Intersectional Rhetorics: A case study in the 2013 Supreme Court decisions on DOMA, Proposition 8, and the Voting Rights Act.

Document Type


Presentation Date


Conference Name

16th Biennial Rhetoric Society of America Conference

Conference Location

San Antonio, TX


The summer of 2013 saw a troubling social justice whiplash. On June 26th, in two separate decisions the Supreme Court repealed the Defense of Marriage Act and found no standing in the Perry case, also known as the Proposition 8 case, effectively opening the way for gay marriages to resume in California. Just one day before these decisions, a clear victory for mainstream gay rights movements, the same court ruled that the federal government must create a new standard for evaluating how states meet or violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While the court did not gut the Act entirely, they did invalidate the main provision of the decision that was a landmark victory to secure equal voting rights and prevent the continuation of a history of racial discrimination. In this manuscript I argue that these competing decisions converge to highlight the intersectional struggles and rhetorics in contemporary civil rights battles. Reading intersectionality with critical rhetoric, I argue that the discourses of gay marriage activism and movements for racial equality intersect and complicate the potentialities for coalition building. Specifically, the use of historic civil rights discourses to encourage gay marriage absent a critical reflection of the history of racism in the gay community or the organization of priorities for many African American gay and lesbians is troubling. Simultaneously, the presumption of a post-race America encourages this lack of perspective taking. The Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act underscores a pervasive post-race view of America that some argue is premature. Ultimately, I argue that this intersection in identities and rhetorics is inevitable. The nature of legal argument is based heavily on precedence, the citation of previous case law that informs the case in question. In this way, lawyers on behalf of gay marriage suits reliably cite civil rights cases to demonstrate arguments for equality. As this discourse finds its way into protest rhetoric, the cultural consequences are significant. I conclude with a discussion of implications for both rhetorical theory and coalition building in contemporary social justice activism.



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