, news coverage highlighted an overly simplistic, two-sided conflict; silenced moderate perspectives; relied on “official,” often anti-gay, sources; and marginalized gay perspectives. In following the standards of journalistic neutrality, news media often cited dichotomous viewpoints on “both sides,” unwittingly providing a platform for extreme anti-gay opponent groups. Problematic framing devices of “God vs. gays” and “blacks vs. gays,” along with standard sourcing patterns in the name of reportorial “balance,” limited the debate and created a sounding board for historic homophobic rhetoric.
Last week, we saw stock images and video footage of ministers, conservative activists and religious groups praying in protest of the Supreme Court decision. But they were interrupted by pictures of supporters holding signage with religious symbols proclaiming, “Catholics for Equality” and ministers donning rainbow stoles holding banners that read, “Baptist Clergy for Gay Rights.” Even the decision to run the photograph of the kissing gay couple on page 1A can be viewed as a sort of milestone, and it weighed heavily on the minds of the editorial staff at USA Today. As Executive Editor David Colton wrote in a blog post, publishing the photo was risky: “Frankly, a few years ago we would not have run that photograph. I know because I nixed a similar one…a couple of years back. I thought at the time that it would be upsetting to some readers (even though, deep down, I regretted the decision while I made it).”
Progress on the issue of marriage equality is hard to deny. Nevertheless, while the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision extended federal benefits to those same-sex couples already legally married, it leaves 29 state-wide bans intact. The Supreme Court stopped short of declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right, and failed to propose any sort of federal solution to the legal patch-work of marriage benefits and exclusions that exist for gay and lesbian families across the U.S. Moreover, as the battle over marriage continues, it’s imperative to consider how marriage equality secures protections only for those gay and lesbian couples and their families who chose—or feel compelled—to marry, inadvertently leaving many LGBTQ communities and concerns out of the conversation altogether. That’s a story we rarely hear about.
Leigh Moscowitz is an assistant professor of communication at the College of Charleston and the author of The Battle Over Marriage: Gay Rights Activism Through the Media, which will be published in November.