Is Pinkwashing the Future of Post-Roe America?

Global anti-abortion activists have waved off criticism by pointing to their support for LGBTQ rights. But U.S. conservatives may be too extreme for that tactic.

By , a professor of political studies at Bard College
Abortion rights protesters gather at the U.S. Supreme Court to denounce the court's decision to end federal abortion rights protections in Washington on June 26.
Abortion rights protesters gather at the U.S. Supreme Court to denounce the court's decision to end federal abortion rights protections in Washington on June 26.
Abortion rights protesters gather at the U.S. Supreme Court to denounce the court's decision to end federal abortion rights protections in Washington on June 26. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Last week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that guaranteed Americans a constitutional right to abortion, has sent shock waves through the LGBTQ community. Looming large is concern about what the decision—known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—might mean for the future of same-sex marriage in the United States. After all, it was only recently, in 2015, that the court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges.

“We should be very concerned,” said Evan Wolfson—widely credited as the chief architect of the American marriage equality campaign—when we spoke in New York in May, soon after Politico published a leaked draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in the Dobbs decision. A month and a half later, a concurring opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas confirmed those fears. Thomas argued that the court should “at the earliest opportunity” also reconsider three other “demonstrably erroneous decisions” that rest on the right to privacy, as Roe had: the legalization of contraception, homosexual sex, and same-sex marriage.

Alito’s Dobbs ruling was more measured. On behalf of the court, he wrote that: “Nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.” The opinion added that “rights regarding contraception and same-sex relationships” are “inherently different from the right to abortion” because the latter “uniquely involves … ‘potential life.’” These reassuring statements have led conservative LGBTQ activists to be more sanguine about Dobbs and its potential repercussions. Charles Moran, the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, the oldest and largest conservative LGBTQ group in the United States, wrote in the New York Post: “the court is going out of its way to make it clear that its reasoning in this case does not apply to gay marriage and other LGBT rights.”

Last week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that guaranteed Americans a constitutional right to abortion, has sent shock waves through the LGBTQ community. Looming large is concern about what the decision—known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—might mean for the future of same-sex marriage in the United States. After all, it was only recently, in 2015, that the court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges.

“We should be very concerned,” said Evan Wolfson—widely credited as the chief architect of the American marriage equality campaign—when we spoke in New York in May, soon after Politico published a leaked draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in the Dobbs decision. A month and a half later, a concurring opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas confirmed those fears. Thomas argued that the court should “at the earliest opportunity” also reconsider three other “demonstrably erroneous decisions” that rest on the right to privacy, as Roe had: the legalization of contraception, homosexual sex, and same-sex marriage.

Alito’s Dobbs ruling was more measured. On behalf of the court, he wrote that: “Nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.” The opinion added that “rights regarding contraception and same-sex relationships” are “inherently different from the right to abortion” because the latter “uniquely involves … ‘potential life.’” These reassuring statements have led conservative LGBTQ activists to be more sanguine about Dobbs and its potential repercussions. Charles Moran, the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, the oldest and largest conservative LGBTQ group in the United States, wrote in the New York Post: “the court is going out of its way to make it clear that its reasoning in this case does not apply to gay marriage and other LGBT rights.”

Although comforting to some, the words about same-sex marriage in the Dobbs decision amount to little more than pinkwashing. A combination of the words “pink” and “whitewashing,” the term “pinkwashing” was initially conceived by critics of corporations that sold goods and services featuring the color pink (long associated with efforts to fight breast cancer) with little intention of actually supporting that noble effort. In more recent years, however, “pinkwashing” has been used to refer to governments’ or politicians’ cynical allusions to LGBTQ rights to distract from their unsavory behavior or otherwise draconian policies.

The words about same-sex marriage in the Dobbs decision amount to little more than pinkwashing.

The anti-abortion movement, for its part, uses support for LGBTQ rights as a public relations tool to soften the sting of anti-abortion policies. In doing so, anti-abortion practitioners of pinkwashing hope to push their extreme agenda without coming across as mean-spirited or lacking in compassion. And while it is certainly the case that someone can support LGBTQ rights and oppose abortion, those guilty of pinkwashing—Alito included—generally do not have a track record of genuine support for LGBTQ rights. It is as though their affinity for the LGBTQ cause materialized suddenly, at a politically opportune time.

Pinkwashing is generally thought to have originated in Israel as a means to divert the world’s attention away from the human rights atrocities perpetrated by the Israeli government against the Palestinian people. As Sarah Schulman reported in 2011 in the New York Times, in 2005 the Israeli government—with the help from U.S. marketing executives—began a public relations campaign designed to depict Israel as “relevant and modern” in contrast to its neighbors in the Middle East. Israel later expanded the marketing campaign by “harnessing the gay community to reposition its global image” in “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights,” Schulman wrote. To that end, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism began to finance and promote Tel Aviv’s lavish gay pride parade and show pro-Israel movies at gay and lesbian film festivals. Glossed over by the public relations campaign is that Israel lags behind other democracies in legislating LGBTQ equality.

Echoes of Israel’s pinkwashing strategy were observed earlier this year in France’s presidential election. In what some have referred to as “pinkwashing populism,” far-right candidate Marine Le Pen adopted a playbook that framed her well-known Islamophobia as a defense of LGBTQ rights. Le Pen’s pinkwashing began in 2014, when she recruited Sébastien Chenu—founder of the Gaylib movement—to give her party a “gay-friendly makeover.” It intensified after the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which a U.S.-born individual who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people, most of them young Latino men. Shortly after the attack, Le Pen declared “how much homosexuality is attacked in countries that live under the Islamist jackboot.”

