Rights Race

Ten Reasons Women Are Losing While Gays Keep Winning

Even as gay equality becomes one of the fastest-advancing civil rights causes in history, reactionaries are still turning back the clock for women. Why?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, among its many troubling consequences, is yet another entry in the latest disturbing trend of civil rights cases, in which gays win, and women lose.

Juxtapose Hobby Lobby with the recent fate of Arizona’s “Turn the Gays Away” bill. In Arizona, a religious exemption that would allow business owners to refuse to serve gay people died a fiery death. The issue was basically the same as in Hobby Lobby: when businesses can discriminate on the basis of religion. Yet gays won, and women lost.

This has been going on for years. Consider: in 2004, being gay was a fireable offense in a majority of states and in the U.S. military. The first same-sex marriage case, in Massachusetts, had just been decided. It had only been a year since “sodomy” was illegal in 14 states. Gay politicians were few and far between; gay celebrities were closeted.

This week, a same-sex marriage ban was struck down in Kentucky, yet barely made the national news. Kentucky.

In the same 10 years, women’s autonomy to make their own healthcare decisions has been steadily eroded. Fifty-four abortion clinics have closed since 2010 alone, out of fewer than 800 nationwide. “Conscience clauses,” originally intended to allow doctors to refuse to perform abortions, have expanded to include entire health systems. Gag orders are in effect around the world. It hasn’t been this hard to get an abortion in 40 years.

Why is this happening? Why has the progress on LGBT equality been accompanied by regress on women’s equality? And can advocates for women take any lessons from advocates for LGBTs?

There are many possible answers to these questions. Here are my top 10.

1. Born This Way. In the 1970s and 1980s, gay liberation was about the liberation of sexual choice. “Homosexuality” was as much an act as an identity—as it still is today in some quarters of the Christian Right. Only in the 1990s did the mainstream LGBT movement (to the continuing consternation of radicals) start saying that gays are “born that way”—i.e., that sexual identity was a fundamental, and ultimately unchangeable, trait.

Abortion and contraception, however, are acts—as is the sexual act that brings them into necessity. And pro-choice activists have repeatedly failed to reframe them as issues of discrimination against women. Look at how Hobby Lobby went down: as long as women can purchase contraception elsewhere (act), who cares about the harm to their humanity (identity) that comes from an employer making decisions for them?

Unfortunately, even the name “pro-choice” reinforces that the movement is about acts and not identity: freedom of choice, not equality of status. This may be a noble goal, and it is one which many more left-wing LGBT activists still hope to pursue, but it is also one that plays badly at the polls—as the mainstream gay rights movement learned in the 1990s. ‘Thick’ liberation appeals to the left but alienates the center. At present, many Americans oppose discrimination, but they’re okay with restricting personal freedoms. Sucks, but there it is.

2. Love is Love But Abortion Isn’t Childbirth. Together with the LGBT movement’s identity frame, it has successfully defined same-sex marriage in terms of universals to which everyone can (supposedly) relate: love, family, equality. The pro-choice/reproductive justice movement has not yet been able to do so. Yes, autonomy, freedom, and liberty are important, but the context in which those abstract values are enacted remains particular, not universal. Men cannot relate to being pregnant. Conservative women cannot relate to “choosing” to end a (prospective) life. And so far, there has not been a universalizable narrative in part because there is no …

3. Edie Windsor, by which I mean, poster children for the cause with compelling mainstream narratives. Personal stories have been shown, in several polls commissioned by the LGBT equality movement, to be the single most effective way to change minds and open hearts. The LGBT equality movement has many, from Ellen to Edie to Laverne Cox. The pro-choice movement? Not so much. Because of the continuing shame and stigma associated with abortion, and because abortion just is not that joyful, few women have shared their pro-choice journeys—and I can’t think of any who have done so as a redemptive celebration of life and freedom. Look what happened to Sandra Fluke, who was shamed as a slut for defending the right to control her body. (More on that below.) But even setting aside such outrageous rhetoric, abortion and contraception are just not as photogenic as weddings at City Hall. It’s easy to shame, stigmatize, other-ize. And shaming is a cycle: because women are ashamed to come forward, the stigma persists, shaming more women, etc.

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4. Rights Lose. In addition to lacking compelling personal narratives, the “pro-choice” frame is itself a loser. This is why LGBT activists don’t use the term “gay rights” anymore: because no one likes them. In the nineties, “gay rights” came to mean “special rights,” which may be ridiculous, but which was a successful opposing frame. As with the act/identity dichotomy, “rights” also isn’t existential enough to persuade people. So LGBT activists changed their tune, shifting from rights-talk to love-talk, equality-talk, language about basic humanity. Gloria Steinem famously said that feminism is, at its core, humanism. But this message hasn’t trickled through. Many Americans still think reproductive justice is about the act of abortion, rather than the humanity of women.

