The National Organization for Marriage is part of a long history of "divide and conquer"

The National Organization for Marriage’s latest tactics—the latest reflecting a search for “non-intellectual” celebrity spokespeople, have been making headlines this week. The thing is, these tactics are nothing new. Image source.

Assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box

In several news outlets this week, there has been discussion of confidential documents leaked from the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) about their “divide and conquer” tactics to separate blacks from gays. The goals of these tactics are to create a wedge between two key Democratic constituencies and dilute the vote in support of same-sex marriage.

This is nothing new.

Anti-gay Religious Right activists have been intentionally dividing African American voters from LGBT issues during ballot measure campaigns for several decades now. In my book, Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, I analyze how this strategy was conceived in Colorado, birthplace of Colorado Amendment 2 in November 1992, where organizers like Tony Marco developed political messages about gays as counterfeit minorities attempting to steal the civil rights movement from African Americans. Religious Right leaders had used political messages about preferential treatment and “special rights” to frame gay rights since the 1970s, language that ironically was developed in opposition to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. The logic was that gays and lesbians at the time were asking for “special rights” for protection, rights that went above and beyond what was offered to all other Americans, and were trying to claim that they were minorities. These messages about “special rights” relied on understandings of civil rights as a zero-sum game; that to pass a civil rights law meant that rights were being taken from someone else and redistributed.

In the campaign to pass Colorado Amendment 2 and many other campaigns that followed, the anti-gay Religious Right positioned gays and lesbians as taking rights away from African Americans. In the classic anti-gay film Gay Rights, Special Rights, the well-known footage of Martin Luther King Jr. orating the “I Have a Dream” speech is overlaid with ominous concerns about LGBT rights usurping civil rights from racial minorities. In this film, minority spokespeople and depictions of gay men as wealthy and powerful are used as evidence that gays were illegitimate minorities. Campaign literature during this time used language from the civil rights movement about equality along with phrases like “this is a hijacking of the freedom train” and invocations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his family. Indeed, King’s niece Alveda Celeste King was used as a speaker at anti-gay rallies across the country in the late 1990s.

Anti-gay activists also have a long history of engaging in racial coalition building with African American pastors. In Cincinnati Issue 3 in 1993, an initiative that eliminated all existing and future LGBT rights in Cincinnati, African Americans were targeted by Issue 3 proponents and featured prominently in Issue 3 literature. In a strategy memo from the Cincinnati anti-gay campaign, the leader noted “a key ingredient to victory is winning the Black vote. Our spokesperson was the President of the Black Baptist Ministerial Association. Even with a Black spokesperson, the Black vote was split evenly, which was our goal.”

To reinforce this antagonism, the anti-gay Religious Right almost exclusively uses images of white gay men and lesbians to represent the LGBT movement in their messages. The absence of LGBT people of color in anti-gay literature furthers this antagonism by constructing LGBT life as white.

For me, the real irony of these tactics is that they construct the Religious Right as supportive of civil rights, sidestepping the long history of Religious Right opposition to African American civil rights.

These “divide and conquer” tactics have only multiplied with the contemporary ballot measures about same-sex marriage. However, they are nothing new. The Religious Right has been doing this for decades now.


Amy Stone is author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box and assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio.

“Amy L. Stone crafts a compelling, deeply textured portrayal of the more than 200 anti-gay ballot campaigns in the U.S. since 1974. Through interviews with movement leaders and other sources, Stone deftly analyzes the tension between winning campaigns and building a sustainable movement, between national, urban activists and local, rural communities, as well as debates over tactics and messaging. Gay Rights at the Ballot Box is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the central, disturbing role anti-gay politics has played in contemporary U.S. politics.”
—Sean Cahill, Ph.D., Fenway Institute and New York University

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