Just ahead of France’s 2017 presidential campaign, Le Pen surrounded herself with so many openly gay aides that some in the media labeled her “Pink Marine.” Yet her electoral platform in both 2017 and 2022 was anything but gay-friendly; it included revoking France’s same-sex marriage law, a crowd-pleaser with France’s extreme-right flank. Of course, the overarching intention of Le Pen’s pinkwashing playbook was not to win the gay vote but rather to make herself more palatable to mainstream voters.

More relevant to the United States after Dobbs, perhaps, is the experience of Latin America, which has a rich history of pinkwashing accompanying reproductive restrictions. According to Elisabeth Jay Friedman, editor of Seeking Rights from the Left, a book about Latin America’s gender politics, several left-wing governments in Latin America have made strategic or unintentional trade-offs between and among the policy issues central to feminist and LGBT communities. Among the most egregious examples of pinkwashing cited in the book are the policies of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. In 2007, Ortega’s government criminalized all abortion in the same penal code reform that decriminalized homosexuality. Friedman wrote that “the president and first lady have declared war against the feminist movement even as they have attempted to build support among younger LGBT people.”

Another notable practitioner of pinkwashing is former Argentine President (and now Vice President) Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Her support for gay marriage when she signed Argentina’s historic same-sex marriage law as president in 2010 was broadly interpreted as an act of political opportunism to divide the opposition, attack the Catholic Church, conceal corruption scandals, and appeal to young voters. Prior to 2010, neither Fernández de Kirchner nor her husband, former President Néstor Kirchner, were known as defenders of the rights of sexual minorities. The legalization of same-sex marriage was followed by a pioneer transgender law that allowed Fernández de Kirchner to claim the mantle of social progressivism in Latin America even as she remained adamantly opposed to abortion. In 2018, however, as a member of the Argentine Senate, Fernández de Kirchner shifted her position on abortion. As vice president, she supported the 2020 law that legalized abortion in Argentina, which is widely seen as having launched an abortion rights revolution in Latin America.

The Dobbs decision reeks of a similar cynicism and foreshadows a possible pinkwashing strategy for the U.S. anti-abortion movement. It is naive to think that the justices of the conservative wing of the U.S. Supreme Court—who largely opposed Obergefell—will stop at abortion rights. Thomas clearly did not mask his desire to go after other rights not specifically cited in the U.S. Constitution. In the past, he and Alito have criticized Obergefell for having “ruinous consequences for religious liberty.” And no one should trust the other conservative justices, either. All of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court—Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—had said in their confirmation hearings that Roe was settled law before voting to reverse it last week. It’s little wonder that the three dissenting liberal justices on the Dobbs decision noted that “No one should be confident that this majority is done with its work.”

Whether we will see a full embrace of pinkwashing by the U.S. anti-abortion movement remains to be seen. Even the light pinkwashing in the Dobbs decision might be a bridge too far for some on the American right. At present, the country is living through its most contradictory moment when it comes to LGBTQ rights. Last year, Gallup reported that support for same-sex marriage in the United States had reached a record-high 70 percent, including among a majority of Republicans. At the same time, animus toward LGBTQ people from the right is approaching levels not seen since the Save Our Children campaign, a notorious extravaganza of lies, insults, and conspiracy theories about gay people spearheaded by country singer Anita Bryant in 1977 to overturn an anti-gay discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida. “Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit,” Bryant famously argued. Today, Republican leaders in Washington and across the country have adopted the homophobic slur of “groomer” as a talking point when engaging with anyone who advocates for LGBTQ rights. For those familiar with Bryant’s tactics, this sounds eerily familiar—and ominous.

So far this year, legislatures in several Republican states have rushed to enact laws that limit teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools from kindergarten through the third grade. The most notorious is what opponents have dubbed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which, among other things, allows parents to sue school districts they believe expose their children to age-inappropriate material. Elsewhere, a Vermont father was arrested and charged with harassment after he allegedly verbally threatened his daughter’s school, claiming that his daughter had been exposed to transgender students and drag queens. And in Idaho, an extremist group outfitted with riot shields, shin guards, and at least one smoke grenade was arrested for allegedly trying to plan a riot near a Pride event. NPR reported that this plot signaled “a shift in focus” to LGBTQ events for white supremacists.

Finally, at its convention this month, the Texas Republican Party adopted a platform that stands out as one of the most hateful anti-LGBTQ statements by a major political party in U.S. history. It refers to homosexuality as “an abnormal lifestyle choice,” rejects the existence of a transgender identity, and calls for banning “gender-affirming surgeries” for anyone under the age of 21. The Log Cabin Republicans were also denied a booth at the convention. All of this anti-gay animus flows directly from the top of the party. The national Republican Party platform in the 2020 presidential campaign, which some have called its “most anti-LGBT” ever, included opposition to marriage equality and support for discrimination against transgender people. It also effectively endorsed so-called conversion therapy, a discredited practice intended to change sexual orientation.

If there is a silver lining to the Dobbs decision, it’s that it reveals how much work needs to be done before LGBTQ Americans are accorded full equality. The hopes many had pinned on marriage equality have yet to be fully realized. And right now, even that seems in danger.

Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of political studies at Bard College and author of The Case for Gay Reparations and Democracy Without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting.

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