How Fox News Fought, Lost, And Rebooted The Fight Against Marriage Equality

On November 18, 2003, Bill O'Reilly dedicated the “Talking Points Memo” portion of his Fox News show to criticizing the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which had just made a historic ruling determining that the state could not deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In his monologue, O'Reilly claimed that while he personally “couldn't care less about gay marriage,” if judges continued to “impose their views on everybody else ... the core values of this country will be changed dramatically”:

O'REILLY: Personally I couldn't care less about gay marriage. If Tommy and Vinny or Joanie and Samantha want to get married, I don't see it as a threat to me or anybody else. But according to a poll by the Pew Research Center, only 32 percent of Americans favor gay marriage. And the will of the people must be taken into account here.

We simply can't allow this country to be run by ideological judges. Marriage is not a right, neither is driving a car. Both are privileges granted by the state.


If the good people of Massachusetts want a secular approach to marriage, let them vote on it. But judges have no right to find loopholes in the law and impose their views on everybody else. That's happening all over America. And if it continues, the core values of this country will be changed dramatically. Another secular victory today, this Massachusetts marriage deal.

It took 12 years, but the U.S. Supreme Court has now ruled, in Obergefell v. Hodges, that state bans on same-sex marriage violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The decision is the culmination of a culture war saga that saw marriage equality evolve from a controversial thought experiment into a popularly-supported civil rights struggle.

That evolution was reflected in nearly all facets of American media. As public opinion on same-sex relationships and homosexuality shifted, so too did media depictions of the LGBT community, both mirroring and reinforcing the normalization of same-sex relationships in the public's imagination. In popular culture and mainstream news reporting, the fight for same-sex marriage has increasingly been presented as the story of a marginalized group fighting for civil rights and equal treatment, much to the dismay of anti-LGBT conservatives.

But while most major media outlets kept pace with the public's evolution on same-sex marriage, Fox News held out, popularizing conservatives' most dire warnings about marriage equality. As public support for marriage equality grew, the network shifted its focus - largely bowing out of debates over same-sex marriage in order to gin up right-wing fears about the threat that LGBT equality might soon pose to religious liberty and individual freedoms.

Fox News' “Slippery Slope”

Though he claimed he “couldn't care less” about the issue, O'Reilly -- then Fox News' most influential television personality -- has been perhaps the network's loudest voice against same-sex marriage, bolstering his "culture warrior" credentials by peddling bogus horror stories about the dangers of marriage equality. In the years following the Massachusetts decision, O'Reilly claimed that same-sex marriage would cause a decline in marriage ratesclog the court system, possibly lead to people marrying goatsducks, and dolphins, and negatively impact the children of same-sex couples. To O'Reilly, the push for same-sex marriage was part of a broader secularist plot to marginalize Christianity and abolish the institution of marriage altogether.

On his radio show in 2005, O'Reilly argued that the Founding Fathers hadn't addressed gay marriage in the Constitution, “Because back then, if you were gay, they hung you":

O'REILLY: You know, the Founding Fathers didn't write anything into the Constitution about gay marriage. Because back then, if you were gay, they hung you. So -- you couldn't get married because they put you in the rack. You know, if you were running around wearing a chartreuse hat, you were in lots of trouble. So, we didn't even have to worry about these people getting married because if they come out of their closet in the log cabin -- somebody'll shoot them in the head. So, there really wasn't an issue back in the Founding Fathers.

But as the push for marriage equality evolved from a novel and controversial legal story to a mainstream civil rights struggle - due in large part to the national debate over California's ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage, Proposition 8 - the issue gained the attention of a broader range of Fox News personalities.

In 2009, Fox & Friends  co-host Steve Doocy noted the growing acceptance of marriage equality and asked, “Gay marriage on the march ... but what about Americans that want to marry multiple partners at the same time?" The slippery slope argument became a staple of the network's opposition to same-sex marriage. Marriage equality would supposedly "open a Pandora's Box," paving the way to “triad” marriages, bestiality, and polygamy.

