Some Lessons from the LGBT Movement

March 28, 2013

The battle for same-sex marriage isn’t over, but the outcome is no longer in doubt.

When politicians begin stumbling over each other in a rush to tell the press that they too support same-sex marriage, I think it’s safe to say the tide has definitely turned. Oh, it’s not going to happen overnight. First, the Supreme Court, I’m pretty sure, is going to punt and will not rule that state bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. But the Court’s hesitation will only delay the movement toward legalization of same-sex marriage, not end it. Legalization will come state by state. By 2016, we’ll have at least twenty states with same-sex marriage. By 2024, they’ll only be a few holdouts, like Utah.

The LGBT movement has accomplished a sea change in America attitudes in the space of about 40 years. (“Homosexuality” was considered a mental disorder by the psychiatric community until 1974.) There were a number of factors that produced this change, but I would cite three causes in particular. First, the willingness of gays and lesbians to come out publicly. It’s harder to hate a friend or colleague than an abstraction. Second, positive portrayals in the popular media. Third, a coordinated and successful political and legal strategy. With respect to the last factor, the LGBT movement generally picked their targets carefully, aiming first for criminal prohibitions on “sodomy” a/k/a same-sex sexual activity. Where feasible, they also worked to have employment discrimination based on sexual orientation made illegal. Only after they had these building blocks in place—only after they had become more accepted—did they go for same-sex marriage.

Can atheists learn anything from the success of the LGBT movement? By the way, in asking this question, I am not saying the battle for atheist acceptance and the end to religious privilege is equivalent to the battle for LGBT rights. But they do have some similarities, including the difficulty in making progress in the face of widespread animosity based on negative stereotypes.

One thing for sure: it would be good if there were a coordinated political and legal strategy, as some others have observed recently. We should focus on situations where our claims and cases have an emotional appeal to the fair-minded religious. Any situation involving discrimination should receive high priority. Even when legal action is not possible, social and political pressure may be warranted.  The Boy Scouts should be a prime target. Can’t sue them under current law, but we should try to embarrass the hell out of them, and also lobby to put an end to their receipt of public funds.

Going after “symbolic” targets—crosses, mottoes, and so forth—may not always be the best strategy. It depends on the situation, of course, because some of these cases are easy wins based on precedent and some situations are just too outrageous too ignore. But I think it is fair to say that having the words “In God We Trust” on our money does not strike many religious people as an intolerable assault on the human dignity of nonbelievers. Don’t get me wrong. I abhor that motto as much as anyone else, but we should be realistic about where we focus our efforts.

Personally, I think we should continue working on school cases, where there is some sympathy with children who are being pressured to engage in religious exercises. This includes Pledge cases. On the federal level, there’s probably nothing we can do, but lawsuits in state courts could be an option. (The pending Massachusetts case, in which CFI will be filing an amicus brief, will obviously provide an indication of how fruitful an option it might be.) But we should also think beyond the courtroom. LGBT activists effected change in many instances because they were able to mobilize people to express outrage. How often have atheist activists engaged in demonstrations, appeared at school board meetings, or even written letters to school officials to complain about this mandatory recitation of a religious oath? If we’re not bothered enough to take action, to protest, we’re not going to persuade the public to care about our cause. And if the public doesn’t care, don’t expect many politicians or judges to care.

True social and civil equality isn’t going to be handed to us. We’re going to have to earn it.



#1 craig gosling (Guest) on Friday March 29, 2013 at 2:09pm

Well said - The latest successes of the LGBT community are in great part due to the public’s empathy for those who are suffering. The atheist community must get personal, make others aware of blatant attacks and injustice done to them. If we appear too strong and aggressive people will miss the fact that we need their help.

#2 Zach (Guest) on Friday March 29, 2013 at 4:55pm

As an LGBT person, what I cannot stress more:

Come out, come out, come out.

Let people know that you are an atheist. Not in a pushy or obnoxious manner (don’t retort if someone says ‘God bless you’), but acknowledge to others that you are an atheist, agnostic, freethinker, etc.

LGBTs used to be faceless, until we came out to our friends, colleagues, and family members.

#3 Griff on Sunday March 31, 2013 at 11:55pm

I don’t recall gays protesting the promotion of heterosexuality in public classrooms.  Or declaring the superiority of gayness over non-gayness.  But perhaps you have a point.  Build a foundation of public tolerance and sympathy for your cause, and then… who knows?  Maybe atheist/theist marriages will be legalized.  Not anytime soon, of course, but by 2030, certainly. 2040, at the latest.  Maybe “humanist” authors will someday be allowed to write books which promote the virtues of atheism and tout the superiority of non-belief over, oh, say, religious belief.  Something, of course, that no publisher, major or otherwise, would permit at present, but who knows what future decades will bring?  As utterly unlikely as it may seem at this point, one or two such pro-atheist titles might become (don’t laugh) best sellers.  Hey, it’s possible.

#4 craig gosling (Guest) on Monday April 01, 2013 at 6:36am

Friends and family often don’t believe me when I say I’m an atheist. Here are some of their comments: “I don’r believe you.” You’re too good to be an atheist.”  “You are just in a stage of your life that you will grow out of.” “You just think you are.” ” You will change as you get older and wiser.”

#5 Thomas B (Guest) on Monday April 01, 2013 at 8:58am

I think most Christians go through a period in their early teens when they’re mad at God for some reason, or it crosses their minds this “church stuff” is a waste of time.  It usually doesn’t last long.  But when you tell them you’re an atheist, that’s what they think you mean.  They think you mean an adolescent phase you’re going to grow out of.

#6 Bruce A. Bailey (Guest) on Monday April 01, 2013 at 10:04am

I am finishing a book about the universe from before the Big Bang to last month and the evolution of humans and human civilizations and religions, in exact detail. The title is Vision Quest and it has original insight into human life on earth. In only 428 pages. I need an agent and a publisher.Bruce Bailey

#7 craig gosling (Guest) on Monday April 01, 2013 at 5:29pm

Mr.Baily - Good luck with your book, but thee odds are against you finding a publisher. I finally gave up and self published. Then I started publishing everything I had on my own website. It will get better exposure than a book that never sells. Keep trying, you may get lucky. Sounds like a good book. Congratulations.

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