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Fighting for Gay Rights One Vote at a Time
Trinity sociologist Amy Stone chronicles the history of the LGBT movement's fight for legal rights in local and state elections
By Russell Guerrero '83
May 2012 - From promoting nondiscrimination laws to fighting bans on same-sex marriage, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community has spent the last 40 years trying to persuade voters in local and state elections to support LGBT rights. As the 2012 election year begins to heat up, Amy Stone, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University, has examined how the political efforts of the LGBT community have evolved and the challenges they faced in Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, a new book published by the University of Minnesota Press.
The book looks at the history of ballot victories and defeats of the LGBT movement and the effect the ballot measures have had on the movement.
In contrast to the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s, which was largely fought in the courtroom and in the U.S. Congress, Stone says the push for equal rights for the LGBT community has focused on local and state laws. In 1972, lesbian and gay college students in East Lansing, Mich., helped pass the first nondiscrimination ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But in 1974, for the first time, a local nondiscrimination ordinance was challenged by a referendum in Boulder, Colo. Since then, when local or state officials pass LGBT rights laws, they are often put on the ballot by anti-gay activists so voters can decide the issue.
In the more than 150 measures about LGBT rights since 1974, voters have supported anti-gay laws at the ballot 69 percent of the time, either by eliminating an existing law or creating a new anti-gay law.
In the 1990s, the anti-gay Right proposed ballot measures to take rights away from the LGBT movement and went as far as to try to prevent future nondiscrimination laws with initiatives such as Oregon Ballot Measure 9 and Colorado Amendment 2. Across the country, LGBT communities fought similar initiatives, often losing. The legality of these initiatives was overturned by the Supreme Court in the case Romer v. Evans in 1996.
For the last 15 years, one issue has come to define the LGBT movement: that of same-sex marriage.
In 2012 alone, as many as 13 states could have voters decide on proposals about the issue. Some states, such as Minnesota and North Carolina - states where same-sex marriage is not legal - will vote on a constitutional amendment ban same-sex marriage, a type of ballot measure that has become very common.
However, in Maine, Maryland, and Washington, voters may be deciding whether or not same-sex marriage can be legal in that state, which is reminiscent of the California Proposition 8 battle in 2008.
How many of the proposals end up on the ballot may not be known for a few months as organizers are still collecting signatures to put the issue to a vote.
Have all the efforts at the ballot box been good for the LGBT movement in general? Stone believes the answer is a mixed bag.
"There is a real tension between the ballot measures, which take up tons of time, energy, and money, and the larger movement," said Stone. For example, she says LGBT community organizers might have an anti-bullying project they would like pursue. However, battles at the ballot box usually get priority over such efforts and "it sucks out all the energy of the community," said Stone.
At the same time, ballot campaigns can have a beneficial effect on the LGBT community. According to Stone, the need to organize during an election can bring together activists who had not been in contact before. A fledgling local or state organization can also receive leadership training and support from groups such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Once the campaign is over, local groups have the resources and skills needed to continue working on other issues.
In the long run, Stone believes that the LGBT movement has become better organized and more professional in coordinating campaigns to battle anti-gay ballot measures.
"The good news is that the LGBT movement has become really good at fighting them," said Stone. "Voters have become more supportive of nondiscrimination laws and increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage. Just in the last couple of years, support for same sex marriage has grown dramatically. We normally don't see public opinion change that quickly."
"But progress is not linear," said Stone. "It's two steps forward, one step back."
- Introduction to Sociology
- Social Research Design
- Applied Social Statistics
- Social Inequality
- Sexuality and Society
- Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
- "Dominant Tactics in Social Movement Tactical Repertoires: Anti-gay ballot measures, 1974-2008," Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change, 2011.
- More Than Adding a T: American Lesbian and Gay Activists' Attitudes Towards Transgender Inclusion," Sexualities, 2009.