Tag Archives: marriage equality

Valentine’s Day, the activist way

Valentine’s Day. For some, it’s like heaven on earth – particularly for those who are experiencing the infatuation and bliss of a new relationship. But for others, frankly, Valentine’s Day is sheer hell. If you’re in a relationship, you’re eventually hit with the harsh realization that the picture-perfect Valentine’s Day – complete with flowers, chocolate, candlelight dinner, and amazing sex – is merely a commercialized illusion. If you’re single, you feel like a big loser because you’re alone. If you’re not in a relationship, or if you don’t have Big Plans for Valentine’s Day, then there must be something wrong with you.

There must be something wrong with you.

Over the years, I have learned that whenever the voices inside my head tell me there is something wrong with you, the voices are actually speaking in code. (For the record, I’m not talking about hallucinatory voices. I’m talking about the general background noise of cognitive chatter we all have going on in our heads.) Those voices are not saying what I think they’re saying. Rather, they are the collective voices of oppressive cultural attitudes that have become lodged within my psyche. When I feel like I don’t measure up, or I don’t fit in, or I’m too this, or not enough that, those statements are not the truth. The reality, in contrast, is that the standards of “normalcy” and “okay-ness” in our culture are incredibly restrictive and marginalizing. If you fall outside the box, it’s not that there’s something horribly wrong with you. Maybe, instead, the box is too small and rigid.

So let’s unpack the small, rigid Valentine’s Day box in our culture. What is so oppressive about this holiday?

Let’s start with sexism. For some reason, Valentine’s Day seems to give the media license to run amok with sexist stereotypes. FoxNews.com, for example, published an article titled, “An Aphrodisiac Valentine’s Day” that included the following quote:

An all aphrodisiac dinner is bound to delight and may just turn a standard Valentine’s eve into a scorching hot love fest.As the 1960s Pillsbury TV ad boldly claimed, ‘Nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven.’

The Pillsbury ad (and the catchy jingle) is a good example of 1950s traditonal, old-school sexism. Fast-forward to 2012, and we have Teleflora’s Super Bowl commercial, which insinuated that buying a woman flowers will get her into bed. Or Zales Jewelers, whose ad suggested that buying a woman expensive jewelry will . . . well, you know the rest. Respecting and empowering women doesn’t seem to be a part of the commercialized Valentine’s Day narrative.

Of course, for many years women have found ways to subvert, reclaim, and take back Valentine’s Day. Some choose to celebrate Singles Awareness Day, which, interestingly, isn’t necessarily gender-specific, but their suggestions on their website for how to spend the day are VERY gender-specific (“Why not schedule a hair and nail appointment at your favorite salon? Or consider getting a massage or other spa treatment that you have been hold off on [sic] for whatever reason?”). But others have seized the opportunity to put Valentine’s Day on notice for its inherent, embedded sexism. One of the most political examples of Valentine’s Day subversion was the establishment of “V-Day” in 1998 by Eve Ensler, a day where performances of The Vagina Monologues raise consciousness about the prevalence of violence against women. In conjunction with its 15th anniversary this year, V-Day has launched a more ambitious global campaign called One Billion Rising, an invitation to one billion women and men to “WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND” an end to violence against women.

Why am I devoting so much blog space to sexism, when I’m really supposed to be talking about LGBTQ issues? Because homophobia (and heterosexism) are tools that keep sexism in place.

Think about it. In her book, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, Suzanne Pharr describes how she asked a group of workshop participants the following question: “What would the world be like without homophobia in it – for everyone, female and male, whatever gender identity?” These were the responses she got:

  • Kids won’t be called tomboys or sissies; they’ll just be who they are, able to do what they wish.
  • People will be able to love anyone, no matter what sex; the issue will simply be whether or not she/he is a good human being, compatible, and loving.
  • Affection will be opened up between women and men, women and women, men and men, and it won’t be centered on sex; people won’t fear being called names if they show affection to someone who isn’t a mate or potential mate.
  • If affection is opened up, then isolation will be broken down for all of us, especially for those who generally experience little physical affection, such as unmarried old people.
  • Women will be able to work whatever jobs we want without being labeled masculine.
  • There will be less violence if men do not feel they have to prove and assert their manhood. Their desire to dominate and control will not spill over from the personal to the level of national and international politics and the use of bigger and better weapons to control other countries.
  • People will wear whatever clothes they wish, with the priority being comfort rather than the display of femininity or masculinity.
  • There will be no gender roles (Pharr, 1988, p. 7).

See how much of this is about sexism? If we’re going to effectively address homophobia and heterosexism, we have to see that those forces – combined with economics and violence – converge again and again to reinforce women’s subordination and uphold patriarchy.

So what can you do this Valentine’s Day that supports and empowers women and LGBTQ people? You could participate in One Billion Rising and speak out against violence. You could engage in HIV/AIDS awareness, protecting our right to engage healthy, informed sexual activity. You could attend a marriage equality event (of which there are many scheduled on February 14th) and support all loving relationships. The possibilities are endless – and far more empowering than buying flowers. And the most powerful action you can take is to remember this: I am exactly as I should be.



