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.