That same year, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously held that the state's ban on same-sex marriage violated Iowa's constitution. Glenn Beck, who at the time was near the height of his Fox News fame, cited the decision as evidence that the fight for marriage equality “is actually about... attacking churches and saying you can't teach anything else." The idea that marriage equality is primarily an attack on religious liberty would eventually become one of Fox's central narratives in its fight to oppose basic legal protections for LGBT people.

Later that year, the Miss USA pageant was embroiled in controversy after Miss California USA Carrie Prejean stated her opposition to marriage equality and support for “opposite marriage.” Her answer garnered widespread criticism, prompting Fox News to rush to her defense and decry the intolerance and political correctness of the gay community.

Fox's opposition to same-sex marriage garnered praise from anti-gay groups. In February of 2010, Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), penned a New York Post op-ed touting Fox News as an example of the “counter-media” that would help anti-gay conservatives win the culture war.

And anti-gay groups would soon find themselves needing Fox's help more and more. 

The Turning Tide

In late 2010, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker overturned California's Proposition 8, dealing a major blow to conservatives who had fought tooth-and-nail to mobilize religious opposition to same-sex marriage in a traditionally liberal state. Fox News contributor Liz Trotta decried the media's positive coverage of the decision, suggesting that Walker had a "vested interest" in striking down the ban because he is gay - a sentiment echoed elsewhere on Fox News. O'Reilly similarly decried the decision as an example of "judicial activism."

A few months later, in early 2011, the Obama administration's Justice Department announced that it would no longer defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court. The announcement triggered an apoplectic reaction from Fox News, led by Megyn Kelly, who invited NOM's Gallagher to condemn the Obama administration and push falsehoods about what the announcement would mean. Mike Huckabee, then the host of his own Fox News show, argued that marriage equality posed a threat to "stable society."

In June, marriage equality advocates scored another major victory.

New York made history by becoming the largest state in the country to recognize same-sex marriage through a legislative vote, more than doubling the number of people living in marriage equality states. It was a devastating loss for anti-gay groups, who poured significant funds into unsuccessfully pressuring a handful of moderate Republican lawmakers to oppose same-sex marriage.

The news seemed ripe to become the next major flashpoint in Fox's campaign against same-sex marriage, but something strange happened: the network largely ignored it.

The same was true for Fox's coverage of the beginning of same-sex weddings in New York several months later. Fox's Lou Dobbs wondered why other media outlets had paid so much attention to the story. Even more bizarre: News Corp., Fox's parent company at the time, announced that it would be publishing a wedding magazine, Wedding Pride, aimed at same-sex couples in New York. 

The network's silence didn't go unnoticed by NOM's Gallagher, who publicly criticized Fox News for not covering major same-sex marriage stories. But her criticism didn't slow Fox's distancing from the same-sex marriage fight. In August, Beck told O'Reilly he'd stopped devoting attention to same-sex marriage stories because he believed "we have bigger fish to fry."

Fox's broader opposition to marriage equality was losing some of its bite. As pressure grew for President Obama to publicly endorse same-sex marriage following Vice President Joe Biden's candid comments in early 2012, the network's coverage focused more on the administration's political posturing than the substance of the same-sex marriage debate. 

After Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage in May, Fox Nation announced the president had declared “WAR ON MARRIAGE,” and then quickly changed its headline. Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson asked if Obama's support for marriage equality meant he was "demonizing those who disagree with him." The criticisms were typical of the network's anti-Obama shtick, but they were also strangely devoid of the “slippery slope” doomsaying that had characterized its prior coverage. The most notable Fox reaction actually came from Shep Smith, who made headlines when he stated the president was "now in the 21st century." His comments were, unsurprisingly, criticized by Gallagher and her anti-gay peers. Later that month, Gallup found majority support for marriage equality for the first time in American history.

But even as the network backed away from its typical talking points against same-sex marriage, it continued to support anti-gay conservatives who were finding themselves increasingly out-of-step with public attitudes on the issue. In August of 2012, the fast food chain Chick-fil-A became a conservative cause célèbre after it was criticized for its opposition to LGBT equality. Fox News rushed to Chick-fil-A's defense, led by Huckabee, who decried the “vicious hate speech and intolerant bigotry” aimed at the company. Huckabee launched “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” and was joined by other Fox News personalities who urged viewers to give their money to the company.