Filed under gender nonconformity, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, LGBTQ, relationships, same-sex marriage, sexism, stereotypes, Uncategorized, violence

First the POTUS, now the SCOTUS!

BREAKING NEWS:  Same-sex marriage is coming to the Supreme Court!

On Friday, the Supreme Court announced that it will review the Ninth Circuit’s decision on the Proposition 8 case (Perry v. Schwarzenegger) , and it will also hear a case that challenges the Defense of Marriage Act (United States v. Windsor). Minutes after the announcement, I got the following e-mail message from Courage Campaign, a non-profit organization that has fought tirelessly on behalf of marriage equality (and other progressive issues as well):

Gayle, it’s time to go all in on the nation’s biggest stage. Chip in $15 or more NOW to help us secure a win at the Supreme Court to end Prop 8, DOMA, and possibly same-sex marriage bans nationwide. We can’t afford a loss and we need to move quickly.

Why are they asking for money? I thought to myself. How does money get a judge to rule one way or the other? Maybe Courage Campaign is a big scam, playing on my emotions in order to get my money. Or maybe they’re trying to raise BIG MONEY in order to pay off Justice Kennedy. (NOTE: It’s the end of the semester for me, and being tired and stressed probably contributed to these dastardly, unclean thoughts.)

Then I read on:

Legal experts all say the courts follow public opinion. Justices listen to arguments by day, but read the news and talk to friends and family at night. That means that we need to wage a nationwide public education campaign that shows the harm inflicted on same-sex couples and their families by discriminatory laws like Prop 8 and DOMA.

The courts follow public opinion??? Last I heard, it’s usually the other way around. Decades of social science research indicate that, when a landmark court decision is made (such as Brown v. Board of Education), or when a groundbreaking piece of legislation is passed (such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964), these policy decisions tend to have a powerful influence on public opinion. Gordon Allport, a social psychologist who wrote the classic text The Nature of Prejudice, argued in his book that stateways (laws and policies) tend to shift folkways (attitudes, beliefs, and norms) – not the other way around. In fact, if you look at the events of 2012, you can see this pattern very clearly. Consider this:

  • On May 8, 2012, North Carolina voters passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions in their state – bringing the total number of states banning same-sex marriage to 39.
  • The next day, President Barack Obama made a public announcement in support of same-sex marriage.
  • To date, North Carolina is the last state in the U.S. to have banned same-sex marriage.

Get my drift?

But the Courage Campaign people are saying the opposite. So which is true? Maybe the research can tell us.

Let’s start with the judges’ preexisting attitudes. A 2011 study led by Ryan Black of Michigan State University, published in the Journal of Politics, examined all justice utterances made in cases argued between 1976 and 2008, and then further examined individual-level voting patterns in cases presented between 2004 and 2008. After sifting through hundreds of thousands of utterances, what did Black and his colleagues find? When U.S. Supreme Court justices make their arguments using emotionally volatile language, the side that uses a greater proportion of harsh language is more likely to lose its case. An example? In McCreary v. ACLU (2005), a case that addressed the issue of displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools and courthouses, Scalia used the word “idiotic” twice during his arguments. At the end of the day, the majority of the remaining justices did not take his side. Clearly, angry sputtering does not win a case.

But judges are supposed to be “impartial,” right? The worst thing you can say to a person on the bench is that they’re an “activist judge.” When Ninth Circuit Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Prop 8 was unconstitutional, that’s exactly what he was called by the opposition – an “activist judge.” As crippling and insulting a statement that is, the reality is that judges are humans too – with real feelings, real attitudes and beliefs, real opinions on a variety of different issues. Most of the time, according to a 2007 Law & Society Review study, judges are very careful to set aside their ideological beliefs and instead weigh the merits of the legal arguments. The exception to that? In “salient” cases – cases that are high-profile and controversial – personal beliefs tend to carry more weight in the judges’ decision-making process. And I think it’s fair to say that Perry v. Schwarzenegger and United States v. Windsor are VERY salient cases.

So far, we have lots of evidence of the humanness of Supreme Court justices. But what about our original question – do the courts follow public opinion?  Logically speaking, it would seem so – if the public votes for the President, and the President selects Supreme Court justices, then public opinion influences the Supreme Court. However, in a 2011 study published in the Journal of Politics, researchers from Emory University investigated whether a more direct link exists between public opinion and judicial decision-making. The specific theory they tested is what’s called an “attitudinal change explanation” – the idea that attitudes of Supreme Court justices are likely to change dramatically over time, in tandem with public opinion. According to their findings, Supreme Court justices are influenced by the exact same factors that shift opinion in the general public. When a cultural norm begins to shift, people’s attitudes begin to conform more strongly to that norm – and Supreme Court justices are no exception to that.

Based on these findings, if marriage equality activists want to celebrate a victory next spring, what should be in the strategic playbook?

  • Demonstrate that public opinion solidly supports marriage equality rights.
  • Saturate the media in order to preserve the salience of this issue.
  • Pray that Justice Scalia goes on a rant with scathing homophobic vitriol.

Maybe the Courage Campaign isn’t a scam after all.


Filed under homophobia, human rights, psychological research, same-sex marriage