When a county in southern Georgia held its first-ever integrated prom earlier this year, coverage was both solemn and tongue and cheek. It confirmed our national narrative that the South and Southern people are structurally predisposed to resist progress. It has become part and parcel of our folk wisdom that change will come slowly to the South if it comes at all. While this perspective has been historically applied to race relations, it also holds true for the current debate on gay rights.
In light of the Supreme Court’s cautious ruling on same-sex marriage, it will likely be several years before universal marriage equality is a reality in the United States. Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Campaign, two of the leading LGBT advocacy groups in the United States have adapted to the ruling by pursuing a 50-state strategy that targets the states most likely to flip for gay marriage. Right now, that means pushing marriage equality legislation in states like Illinois. The progression of support for gay marriage among the states is now fairly predictable. A few months ago, America’s favorite statistician, Nate Silver, released estimates of the year in which public opinion in each state will tip in favor of marriage equality. Yet Silver’s predictions may be complicated by the potential for large migrations of gay Americans in response to state political divisions on marriage. Early successes in states that already have high approval for gay marriage may actually result in more entrenched opposition in the South. In order to avoid a repeat of the civil rights movement of the 1960s which similarly exacerbated regional political divides, gay rights activists may do better to take a more holistic, gradualist approach to achieving their goals.
The state-by-state model of change has often focused on starting movements for change in the North and then hoping these developments will eventually trickle down, but this model is frustrated by the phenomenon of Americans “voting with their feet.” Traditionally, the idea of migrating to one’s ideal social climate has been considered a strength of the American state system. Those favoring more traditional values tend to be concentrated in rural areas and are relatively free from the regulations and liberalism found in the cities and on the coasts. This model is less effective in the distribution of human rights. Young LGBT people coming of age in corrosive atmospheres have little recourse to escape anti-LGBT attitudes until their eighteenth birthdays. Additionally, as young liberal-minded Southerners emigrate from the South, the political balance shifts to the right, further solidifying conservative power.
As gay Americans become aware of the greater opportunities for social equality outside their home region they become increasingly likely to emigrate. This “gay drain” becomes obvious even when observing disparities in LGBT presence among American colleges. Students often marvel and joke about the seemingly artificially high presence of LGBT students at Ivy League institutions but this presence is a reflection of the desires of many gay students to escape oppressive social environments in less progressive regions of the country. More generally, young people increasingly list LGBT equality as a core moral value and seek to congregate in states where that value is respected. A census report on the migration of young college graduates shows that many conservative Southern states are experiencing growth in their overall population while witnessing net outmigration of young college graduates. The increasing moral divide of the North and South thus also contributes to intellectual and economic disparities.
As a matter of strategy, LGBT advocacy groups would do better to make legislation at the national level their first priority. While support for gay marriage hovers slightly above the 50 percent mark, support for ending other forms of discrimination against LGBT Americans is much higher. As a result of the extensive focus on the marriage debate, many voters do not realize the full extent of the other challenges to equality LGBT Americans continue to face. In a 2011 Center for American Progress poll on workplace discrimination, 73 percent of likely voters supported protecting gays and lesbians against workplace discrimination but 90 percent of voters believed federal laws already provided such protections. (They do not.) Until baseline protections against discrimination exist across the states, pushing the most liberal states further in the direction of marriage equality seems irresponsible. While the state-by-state strategy offers dramatic victories and the potential for quick progress, focus on a broader national campaign will help soothe the regional divide.
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