In the popular imagination, gay marriage is conceived as a battle between right-wing fundamentalists with biblical ideas about compatible genitalia and loving gays and lesbians who simply want an official stamp on their relationship. But the issue emerged out of a complicated nexus of political and social movements, including the response to the AIDS crisis; the LGBTQ community has a long and often contentious history when it comes to marriage. As Leigh Moscowitz argues in her new book, The Battle Over Marriage, media representations have generally erased those complexities, while shifting dramatically in their tone over time. Today, gay couples are the new normal, and gay marriage is increasingly accepted as the norm, both within and without the gay community.
Moscowitz studies how activists sought to frame the issue in the media between 2003 and 2010, and what that says about the potential for—and drawbacks of—relying on the press to sustain a cause. She considers the many arguments made by supporters: that gays and lesbians are just like everyone else, that marriage is in effect a civilizing force, that all children need two married parents, and so on. As she shows in detail, the struggle to represent marriage between lesbians and gays was a struggle to maintain a narrative about normalcy and harmony.
A professor of communication at the College of Charleston, Moscowitz waded through a massive amount of ethnographic research and analysis of media trends. She spoke only to gay marriage proponents, leaving out both opponents on the right as well as within the LGBTQ community. For anyone interested in how social movements are shaped by discursive and ideological elements that align with media representations, this book contains some fascinating mapping of the emergence of gay marriage as a cause.
For instance, we're told through Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson that gay marriage became the issue it did because the right pushed gay and lesbian activists into a corner with a spate of antimarriage amendments in the 1990s. We're also told that there was a great deal of internal dissension in the ranks of even high-profile organizations like Human Rights Campaign; some saw marriage as unwinnable, while others raised more philosophical objections.
Moscowitz is meticulous in describing her methodology: how she went about her interviews, what questions she asked, what sources she looked at. Ironically, this causes her to miss the forest for the trees—the problem being not that she spoke only to promarriage activists, but that she takes their claims at face value.
Consider her appraisal of race in the wake of Proposition 8, the successful 2008 ballot initiative that banned gay marriage in California. By now, the fact that gay and lesbian activists blamed California's African-American voters for their loss is well recorded: People for the American Way president Kathryn Kolbert, for instance, in a postelection analysis, criticized "the speed with which some white gay activists began blaming African Americans—sometimes in appallingly racist ways—for the defeat of Proposition 8."
Yet Moscowitz paints this fracas of open racism as the result of the mainstream media hyping up a "blacks vs. gays" narrative. She writes about how gay groups then tried to make amends by including more black couples in their campaigns—the HRC paid for one extravagant wedding—but doesn't note how this reflects media manipulation as well as racism in the gay community. Instead she records activists who paint the racism issue as somehow generated in the media, failing to note that the press was simply following what white gay activists were saying at the time.
Similarly, when Wolfson and others tell her that the gay marriage campaign grew in response to right-wing attacks, Moscowitz takes them at their word. But she never asks what should have been a basic question: Why did the push-back have to take the form it did? Why didn't activists simply continue to fight, instead, for disentangling marriage from essential benefits like health care?
Moscowitz is critical of the results of gay marriage: she rightly points out that an "emancipatory potential can be fulfilled only if the conversation about marriage, ironically, remains focused on the unmarrieds as well." That particular message will be of some comfort to those in the LGBTQ movement who are critical of the costs of focusing on marriage, and The Battle Over Marriage will be of interest to those who want a systematic analysis of media representations of gay marriage in a crucial period of time. At the beginning of the book, Moscowitz says that "news functions as a narrative, literary form that provides symbolic definitions of social realities." But by not questioning her sources, Moscowitz is guilty of promoting a particular, and limited, set of stories.