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You are here: Home Newsroom Our Ideas Themes in the News Archive April 2013 Pink + Red = Equality

Pink + Red = Equality

  • 04-01-2013
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Week of March 25-April 1, 2013

red equal sign

For the first time in its history, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up the issue of same-sex marriage. Last week, the justices heard arguments for and against California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot initiative that restricted marriage to heterosexual couples, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, which withholds federal benefits from gay couples.


The court’s deliberations take place against a backdrop of rapidly changing social attitudes on liberty, equality, fairness and inclusivity. All national polls conducted this year point to greater support for same-sex marriage than opposition to it (New York Times). In the last 10 years, viewpoints have shifted among multiple demographic groups. 


The considerable—though still unfulfilled—success of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community’s quest for civil rights evokes admiration and even astonishes many progressive Americans in their 40s and older.  How did this apparent trajectory toward social justice happen before our eyes?  Are there lessons to be learned for promoting other progressive social change?  Do the lessons apply to those who fight for educational justice?  We offer the following “conditions” among many others that have shifted an LGBT cause to become a cause for all Americans.


Fighting on Multiple Fronts Matters. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s opinion, expected in June, change has already happened—otherwise we wouldn’t see the highest court even touch this still-controversial and formerly taboo issue. A social movement has reached families, communities, local governments, states, and houses of worship. No single, concentrated power, organization, or funder is responsible for equitable same-sex marriage becoming a national policy debate. The fight has occurred in many different venues, and has been moved along by the democratizing power of social media. Just how many times did you see the above image this past week on Twitter and Facebook? (TIME)


Seizing Language Matters (even if media professionals didn’t think of it). Responding to DOMA attorney Paul Clement, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, “There’s two kinds of marriage, there’s full marriage and then there’s sort of skim milk marriage” (Huffington Post). This down-to-earth metaphor introduced a human element not captured in abstract language and principles such as “equality,” “constitutionality,” or “second-class citizenship.” Justice Ginsberg’s language combined personal fulfillment with a righteous cause.    


Courts Matter (but only so much). Litigation has played an important role in this movement, as it has in so many other social movements. The courts have been a powerful site for advancing the rights and freedoms of the LGBT community. Simply by taking up these two cases, the Supreme Court has focused public attention on the issue of marriage equality. And, the forthcoming decisions from the high court may well establish new protections. Yet, a ground-shaking decision is unlikely, as the justices have signaled their reluctance to get out in front of the political process. The lesson of this and other movements is that litigation strategies are most potent when combined with sustained grassroots mobilization and political advocacy.


Relationships Matter. In some respects the quest for LGBT rights has an advantage over fights for civil rights by other groups. Starting with small numbers of brave gays and lesbians—including high-profile individuals who “came out,” more Americans understood that to be gay or lesbian knows no boundaries of social class, families, religious congregations, race, education, work groups, civic engagement, or other categories that are historically used to love or despise others. It’s harder to argue for exclusion when it affects someone close to you.


On the other hand, whereas sexual orientation cuts across all lines of race, wealth, geography, and so on, educational inequality does not. It’s possible for a well-off or middle class family to have absolutely no personal or social contact with a very poor family or colleague; in fact, with our highly segregated neighborhoods and schools, being well off is often defined by not living near or going to school with children who are poor


Schools are often seen as the one social institution where Americans can participate together to learn and to form a more tight-knit social fabric. Creating schools where diverse students can establish relationships with one another must be a vital part of an educational justice agenda. But schools can’t shoulder that entire enterprise. We also need a public sphere and public speech that models inclusivity so that schools can both lead and follow. And this suggests why educational justice advocates must create conditions that place young people impacted by educational inequality in relationship with powerful (and otherwise insular) stakeholders. As we have seen last week, through such relationships, a better future is possible.     

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Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.