Why Are LGBT Rights Thriving While Choice Suffers?

Why Are LGBT Rights Thriving While Choice Suffers? July 9, 2014

This article on the Daily Beast by Jay Michaelson spotlighted a trend that I’ve noticed and wondered about the reasons for: in America these past few years, LGBT rights are making great strides, while women’s rights continue to fall further and further behind. The contrast between the health of these two progressive causes is striking, and cries out for an explanation.

Same-sex marriage is winning victory after victory, including in red states like Kentucky and Utah, to the point where even the enemies of marriage equality concede it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a reality in all fifty states. Anti-gay marches are sputtering and fading, drawing immense frustration from the preachers of the religious right, and a slew of major corporations are deciding that it’s good business sense to endorse gay rights, even though anti-gay conservatives may scream and rage.

But at the same time, women’s rights and reproductive choice are suffering: as in the Supreme Court’s striking down buffer zones around abortion clinics, or the awful Hobby Lobby decision, which allowed corporations to deny birth control coverage to female employees based on religion. Even more outrageous, the court’s conservatives said that this ruling was no big deal because there was a compromise: the government could provide coverage separately, through the insurance companies, without involving a woman’s employer. Just a few days later, those very same justices ruled against the compromise which they themselves endorsed, granting an injunction to an evangelical college which found even that unacceptable. (As I’ve said many times, the real and unsubtle agenda of the religious right – Catholic and evangelical alike – is to prevent women from using birth control by any means necessary.)

And while even deep-red-state legislators and governors have balked at passing right-to-discriminate bills aimed at gay people, those same states have been stacking up hurdles in the path of women seeking abortion: from onerous waiting periods to invasive TRAP laws, regulations designed to be impossible to comply with, that are shutting down clinics at a frightening rate. Catholic hospitals are gobbling up secular chains and bluntly denying women reproductive care, even at the cost of their lives. Wide swaths of the country have no legal abortion access at all.

These clashing realities beg the question of what’s different. In both cases, the same religious fundamentalism is driving the opposition. The LGBT movement has found that people who know an out gay person are more likely to support gay rights; but everyone knows women. And women are more numerous than LGBT people and should be even better equipped to defend their rights. So what’s going on?

Michaelson’s article proposes ten explanations. Some I find plausible, others less so: for example, he proposes that interfaith leaders have been more involved in LGBT rights than in feminism. To the contrary, any honest appraisal would have to conclude that in the pews, the enemies of gay rights vastly outnumber its supporters in numbers and influence, possibly even more so than is the case for feminism.

I have a few thoughts of my own about this. One factor that might be relevant is the role of class: the women who are most harmed by barriers to access are the poor and disenfranchised, whereas wealthy women can always travel to places where the laws are less restrictive. But anti-gay discrimination cuts against people regardless of social class, which means there’s a more compelling reason for everyone affected to organize into a united front.

To be blunt, another major reason is Anthony Kennedy. The fact is that there are five votes on the Supreme Court for gay rights, but not for reproductive freedom. And that realization can’t help but trickle down into the lower courts that have to scrutinize every new law aimed at burdening women or closing clinics.

But I wonder if the biggest reason is that the LGBT rights movement has successfully crafted a clear, straightforward narrative: same-sex couples love and care for each other just like heterosexual couples, want to get married just like heterosexual couples, and they’re being arbitrarily prevented by government officials driven by religious bigotry. It’s obvious what the problem is and what to do about it.

By contrast, the pro-choice movement hasn’t created an equally compelling frame of the issue, at least not in the public’s eyes. And probably a big part of that stems from still-extant regressive, stigmatizing attitudes about sexual ethics. Although we hypocritically use sex to sell everything else, the idea of sex as an end in itself still makes many people intensely uneasy. Gay-rights advocates have had success framing marriage as about love and commitment, rather than sex (not that the religious right hasn’t tried to create the opposite impression); but abortion and contraception are intrinsically linked to sex in a way that’s harder to overcome, which may be why they’re both still treated as unfit for discussion in polite company.

Of course, as I’m a straight man, I don’t have a first-hand perspective on either of these issues, so I’m reluctant to make any definitive statement. And there are probably other reasons that I haven’t thought of. What do you think explains this?

Image credit: David Weekly, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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