On the Morality of: Boycotting States

To celebrate the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision, Dan Savage wrote a poignant column, “I Can Die Now“, about how his husband and son are now protected in a way they wouldn’t have been before if he were to die in some unlikely accident:

My country wanted to make sure that if I died, Terry wouldn’t just have to endure the pain of losing his husband, and D.J. wouldn’t just have to endure the pain of losing a parent. No, there would be bonus pain for my family. Because we weren’t married in the eyes of the federal government – because of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act – Terry, who has been a stay-at-home parent for more than a dozen years, wouldn’t be able to collect Social Security survivor benefits, something he would be entitled to if we were an opposite-sex married couple. He would also face a crushing federal tax burden, taxes he wouldn’t have to pay if Terry were my wife.

…And this – my family living under the sword of Damocles (DOMAcles?) – was absolutely, crucially necessary, social conservatives argued. Why? Because my family’s vulnerability somehow served to strengthen families headed by opposite-sex couples. The impoverishment of my husband and son in the wake of my death was a price Brian Brown and Rick Santorum and Maggie Gallagher were willing to pay to protect the ideal of “traditional marriage.”

But, it’s important to note, the legal security that he and his family now (thankfully) enjoy hasn’t been extended to everyone. In the aftermath of the DOMA decision, what we have is a two-tier legal system, where some states afford same-sex marriage all the same rights and protections granted to opposite-sex married couples, while other states don’t recognize same-sex marriages at all and don’t treat the partners in such a union as legally married.

Although there are several more states where the prospects look good, I think we’ve picked most of the low-hanging fruit already. Many of the states that still have gay-marriage bans are deep red states that aren’t likely to repeal them any time soon, short of a court ordering them to do so. So, I wonder: What’s the most effective way to deal with these states? Is it worthwhile for activists to stay, to organize and pressure legislatures that aren’t going to be sympathetic? Or is it better for gay and lesbian couples to just pack up and move somewhere else, to refuse to support those jurisdictions by spending money or paying taxes there, and let the states that persist in bigotry fall further and further behind? Is this a time to fight, or a time to divest?

This was already a dilemma, but I think the DOMA decision cast it into sharper relief by making it that much more advantageous to live in a state that protects the rights of gay and lesbian couples. And I genuinely don’t know what would be best, since both strategies have something to recommend them.

Normally I’d say that as long as you live in a democracy, staying and fighting is more effective. However, there are also times when boycotting is the right thing to do, especially when it could have a real impact.

Large corporations are already grumbling that same-sex marriage bans hurt their ability to recruit talented employees (and the states that went the other way are gloating). A Bank of America executive, for example, spoke out against an anti-gay state constitutional amendment in North Carolina, and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs has said the same. More than half of Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partner benefits, and gay-marriage bans are an administrative headache for them.

You could also argue that people should do what’s best for them first and foremost, and for those who have the resources to move, it seems unquestionably better that they live in a state where their rights are recognized. I can see few persuasive arguments for why people should continue to live under an unequal regime when equality is available elsewhere.

On the other hand, all the evidence I’m aware of says that visibility is the most effective way of fighting stigma. As Harvey Milk knew, the best predictor of whether a person supports gay rights is whether they have any gay friends or relatives themselves. That points toward a difficult individual vs. collective action dilemma: if all the same-sex couples flee a state that discriminates against them, that reduces visibility and makes it that much harder to change people’s minds.

And, obviously, not everyone can afford to just pack up and move. Some GLBT people don’t have the financial means; some are minors living with parents who may not be sympathetic. And there is safety in numbers. I still think that boycotts can be an effective long-term tactic, but I wonder if they may make the situation worse in the short term for people who are left behind. What do you think?

Other posts in this series:

How Religious Bigotry Was Beaten Back in Indiana
Atlas Shrugged: Only a Flesh Wound
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 12
Atlas Shrugged: Welcome to Atlantis
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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