Was the Arizona Debacle the Turning Point


Today we learn that despite showily vetoing the bill last month, Gov. Jan Brewer’s office actually helped draft the anti-gay ‘religious liberty’ bill that garnered so much press attention across the country. It was one of many such bills that sprouted up all at once across the country; all of which now seem either dead or on life support. Brewer now seems not much different from those state senators who voted for the bill and then days later started begging Brewer to veto it.

But watching this whole spectacle unfold I wonder if this doesn’t represent some kind of small but telling pivot or hinge in long history of anti-gay rights activism. These definitions are inherently arbitrary. And there are certainly more heroic and consequential moments in the history of gay rights activism. The Windsor decision from June 2013 stands out as a recent, truly epochal moment – the decision which, as I’ve predicted, will likely lead to legalization of gay marriage everywhere in the United States in the near future.

DOMA Plaintiff Edie Windsor

Still something stands out about this for me.

In part it’s the abject failure. From its beginning in early February to its collapse at the end of the month, the whole new direction for combatting the growth of gay rights lasted only about two or three weeks. More telling was not simply that it failed but that even those who had supported it turned around almost immediately and started opposing it. That suggests a number of things. But the most telling is that even over the minuscule timespan of a hasty legislative gambit the politics of gay rights is evolving so rapidly that these folks couldn’t accurately gauge the politics. Or perhaps it changed or slipped away right out from under them.

There’s no better word to describe the whole exercise and collapse than “laughable”. And that is a dramatic turnaround from a decade ago when the same forces leveraged the same issue with a brutal and cynical efficiency. There’s no way to tell whether the gay marriage ban referendums placed on the ballots in key swing states in 2004 ensured President Bush’s reelection. But in purely tactical terms the only word to describe the move was “brilliant”.

History and political change have moments when things pivot and move in another direction. One side is winning. Then the lines of trajectory become muddled. And suddenly the momentum moves in the other direction. Or it starts building on itself. In military terms its when a strategic retreat becomes a rout.

That’s how I’m seeing the Arizona debacle. This battle will go on for years to come. There’s still no national gay marriage. No ENDA. But we seem to have gotten to the point where the opponents are genuinely on the run – to the point where they’re making stupid mistakes and unable to process the speed of the changing landscape.