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?

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  • Figs

    I think it’s tough to say which would be a more effective strategy, but I also think that the reasoning used in the decision to strike down section 3 of DOMA sounded the death knell for the constitutionality of state laws and constitutional amendments against same sex marriage. I think the stated goal of some activists (marriage equality across the land in 5 years) is not as crazy as it sounds in the light of the reasoning used in the decision (not states’ rights exclusively, but a heaping helping of equal protection).

    In light of that, I’d say that peoples’ decision to stay or go ought to be based less on the prospects of a given state’s passing marriage equality, and more on the prospects of that state’s being a welcoming and open place once marriage equality is the law of the land.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    Two reactions.

    First, I think that the Bush Administration demonstrated that trying to game geography through safe and battleground districts is a losing strategy for progressives. 2006 and 2008 demonstrated that progressives and moderates can win battleground districts and turn previously “red” districts into battlegrounds if we organize and fight.

    The second issue is that while marriage is important, it’s not the only need LGBT people have. We need people willing to keep the support groups, phone centers, and safe spaces running. We need people willing to come out of the closet in K-12 schools. We need people willing to engage in social-change advocacy in congregations. We need people willing to negotiate with employers for stop-gap benefits. And we need people willing to do that everywhere LGBT people live.

  • Paul Sanders

    I agree, Figs. It may be a moot point to move for most gay couples, when a legal challenge will likely be forthcoming for those state laws (like my State, Utah’s) that still ban gay marriage. This isn’t just an avalanche on gay marriage, I think the continued obstinacy of the Republicans signals a sea change in American politics in favor of progressivism, and we can stay in these red states, organize and see a massive difference within our lifetimes.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Perhaps someone can explain to me how exactly states’ refusal to recognize same-sex marriages that are legal in others is constitutional? The Full Faith and Credit Clause requires states to recognizes them, I’d thought. So what did the ruling do?

  • Bdole

    One thing those stupid red(neck?) states don’t consider is that even if every last gay person moved out, their perfect heterosexual union/s would produce more, likely in a majority of extended families. Enough people watching their children, siblings, cousins have to move away to enjoy a full life in another part of the same country might turn them.

  • RayRobertson

    There are other ways to boycott states which do not involve same-sex couples moving away. Many states depend on tourism revenues, and although individual travelers avoiding certain states may not make much of a difference, a good place to start would be cities which serve as major convention centers: Las Vegas, Atlanta, Miami (and Orlando) and others. If corporate leaders could be persuaded to not host conventions in those cities and not attend conventions in those cities, that’s a financial blow which state lawmakers would have a hard time ignoring.

  • Leum

    I’d support a boycott of the sort RayRobertson suggests: a boycott of tourism and conventions in states that don’t have same-sex marriage. But as a queer person, I don’t think the boycott should be based solely off of whether or not a state has same-sex marriage. It also needs to include states that lack bans on employment and housing discrimination against LGBT (especially trans) people. I worry that in all of the hubbub about same-sex marriage, people are forgetting that there are many other ways that LGBT people are discriminated against.

  • Jason Wexler

    Section 2 of DOMA is supposed to be an end-run around Full Faith and Credit. The LGBT community has been making that argument since DOMA was passed. There are currently 6 challenges to DOMA section 2 based on the 14th amendment circulating or just being filed in Federal Court. I suspect sometime early next year someone will be able to file a challenge based on Full Faith and Credit, the question is will the LGBT community be judicious in choosing its legal fights or will it pick cases where the Court can side-step and not issue a decision…. also the Court may decide that Full Faith and Credit is satisfied by virtue of a clause at the end of it which says “Congress has authority to interpret this”.

  • Paul Sanders

    Maybe SXSW could be persuaded to abandon Austin in favor of a progressive city in a more equal state. I don’t know if desire to attract talented LGBT employees is a greater draw than the ridiculous tax deals companies get for relocating to these deep red states, though.

  • Alejandro

    Would it make a difference if gays and lesbians decided to pack their things and move to another state? Lets look at some actual figures. Only about 3.5% of the population of United States is gay. More importantly, and this is something that almost nobody points out, usually less than 10% of homosexual couple choose to get married (http://www.marriagedebate.com/pdf/imapp.demandforssm.pdf) This is true even in countries where gay marriage has been legal since quite a long time. I know some gay people and I know that being tied down to one single partner for the rest of their lives is one of the last things in their minds.

    So even if a substantial majority of gays and lesbians decided to simply move out and spend their money somewhere else, chances are the states wouldn’t even notice. Despite the high amount of attention that the gay marriage thing gets from the media, the reality is that what we have is an issue that affects a fraction of a fraction of the population.

