Visibility & Inequality: Same-Sex Marriage & Reports of Anti-LGBT Discrimination

In the summer of 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark Obergefell decision, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country. Since then, both opponents and proponents of same-sex marriage have predicted various consequences of the Court’s decision. In particular, some segments of the LGBT community have expressed concern that increased visibility may contribute to vulnerability (i.e., increased opportunities for discrimination). Using data collected from the twenty-one states – and the District of Columbia – where same-sex relationship recognition – in the form of civil unions or same-sex marriage – was legal prior to the 2015 SCOTUS decision, I examine patterns of LGBT-based civil rights complaints (e.g., discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation) and anti-LGBT hate crime reports.

Four theoretical perspectives inform this research: judicial backlash, macro-economic strain, political mediation, and discursive rivalry theories. While contended, theories of judicial backlash suggest that LGBTs will face increased experiences with discrimination and violence after courts issue mandates for legal same-sex relationship recognition. Secondly, criminogenic studies suggest economic and political competition influences hate crime and civil rights complaint reporting as groups vie for scarce resources in economically and politically competitive environments. Finally, discursive rivalry theory suggests crime rates and the resources of civil rights agencies influence reporting of hate crimes and civil rights complaints. This study suggests that LGBT interest groups are the most important influence on both hate crime and civil rights complaint reporting. The analysis finds no support for economic competition or discursive rivalry hypotheses as hate crime reporting appears to be driven by political resource competition – as politicians and LGBT interest groups collaborate to reduce anti-LGBT bias crimes – and civil rights complaints appear to be associated with judicial mandates for same-sex relationship recognition. The observed judicial backlash, however, may not reflect deteriorating conditions for LGBT people post-legal same-sex relationship recognition. Alternative explanations may include empowerment as LGBTs make new civil rights claims after favorable legal cases are decided.

This proposal for an academic presentation reflects the call for a reexamination of LGBT priorities in light of same-sex marriage legalization. My research suggests that LGBT interest groups have an important role post-marriage legalization in advocating for LGBT civil rights and an end to anti-LGBT violence. Furthermore, that the data show court mandates have the potential to increase civil rights complaints suggests that the LGBT community should be prepared for the potential backlash from the Obergefell decision – especially in states and municipalities where no civil rights protection mechanisms exist.


R.G. Cravens is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee and a graduate research fellow at the Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Public Policy. He has most recently presented original research at the Southern Political Science Association 2016 annual meeting and his research has appeared in the journal State & Local Government Review.


Part of panel What's Actually Happening After Marriage? LGBTQ Couples and Families
October 2, 2016, 14:15–16:00