Symbolic Value of Obama’s SSM Announcement

If you just glanced at the mainstream media over the past few days, you might think all LGBTQ people are ecstatic. President Obama just announced he supports same-sex marriage. And so, the mainstream narrative goes, of course LGBTQ people are ecstatic. But we know that not everyone agrees that marriage is such a good thing. Some are entirely against marriage (e.g., Conrad 2010), while others argue against focusing on marriage as a tool for distributing government benefits (e.g., Polikoff 2008). So what does Obama’s announcement mean for someone who is more ambivalent about marriage?

Originally I wasn’t going to blog about same-sex marriage. I’ve written a lot about marriage in the past, and my research right now is more focused on transgender and HIV/AIDS related discrimination. Some gems like STD testing + are out there but in general, treatment and therapy access is hard to find. But after the news of the past week, I noticed something interesting. Many of my friends are ambivalent about marriage as an institution and about its role in a broader LGBTQ social movement. Nonetheless, my friends uniformly lamented the anti same-sex marriage amendment in North Carolina. Perhaps slightly more surprising, most of my friends also were excited about Obama’s support for same-sex marriage. In this, my friends reflected the broader LGBTQ media. Some voices reiterated their hesitations about marriage as an institution (see here, here, and here), but most unabashedly celebrated.

And so this got me thinking about what it means to question marriage itself and still be excited about Obama’s announcement. Other people have written about whether this was a just a political calculation on Obama’s part (see here and here); what ramifications it might have for his reelection (see here and here); and the legal significance of the announcement (see here and here). I’m not interested in writing about any of that. I want to talk about why I’m still excited for Obama’s announcement. I want to speculate on this as a social movement outcome. And I want to consider where an LGBTQ movement should go from here.

First I want to pause to understand the mainstream response to marriage and my ambivalence about that response. This YouTube video that recently made the rounds captures the response. It tells the heart-wrenching story of a man who lost his partner in a tragic accident and then was left out of the funeral and left little control over anything else. Same-sex marriage becomes the solution. If only they could get married, this would never happen. Logically, the narrative goes, we should support same-sex marriage to protect people in cases like this.

I do believe marriage should be available as one option. And I’ve gone door-to-door in Massachusetts to help defend against attempts to amend the constitution to overturn Goodridge. But I’m also ambivalent about where marriage should fit in a broader LGBTQ movement. I don’t think marriage helps everyone. I think there are other critical issues, like youth protections, job security, and healthcare that get neglected by our focus on marriage. And I definitely don’t think marriage should be used as a vehicle for distributing rights and benefits (Polikoff 2008). What about long-term roommates, good friends, siblings, extended families, or any number of other arrangements where people commit to taking care of each other? Things like hospital visitation rights or the ability to use sick leave to care for someone should not be limited to long-term monogamous romantic partners.

Why I Still Celebrate Obama’s Announcement

Even though I’m concerned that the reaction to Obama’s announcement could continue to push us down the path of privileging marriage over any other type of family, I still think there is a lot to celebrate in it.

First, it’s worth remembering how marriage matters to couples who choose to get married. I don’t think we should privilege marriage over all other forms of family. But for many couples it is important to describe themselves as married. While many couples have used commitment ceremonies and other rituals to enact their marriages outside of the law (Hull 2006), many still describe the law as bringing powerful symbolic meaning to their relationships (Richman 2010). Obama’s announcement doesn’t make any formal change in the law, but it may carry the same symbolic value for how people understand their relationships. We can recognize this symbolic importance, even while arguing that marriage should not be the exclusive model of family life.

But more importantly, Obama’s announcement also holds important symbolic value for a broader LGBTQ movement. Especially coming right after North Carolina’s constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage has come to occupy a symbolic position as a battleground issue over the meaning of sexuality in our society (Kosbie 2012). Many lesbians and gays who have no intention of marrying themselves still believe same-sex couples should have equal access to marriage, and are deeply hurt by anti same-sex marriage amendments. The battle over marriage comes to have symbolic meaning that is much larger than the issue of marriage itself.

Here I think it is worth noting that Obama focused on themes of “equality” and “fairness” when he described his support for same-sex marriage. Yes, early in the interview, Obama described monogamous gay couples. But he focused more on the broad theme of equality than on the institution of marriage itself. And that’s how I want to understand this announcement, as symbolic support for LGBTQ equality. I think this sort of symbolic support is particularly important for queer youth. The law matters to how we construct our basic notions of equality (Kirkland 2008). And for queer youth, this sort of speech from the President may offer critical support.

Relation to Legal Mobilization

Sociolegal scholars have long debated whether court victories actually support social movements (Rosenberg 1991, Klarman 2004). Some scholars argue that we need to consider not only direct impacts of court decisions but also think about the broader cultural impact of the litigation process (McCann 1994). Obama’s announcement might not be directly attributable to the LGBTQ movement, but it is arguably part of this indirect impact. When LGBT lawyers challenged Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act in federal courts, they forced the Department of Justice to take a position on these laws. When the DOJ declined to continue defending DOMA in court, it put pressure on Obama’s position on same-sex marriage. As a legal matter, Obama could argue that it was not inconsistent to refuse to support DOMA but also not fully support same-sex marriage. But as a political and cultural matter, that distinction became more difficult to make.

So what does this mean for future mobilization? I think there is opportunity for those of us who are more ambivalent about marriage as an LGBTQ goal. There’s an opportunity for us to say yes, we should support equal rights to marriage for those who want to marry. But we should mobilize more broadly for LGBTQ equality. We should mobilize more broadly to support all family structures, to support queer youth, to provide job security and health care, and to support queer communities. We should use Obama’s announcement as a symbolic springboard for these broader equality goals instead of limiting ourselves to only marriage.  


Conrad, Ryan (ed.). 2010. Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage. Lewiston, ME: Against Equality.

Hull, Kathleen E. 2006. Same-Sex Marriage: The Cultural Politics of Love and Law. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Klarman, Michael J. 2004. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kirkland, Anna. 2008. Fat Rights: Dilemmas of Difference and Personhood. New York: NYU Press.

Kosbie, Jeffrey. 2012 [forthcoming]. “Beyond Queer vs. LGBT: Discursive Community and Marriage Mobilization in Massachusetts.” in (Not) the Marrying Kind, edited by Mary Bernstein and Verta Taylor. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

McCann, Michael W. 1994. Rights at Work: Pay Equity Reform and the Politics of Legal Mobilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Polikoff, Nancy D. 2008. Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law. Boston: Beacon Press.

Richman, Kimberly. 2010. “By Any Other Name: The Social and Legal Stakes of Same-Sex Marriage.” University of San Francisco Law Review 45: 357-87.

Rosenberg, Gerald N. 1991. The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Crossposted on Queer(ing) Law

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1 Response to Symbolic Value of Obama’s SSM Announcement

  1. solucas says:

    Really great article, I struggled over my position on marriage for a long time but over the past year have come to accept it as a good thing for LGBTQ equality. I really enjoyed reading this, thank you.

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