  • UWIR

    The Full Faith and Credit clause means that if a marriage would have been legal in a state, then the state has to recognize it. It doesn’t prohibit states from refusing to recognize marriages that wouldn’t have been legal. For instance, if one state allows people to marry their cousins or 16-year-olds, and another state doesn’t, those marriages don’t have to be recognized in the other state.

  • UWIR

    Your link give a 404 error, and the website is run by bigots. so they are not a reliable source.

  • UWIR

    How would boycotting states change anything? They’re not going to change their minds over what they view as a moral issue just to get more money. It’s just going to reinforce their perception of gay activists as bullies.

    The most effective way of getting SSM legalized is probably to get a Supreme Court ruling. But as far as actually changing people’s minds is concerned, the main ingredient is just time. The longer people see people getting married in the states where SSM is legal, and society not collapsing, the more they will come to accept it, and realize that their objections are simply emotional responses and not responses to reality.

  • smrnda

    The problem is assuming that the only people who care about GLBT equality are gay people, and that states that oppose GLBT equality are only distasteful to GLBT people themselves.

    States and regions that are ant-GLBT tend to be socially regressive, which makes them unappealing to a lot of people. Not to stereotype, but how many educated people are eager to move to red-state ‘god’s country’ and how many educated people would want to live somewhere with strong disapproval of homosexuality? Ask a bunch of college grads if they’re keen on moving to these places. Anti-GLBT equality isn’t an isolated issue, it’s connected with lots of ideological positions that liberals and even lots of libertarians find appalling. There are lots of straight people who don’t want to live in a place that oppresses gays.

    I mean, it isn’t like straight people don’t have gay friends or family members that they actually give a shit about and don’t want treated as second-class citizens. Most people in the US aren’t Black, but we’re at a point where enough white people find racism to be bad that being openly racist has a huge social cost. It’s getting to be that way with homophobia.

  • smrnda

    I always heard Austin referred to as the ‘people’s republic of austin’ as if it were an isolated liberal area in Texas, so the local culture may be a bit different.

    Some companies also have offered same-sex benefits as a draw to GLBT employees.

  • Alejandro

    The question is not whether the people find it distasteful, buth whether it bothers them enough to actually go to the trouble of moving to another state because of an issue that doesn’t even affects. Moving out of the state is not that easy. It involves finding a new house (and selling your old one if you own one), finding a new job or school, finding a school for your children, etc. If you really believe a lot of people are willing to go to such logistical hassle just because one of their gay friends can’t get married (and remember, he probably doesn’t even want to get married anyway) you are living in a fantasy world

    “States and regions that are ant-GLBT tend to be socially regressive, which makes them unappealing to a lot of people” You are right but you are mixing things up here. The reason why many educated people are not quite looking foward to move in to red states is because of the whole situation there, not just the gay and lesbian thing.

    I agree that is a good thing. In fact, I would go further and say that long term it would be much better if the federal government was smaller and the states were much more independent regarding their economic policies. If california wants to become completely socialist and texas wants to be strongly conservative, let them. Then there could be competition between states and after a while we would see which systems work best.

  • Alejandro

    It seems patheos took the parenthesis at the end as part of the link. This should work http://www.marriagedebate.com/pdf/imapp.demandforssm.pdf

    You can look up the stats yourself if you don’t trust the source. Even in countries where gay marriage has been avaliable for a long time, less than 10% of gay couple actually choose to get married. This is a fact. (For the record, I am not against gay marriage at all. I think the government being involved in marriage is the problem, but thats another more complicated discusion)

  • smrnda

    “The reason why many educated people are not quite looking foward to move
    in to red states is because of the whole situation there, not just the
    gay and lesbian thing.”

    “the whole situation” – things like abortion restrictions, creationism in schools, lawmakers going on crusades against the evils of contraception, sending government money to religious organization and schools – the ‘whole situation’ is that for anybody who doesn’t worship Republican Jesus, a red state would suck. A person who supports gay marriage is going to think a red state sucks, and aside from being places that have an edge in cheap labor, there’s really no advantage to a red state.

    I think the whole idea of having states have more power and the federal government have left is the worst idea I’ve heard in a long time. A nation doesn’t want to be made up of little warring principalities, dukedoms and feudal estates.

    You do realize that in terms of tax money, money is flowing OUT of blue states and into red ones? Red states bank on being centers for cheap labor, but that isn’t really a strategy for a strong economy, certainly not in the 21st century. They sure lead the nation for low educational outcomes, teen pregnancy, and having a lot of poor people. Yeah, the may have balanced state budgets but would a balanced budget in Afghanistan mean anything positive? The idea that they’ll become centers of industry thanks to a business friendly climate – if that’s the case, why is the tech center of the US in California and not Alabama? Why isn’t capital flowing to the south?