This morning the Supreme Court ruled to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states. This is incredible news and tremendous progress. Massachusetts was the first state to recognize same-sex marriage in 2003 and was very much an outlier. National public opinion was strongly opposed and other states were racing to create laws that specifically banned any such marriage and sought to entrench the establishment ever more. Now, in 2015, almost two thirds of the nation supports same sex marriage and as of this morning it is legal in every state. It is extremely rare that social movements are so effective and create change so rapidly.
At the same time racial tension seems to be on the rise and gender inequality appears stuck. Can other civil rights movements learn from the gay rights movements successes?
The key is simplicity.The gay rights movement wants people to be treated equally regardless of sexual orientation. That’s it. It’s simple, and incredibly easy to get behind. In its transparency there is no reasonable rational to hide behind in opposition.
For gender and race it’s much more complicated. Both have extremely deep historical roots so while they are not exactly the same as the struggle for gay rights there is enough in common that some lessons from one can be applied to another.
There is enough evidence to say pretty clearly that white has an advantage over non-white and male has an advantage over female. I’m confident in saying that the vast majority think this is unfair and if given a choice would support equality. But that’s not the question being asked. What we have now is a mishmash of inequality; a sort of zero-sum game where one group is favored here and another there with the theory that in the end it will balance out. I am talking about institutional systems such as affirmative action (there is a social bias toward whites so therefore if we give an institutional bias toward non-whites everyone is equal). I am also talking about social norms like a man paying for a woman on a date (there is an institutional bias where men tend to earn more than women for the same work therefore a social bias where the man spends more is equal.)
These inequalities are dependent on each other. Perhaps these institutional or social norms began with good intentions but we have outlived them and now they are holding things back rather than pushing them forward. Imagine them in reverse, it’s not just men paying for women because they (statistically) make more money, it’s also men making more money because they pay for women. Rather than a one-way street it’s become a self-justifying loop. Besides the fact that it’s entrenching relations, it also acts to draw attention to the notion that we are different. If the goal is to erase the lines, it does not make any sense to trace them with marker first.
Through this all it’s important to be conscious that while the goal is equality, we all come from different (unequal) places. Being aware of that is necessary; being drown in it is counter-productive.
Race and gender could take a page from the gay rights movement and put the struggle in the simplest terms possible. In practice this means eliminating all social and structural biases, both the deep rooted historical ones as well as the more modern reactions to them. And let’s face it, they are reactionary.
A valid critique is that this is the ideal but ignores the reality. The reality is also that these biases live off of each other and killing one will suffocate its counterpart. It will present the situation in the simplest possible terms. This also assumes people are good deep down. There are people who will be racist and misogynist no matter what, just as there are people who will be homophobic in any context, but this assumes that they are a very small minority. The complex nature of race and gender give people a lot of places to hide and offer justification for what usually amounts to little more than self-interest. If we take away all those hiding places the few people left who continue to move against equality will be so utterly exposed that they can be ostracized. The core of the issue is that we are all just people and all deserve to be treated without any bias based on things such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Let’s bring that core demand to the forefront.