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On morality and LGBT equality


By Adam Bink

Over at, Linda Hirshman posts her meta assessment of why LGBT equality came so far in 2011 and the prior years: people starting making a moral case for equality, and the rest of America started accepting it. See what you think of her take:

Same sex marriage is a classic example of what political scientists call “morality politics”: “a fundamental, first-principled conflict with the values embodied in some aspect of a morality policy.” In a lot of politics, Americans are willing to hold their noses and tolerate people they disapprove of or to change their positions based on evidence from the material world. But in morality politics, voters have their first principles and don’t want compromise-inclined elites confusing them with stuff like social science data about harm.

So issues of morality politics surface disproportionately in the context of direct democracy. Hawaii voters overturned their Supreme Court’s decision recognizing same sex marriage in a referendum while the ink was still wet on the decision. The Hawaii decision generated a federal law refusing to recognize any such rogue development, and a similar decision from Massachusetts in 2003 was met with a tsunami of state referendums forbidding such shenanigans in their states in 2004. Gay marriage activists were not going to win that battle by arguing that anything between consenting adults in private is nobody’s business.

How did they do it? They did it – and this is the lesson that the gay revolution holds for any progressive movement – not by asking for “tolerance.” They didn’t ask people to accept gay marriage by holding their moral noses. Rather, they set out to change change people’s minds about what is moral.

Moral relationships are not about what sexual positions or organs are involved, the movement argued, no matter what the Bible said (or didn’t say) and no matter what Queen Victoria thought. Against the impermeable wall of religious sexual morality, the gay marriage movement fired the armament of other measures of morality. Sexual relationships are about relationships. What is the content of a moral relationship with another human being?

The gay marriage movement told the stories of its courtships, invoking the ancient Platonic idea of love as the recognition of the goodness in the other person.

Genora Dancel and Ninia Baehr, the original plaintiffs in the Hawaii case, had a nine-hour first date. They told the stories of their caring, invoking the morality of the strong helping the weak and making a world you yourself would want to live in.

Ron Wallen, 77  years old, told a panel of the U.S. Senate, which was considering repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, about  his four years in hell nursing his partner of 58 years through fatal leukemia. “And as rotten as those four years were,” Wallen testified, “they were made ever so much easier because we had each other for comfort and love.” Slowly, story by story, the gay marriage movement began to remake the conversation about morality.

It was an uphill battle. For too long in America the subject of morality has been collapsed into sexual morality. For most of Western history, morality had richer content. Morality meant proper conduct regarding wealth, just as one example. In the Old Testament, people were taught to leave some of their harvest behind in the fields as charity. The Greek virtues included the virtue of “temperance,” “liberality” and “magnificence” – all counseling moderation in the relationship to money and physical pleasure. The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant asked his followers to imagine they were living in a world in which everyone behaved as they did. The English utilitarians, horrified by the inequalities of the first Industrial Revolution, suggested that the millionaire’s millionth dollar did not mean as much to him as the same dollar meant to a poor man.

But as inequality rose, moral debates about economic justice fell until only sex was left as a subject for moral conversation. Worse, in response to the sexual revolution of the ’60s, moral sex was defined by a snapshot of the 19th century Protestant, monogamous, heterosexual, reproductive family. Same-sex sex was the definition of the immoral. Except for those uppity women wanting to abort their “babies,” it dominated the field. With the arrival of religious activists into U.S. politics in the ’70s, this religiously defined sexual morality was promoted as a proper subject for politics.

Gay activists reversed this trend. Asserting their claim to marriage, gay activists told the predominantly straight world that there are more ways to think about morality than the Evangelical Christian morality of Victorian sexuality. And they were persuasive. When conservative lawyer Ted Olson, former solicitor general under President Bush, explained why he sued to establish gay marriage as a constitutional right,  he invoked the essentials of the activists’ argument: “We believe that a conservative value is stable relationships and stable community and loving individuals coming together and forming a basis that is a building block of our society, which includes marriage.”

In this, as in so many things, the gay community were early adopters of the only strategy that beats the resurgent religious right: fight morality with morality. Once the category of morality was opened, every kind of debate became possible — and so did victory. It arrived in 2011.


