As I was listening today to the oral arguments made at the Supreme Court regarding DOMA (U.S. v Windsor, No. 12-307), an interaction between Chief Justice Roberts and Roberta Kaplan, the attorney representing Ms. Windsor, struck me. It was not just that it was a bristly and confrontational interaction, but also because it made me think about the timeline for DOMA (it was signed into law in 1996) and the issue of marriage equality and its relationship to the other big thing that follows the same timeline – namely the dawning of the Internet age.
I have included the excerpt from the unofficial transcript below for your review, but to summarize, Justice Roberts was asserting that gay people do not need any special protection against discrimination because, as he put it, “political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case”. It is as if the Chief Justice is trying to make sense of what might be causing the “sea change” of opinions that is sweeping the nation and the only conclusion he seems willing or able to draw is that the “gay lobby” or “homosexual agenda” has a hold on the political process in this country.
I think he is forgetting that since DOMA, another major change occurred in the US (and the world) – we all became connected through the commercialization of the Internet, the introduction of World Wide Web, and the advent of mobile phones. Just like in the 1950s and 60s, when access to television grew to over 90% of households in this country, the last 15 years have been hallmarked by dramatic growth in the data communications sector. According to the US Census, in 1997, only 18% of households had access to the Internet. By 2010, that number had grown to over 80%. That is WAY more people being able to communicate with each other, to learn about each other, and to find ways to understand each other.
It means that closeted teenagers can find people online from other parts of the country who are like them and can realize that they are not alone. It means that when gay people hear about something that is discriminatory in one state, they can communicate the offense immediately to their networks around the country. And it means that gay people can have conversations with straight people via Twitter, Facebook, blogs like this one – and find common ground on issues of child rearing, and relationships, and finances. I personally think that it is much more likely that the REAL reason that we are seeing such unprecedented support for gay rights in this country is that we actually know more about what it means to be gay in this country and as such we are more likely to want equal treatment for gay people because we see them as part of this community of humans.
In 1965, Alabama state troopers and local deputies savagely beat black activists as they marched peacefully from Selma to Montgomery to demand voter registration rights for black people. Television cameramen captured the incident on film, and it was that footage from “Bloody Sunday” that propelled action like the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law later that year. (You can read more about the Civil Rights movement and TV here: http://tinyurl.com/cesgft5). Imagine what might have happened on Rosa Parks’ bus in 1955 if there were dozens of Vine videos and Instagrams going viral on the Internet – would civil rights have moved more quickly in this country? Would we still have had racial segregation of schools well into the early 70’s?
I think Justice Roberts does a disservice to the people of the US when he dismisses the change of hearts on the issue of marriage equality for gay couples as merely the result of political lobbying or vote buying (my words, not his). I think he (and the rest of the Court) would do better to look at the issue in the context of what else is occurring in our society. In a national opinion survey published in the April, 1996, issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Dr. Gregory Herek, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis concluded that “Heterosexuals with a gay friend or relative have significantly more favorable attitudes toward lesbians and gay men as a group”. It also states that negative attitudes about homosexuality are strongest among heterosexuals who say that they do not know anyone who is lesbian or gay, which at the time of the study was 67% of the US adult population. In a 2010 CBS Poll, however, that number had shifted dramatically – 77% of Americans surveyed admitted they actually know a gay person.
If knowing a gay person increases tolerance and acceptance of gay people, then the fact that 77% of Americans now say that they know a gay person could easily explain the “sea change” in attitudes. I think we can, at least in part, credit access to the Internet (and therefore access to more people) for the fact that the number shifted so impressively from 1996 to the present, and not just the action of a few, well-connected lobbyists. It is one example of how technology serves people well, and it makes me proud to have been a part of the communications industry throughout those years of growth and change.
Excerpt from the Oral Arguments’ unofficial transcript:
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: You don't doubt that the lobby supporting the enactment of same sex-marriage laws in different States is politically powerful, do you?
MS. KAPLAN: With respect to that category, that categorization of the term for purposes of
heightened scrutiny, I would, Your Honor. I don't -
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Really?
MS. KAPLAN: Yes.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: As far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case.
MS. KAPLAN: The fact of the matter is, Mr. Chief Justice, is that no other group in recent history has been subjected to popular referenda to take away rights that have already been given or exclude those rights, the way gay people have. And only two of those referenda have ever lost. One was in Arizona; it then passed a couple years later. One was in Minnesota where they already have a statute on the books that prohibits marriages between gay people.
So I don't think -- and until 1990 gay people were not allowed to enter this country. So I don't think that the political power of gay people today could possibly be seen within that framework, and certainly is analogous -- I think gay people are far weaker than the women were at the time of Frontiero.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, but you just referred to a sea change in people's understandings and values from 1996, when DOMA was enacted, and I'm just trying to see where that comes from, if not from the political effectiveness of -- of groups on your side of the case.
MS. KAPLAN: To flip the language of the House Report, Mr. Chief Justice, I think it comes from a moral understanding today that gay people are no different, and that gay married couples' relationships are not significantly different from the relationships of straight married people. I don't think -
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: I understand that. I am just trying to see how -- where that that moral understanding came from, if not the political effectiveness of a particular group.
MS. KAPLAN: I -- I think it came -- is, again is very similar to the, what you saw between Bowers and Lawrence. I think it came to a societal understanding.
I don't believe that societal understanding came strictly through political power; and I don't think that gay people today have political power as that -this Court has used that term with -- in connection with the heightened scrutiny analysis.
Lona Dallessandro is a wireless and broadband solutions expert who has been working in the Internet technology space since 1995. She is also a biology nerd and wild animal advocate. While she is a VP @ Telespree Communications, a small wireless technology firm based in San Francisco, she is expressing her own opinions here and via @lonaaustin on Twitter.