By Serena Mayeri, a professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania Law School
“Gay marriage is about civil rights,” wrote one cautiously jubilant celebrant of New York’s recent decision to allow its citizens to marry their life partners, regardless of sex. In the twenty-first century United States, the term “civil rights” is resonant with cultural meaning, evoking most of all the ongoing struggle for racial justice. The movement for marriage equality is just one of many social movements that have drawn on civil rights rhetoric, strategies, and legal precedents to argue for the acceptance of previously subordinated groups as first-class citizens.
These borrowings attract mixed reviews. Opponents of same-sex marriage reject any moral equivalence between African American civil rights and gay rights. Some who are more sympathetic to gay rights worry about alienating those whose religious beliefs or memories of Jim Crow make comparisons to antigay discrimination offensive or painful. Others fear that pithy slogans such as “Gay is the New Black” trivialize both racial oppression and homophobia while implying that gayness and blackness are mutually exclusive.
In Reasoning from Race: Feminism, Law, and the Civil Rights Revolution, I explore the intertwined movements for racial and gender equality in the heyday of feminist legal advocacy, the late 1960s and 1970s. Feminist advocates during this period regularly conscripted legal strategies developed to combat race discrimination into the service of women’s rights. But as the book shows, the relationship between race and sex, civil rights and women’s rights, was much more complicated than simple parallels could capture. Moreover, many advocates understood this complexity, invoking analogies and other forms of “reasoning from race” strategically and self-consciously.