  • 1. Derek Williams  |  December 30, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Victory? Not quite, and not yet. Still 76 countries to go, let alone 44 US states

    Nevertheless, I like the reasoning of this article very much. It is instructive and the opposite of disingenuous to conflate morality with ethics, honesty, commitment, honour and love.

  • 2. Thark  |  December 30, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    Derek, you must be very very young and don't remember coloured fountains in The South. I do.

    You must not remember losing jobs just for being gay.

    I do, first hand.

    Yes, victory…

  • 3. Bryce  |  December 30, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    From a political scientist's perspective, she is right on the theory, but rather weak on the empirical analysis.

  • 4. Thark  |  December 30, 2011 at 6:38 pm



  • 5. Str8Grandmother  |  December 31, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    I liked the column very much and shared it.

  • 6. John_B_in_DC  |  December 31, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    As somebody who has been out for 30 years (and in a relationship for 29), I have to disagree with the premise of the article. I think increased acceptance has little or nothing to do with "morality" and everything to do with more gay people simply being out, and thus more people begin exposed to gay friends, family, co-workers and neighbors and seeing us as just ordinary, regular people. (And as an article in today's New York Times points out, AIDS was a tragic part of that because it blew the doors off the closet for many, many people.)

  • 7. Ron  |  December 31, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    I think this analysis does provide the message we need to be exploiting to continue to move forward. I think this is why so many people responded to the "It's Time" video from Australia. I would like to see an ad that confronts the NOM talking point about "redefining marriage" by arguing the NOM and the Chatholic church are trying to redefine marriage by arguing it is about procreation when, as this article suggests, society recognizes that marriage is about love and commitment. I think that is the message we need to get on the air in 2012

  • 8. Lymis  |  January 2, 2012 at 10:28 am

    She's right on a lot of it, but inelegant at best in parts – especially in what is essentially her main statement of premise – "They didn’t ask people to accept gay marriage by holding their moral noses. Rather, they set out to change change people’s minds about what is moral."

    I see what she's getting at, but I don't think it's accurate in his context. It's no so much that the LGBT movement changed people's minds about what is moral as much as they changed people's minds about just what it is that gay people's lives involve.

    The biggest objections to equal rights for gay people has always been that gay people don't have the same kinds of lives or relationships that straight people do – that it is all about transitory pleasure, anonymous sex, unstable relationships, predatory behavior, and "lifestyles" that are focused on sex, sensation, and selfishness in ways that straight people's lives aren't.

    As a result, calling a self-indulgent, selfish, sterile, temporary, and sordid relationship that's going to break up next week anyway, that nobody would be willing to admit to in front of family and friends, and which is inherently self-destructive by the name of what is many people's idea of the ideal straight relationship is completely inappropriate.

    What has happened, though, is that more and more straight people understand that, whether they want to picture the couple's sex acts or not, gay and lesbian relationships, and LGBT lives, are just as loving, just as committed, just as proud and open, just as giving, and just as real as straight relationships (including recognizing that there are plenty of straight people whose lives reflect all those selfish realities, too).

    It isn't so much that we've changed their idea of what is moral, as broadening their understanding of how who we are and how we live fits easily into the moral universe that they were trying to condemn us for not being a part of. We've helped them remove the tiny part of the puzzle that was keeping them from seeing us as real people just like they are, with rich and complex, loving lives.

    It isn't so much that they've changed their idea of what's moral as much as that we've changed their idea of WHO'S moral.

  • 9. Sagesse  |  January 2, 2012 at 10:44 am

    The critical point, in my view, appears later in the article.

    "Asserting their claim to marriage, gay activists told the predominantly straight world that there are more ways to think about morality than the Evangelical Christian morality of Victorian sexuality."

    Anti-equality forces have framed the word 'moral' to be equivalent to sexual morality. 'Family values' aren't about family or children… they're about 'sex as reproduction' and 'no sex outside marriage'. It should have been obvious all along that morality is so much broader than that, but they've very successfully co-opted the word.

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