Narrative Counter-Mobilization in U.S. Same-Sex Marriage Struggle: Anchors and Influence in Obergefell v Hodges

In less than two decades, legal same-sex marriage in the United States progressed from being seemingly impossible to inevitable and now realized, all the while being bitterly contested in political, academic, and social arenas. To create and forestall these changes, movement and counter-movement actors worked to infuse same-sex marriage with meanings that help instantiate and cultivate collective identities, community formations, and socio-political positions. (Stein 2002) For self-described marriage equality advocates, strategies used include producing and circulating images and narratives that emphasize the love and commitment of gay and lesbian couples, notions of equality, and the similarities between gay and straight communities. Conservative activists, defending so-called traditional marriage, cast themselves as defenders of the nation, moral order, and religious freedom. Struggling against both of these groups, some queer critics of marriage advocacy emphasized marriage equality as a conservative, normative, and “homonationalist” project in service of white supremacy, patriarchy, and U.S. imperialism. (Puar 2007; Rodríguez 2014) Other queer critics, though, have also emphasized the role of ambivalence in stances on same-sex marriage, noting the complexity and multiplicity of meanings that arise in the everyday experience of same-sex marriage and marriage advocacy. (Kimport 2013; Magpantay 2006)

This paper examines how opposing movements mobilize around same-sex marriage, emphasizing the institutionally and temporally located meanings mobilized by activists and organizations. Specifically, I use a mixed-methods, network-based approach to map the discursive field of contention that emerged through extra-institutional advocacy in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case.

In Obergefell, 142 amicus (friend of the court) briefs were submitted in response to the four lower-level court cases that the Supreme Court consolidated. Just over half of these (75) were submitted supporting Petitioners and in favor of allowing full legalization of same-sex marriage, and on both sides of the issue, briefs were submitted by diverse groups of actors, including various scholars, religious leaders, community and movement organizations, as well as individuals.

First, latent class analysis is used to categorize these documents based on the institutional and strategic locations of those who submitted them. Data were collected on each actor, including the size, type, location, and interests of actors, as well as on contextually-specific strategic decisions, such as the lead legal counsel submitting each brief, as well as the specific cases addressed. Data collection and preliminary analysis included both automated coding of documents, as well as textual analysis informed by grounded theory. These categorical indicators were then used as the basis for latent class analysis to sort organizations into general types, based on the relative similarity within groups and difference between.

Second, topic modeling is used to quantitatively represent the substantive meanings contained in each document. Topic modeling is a tool based developed in computer science that utilizes machine learning to generate topics, based on an iterative reading of word frequencies and proximities. Topics are generated inductively based on the most central words that hold together the meanings across a full corpus of documents. The size and form of these topics suggest the key meanings utilized by actors in advocating for and against marriage equality.

Finally, the results of latent class analysis and topic modeling are synthesized, utilizing the probability distributions generated by each method to generate a network model of the discourses, which links the institutional, strategic, practical, and substantive aspects of the emergent field of contention that is produced by the Supreme Court. Utilizing network statistics of centrality indicates the anchors around which meanings are mobilized. In addition, the influence of briefs on the 5-4 decision is mapped using topical similarity.

Findings demonstrate how Obergefell v. Hodges assembled an emergent field of contention around both long-standing and contemporary logics relative to the legal system, marriage equality, and the contemporary political environment. Various professional legal, academic, and political interest groups served to cohere the parallel dynamics of opposing same-sex marriage movements; however, pro-marriage equality arguments were organized around the benefits to children, military, and employers, as well as through identity politics. Pro-man-woman marriage arguments, by contrast, emphasized the institutional stability of marriage, judicial activism, and are centrally organized around religious organizations.

The Court’s decision organizes these multivocal fields into a provisionally coherent vision of past evidence, present interpretation, and future implementation. Evidence, for instance, is both sanctioned as sufficiently true (e.g., the immutability of sexual orientation and the validity of same-sex relationships) and used to distance the state from its past actions (e.g., producing the categories of homosexuality). Relying heavily on the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court asserts marriage as a fundamental right, drawing on, but carefully diminishing parallels with race- and gender-based discrimination. The evolving nature of marriage as a fundamental right also provides the pivot point with which the Court legitimates state power in enforcing marriage equality and creating “religious freedom” loopholes.

This study has implications for the future of same-sex marriage and for queer and LGBT movements, as well as more broadly relating to the form and possibilities of legal mobilization and contemporary change efforts. As well, the methodological approach presented here enables innovative mixed-methods questions about the dynamic relationships between continuity and change in social justice efforts.


Part of panel Litigation and LGBTQ Politics
October 2, 2016, 14:15–16:00