CIVIL RIGHTS ARE NOT A CULTURAL ISSUE.

I rarely like Richard Cohen, but I find myself agreeing with him here:

Finally, what we do not hold in common is the categorization of a civil rights issue -- the rights of gays to be treated equally -- as some sort of cranky cultural difference. For that we need moral leadership, which, on this occasion, Obama has failed to provide. For some people, that's nothing to celebrate.

The right's framing of gay civil rights as a "cultural" rather than a civil rights issue has worked to their advantage. It's the only way a denial of marriage equality can avoid being defined as a violation of someone else's rights. As Ann Friedman pointed out a while ago in a column for TAP:

We'll continue to lose until we can successfully relabel LGBT rights a civil-rights issue situated firmly within the context of other civil-rights struggles, not an issue mired in the culture-war swamp of moral controversy. (To a lesser degree, the same goes for abortion rights.) "Culture" implies we are comfortable with different parts of our country and different groups of people seeing this issue differently. It implies that there is no absolute right or wrong -- just two sparring factions -- and that we'll simply have to wait for the rest of the country to come around. Culture changes slowly. This is something I've heard a lot in the wake of the passage of California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage. "History is on our side! Don't worry, the demographic trends are with us!"

I'm sorry, but that's just not good enough. These are the kind of conciliatory comments that go part and parcel with the culture-war frame. Civil-rights era activists knew history was on their side. But their goal was not to make every white American comfortable with the idea of sharing public spaces and power with people of color. It was to guarantee people of color those rights, regardless of where the culture stood. That's the thing about rights. You have to claim them.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I'm opposed to comparing discrete experiences of suffering. But I think Friedman's point, that the civil rights movement was focused less on changing the culture than changing the laws, and that in the end, changing the laws changed the culture, is an important observation to make. Couching anti-gay rhetoric in the language of culture has kept the Christian right from being held accountable for what they are actually doing, which is denying people the civil right to marry the consenting adult of their choice.

--A. Serwer

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