5. It Pays to Have Dumb Enemies. Let’s face it: anti-gay zealots did themselves in. Their cartoonish exaggerations of LGBT people, their closeted-gay leaders, their Bible-thumping—these play well to the base, but alienate moderates. So too the inability of all but a few conservatives to articulate a non-religious, non-bigoted-seeming objection to homosexuality. To be sure, there are wackos on the anti-choice side, with their photos of fetuses and extreme rhetoric. But the anti-choice mainstream has gotten much more sophisticated. They are putting women on the front lines (and unlike the “ex-gay” crowd, these women are only slightly creepy). They are winning incremental battles under the pretense of health regulations and parental consent. They are smart and methodical. And they don’t seem dumb, because…

6. Reasonable People (Including Women) Disagree. Arguably, reproductive freedom should not be controversial among small-l liberals. Whether a fetus is a “person” or not is a complex moral question, and since we can’t decide it as a society, it should be left up to the woman in whose body the fetus resides. But unfortunately, abortion remains controversial. It’s morally complicated, and it’s not discussed in polite company. I have no idea what celebrities or culture-makers think about it. (See: shame, above). Many people are ambivalent about it, including many ardent pro-choice activists. Think of the phrases “anti-abortion but pro-choice” or the view that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare.” Can you think of reasonable analogues among LGBT activists? I can’t. And then there’s the brutal fact of how abortion is seen by its opponents. As loathsome as gay marriage may be to religious conservatives, at least it’s a perversion of marriage. Abortion is a kind of murder.

7. Capitalism. Because LGBT equality has been successfully framed in the context of discrimination and fairness, and because it has many privileged male champions, it has been easy for corporations to line up behind it, and reap the financial rewards of being seen as pro-gay. Sure, there are a few anti-gay outliers: Chick-Fil-A, Hobby Lobby, whatever. But this past month’s Pride festivities were like a showcase of Fortune 500 companies: banks, airlines, insurance companies. Meanwhile, I can’t think of a single A-list brand that is out, loud, and proud for reproductive freedom. That makes a big difference in terms of movement dollars and public awareness. Once again, more radical queers may bemoan the corporatization of the LGBT movement, but capitalism has a way of winning.

8. Feminism Has An Image Problem. If the pro-choice movement hasn’t been capitalist enough, it also hasn’t been grassroots enough. “Feminism” is now unfairly associated with a certain kind of privileged, coastal, irreligious white woman. For a variety of problematic reasons, it’s been disclaimed by celebrities and politicians who are obviously feminist in values but who aren’t “Feminist” by label. Most of this is unfair. But at the same time, the leadership of Planned Parenthood, NOW, and the other major mainstream organizations does tilt in that demographic direction. There is hope: younger organizations like Choice USA are more grounded in people of color, people of faith, and rural communities. And the majors are trying sincerely to catch up. But then there’s…

9. Religion. Contrary to the myth of “God vs. Gay,” progressive religious leaders have been instrumental in the LGBT equality movement from its very beginning. Like African-American civil rights leaders, they have made not just a neutral case but a positive moral case for equality. Where are the religious leaders preaching the gospel of bodily autonomy for women? Yes, there are excellent organizations like the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Catholics for Choice, the National Council of Jewish Women, and many others. But in my experience, I haven’t seen the message trickle down into the pews. Nor are faith leaders are central to the pro-choice movement as they seem to be in the LGBT movement. Just a few years ago, it seemed like the religious obsession with homosexuality was a curse. But it turned out to have been a blessing, because it provoked the ‘down-home’ moral conversations that changed people’s minds. Secular arguments about the separation of church and state may play well to the base. But they don’t move the middle.

10. Sexism. Finally, and maybe it should have been first, is sexism. Men, including gay men, have much more access to power and privilege than women do. And while masculinity may be threatened by effeminate gay men crossing gender boundaries, the threat is far more immediate when it’s your own wife or daughter. If women can control their own bodies … well, what about my wife! Meanwhile, since women aren’t really people entitled to make decisions for themselves, it’s okay to slut-shame Sandra Fluke, claim (as one GOP Senator recently did) that birth control is for “recreational behavior,” and decide for everyone that fetuses are people. “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” has been used as a weapon against gay people for some time. But Adam and Eve has been a weapon against women since the moment the myth was invented.

I, for one, am hopeful that Hobby Lobby becomes a rallying cry. I hope it gets liberals to vote this November, and gets moderates to rethink their positions. But there’s also a danger of continually playing to the base, and that is ignoring the tactics and strategies that appeal to the movable middle. For that reason, I also hope Hobby Lobby helps create a revitalized, intersectional, pragmatic, faith-affirming, message-savvy pro-choice, reproductive justice, gender justice movement.

Unlike the tidal wave of state restrictions on reproductive choice, Hobby Lobby took place in the spotlight, on the national stage. It remains to be seen whether it also signals a change in direction.