A Gay Marriage “Revolution” At Fox?

The same month that Huckabee was rallying the country around Chick-fil-A, Buzzfeed declared that “The Gay Rights Revolution” had arrived at Fox News, citing a number of pro-equality comments made by Fox News personalities. Noting the network's growing unwillingness to wade into the marriage battle, Buzzfeed reporter Rosie Gray argued that “Fox is tracing, and perhaps at times leading, a broad and at times disconcertingly fast shift inside Republican politics.”

Evidence of Fox's “gay rights revolution” continued to mount as the months went on. Fox personalities including Megyn KellyLou Dobbs, and Geraldo Rivera made comments suggesting they supported allowing gays and lesbians to marry. Aside from some faux outrage over the prospect of gender-neutral marriage licenses, the network virtually ignored the historic victories for same-sex marriage in November of 2012, when three states became the first in American history to adopt marriage equality through a popular vote.

When President Obama mentioned marriage equality in his 2013 State of the Union address, the co-hosts of Fox's The Five expressed casual support, with co-host Dana Perino even asking “who talks about gay marriage anymore?” Her comments were echoed by Fox's Jon Scott, who reacted to the Supreme Court's hearing of arguments about DOMA and Proposition 8 by asking why the media paid so much attention to the debate.

But Fox's attempt to quietly distance from an issue that had unified social conservatives wasn't seamless. The network struggled to handle the fiasco that erupted when its rising star, Ben Carson, compared supporters of marriage equality to people that advocate for bestiality and pedophilia on Hannity in March 2013. The next month, O'Reilly was embroiled in controversy after claiming that opponents of same-sex marriage "thump the Bible" and unsuccessfully rely on religious arguments during debates about marriage. All the while, the network continued to largely ignore the growing list of states adopting same-sex marriage on their own and would continue to do so well into 2014

When the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of DOMA and invalidated Proposition 8 in June of 2013, the tension between Fox's social conservative wing and its more moderate public face was on full display. While the network's culture war commentators predicted the collapse of civilization and the criminalization of Christianity, many Fox News personalities seemed to be at a loss for ways to criticize the court's decision. During one segment, Happening Now host Jenna Lee even explicitly asked her guests not to get into a debate about the merits of same-sex marriage.

After Marriage, “Religious Liberty”

Still, it would be misleading to describe Fox's changing tone on same-sex marriage as evidence of a “gay rights revolution.” For one, not everyone at Fox has been able to move on from the network's “slippery slope” days. Fox News still regularly invites anti-LGBT extremists to peddle wild attacks on marriage equality. 

But the real problem with celebrating Fox's softer tone in the lead up to Obergefell is that it belies the network's campaign to make anti-LGBT discrimination more palatable to the general public. Fox's response to stories like Chick-fil-A and the Miss USA controversy were precursors to the network's cynical new balancing act when it comes to LGBT equality. Rather than attacking same-sex marriage outright, the network would highlight stories that depicted anti-gay groups and individuals as the victims of the culture war whose free speech and religious liberty were being threatened by overly ambitious gay rights activists. That narrative has allowed the network to continue providing red meat to its anti-gay audience while avoiding the kind of blatantly homophobic arguments that have fallen out of favor with the public.

Fox's balancing act -- enabling and protecting anti-LGBT bigotry instead of advancing it outright -- has had a tremendous impact on the national debate about LGBT equality. It's helped blur the lines between mainstream Christianity and extreme, blatant homphobia in popular culture. It's helped turn business owners who refuse to serve same-sex weddings into right-wing martyrs and celebrities. It's helped lay the groundwork for a host of extreme "religious freedom" laws like the ones in Indiana and Arizona. And it's undermined efforts to enact even basic legal protections to prevent discrimination against LGBT people.

Rather than evolve with the American public in its treatment of same-sex couples and the LGBT community, Fox News has primarily tinkered with its messaging strategy, occasionally paying lip service to the idea of same-sex marriage while drumming up a “religious persecution” narrative that's served to seriously undercut the advancement of substantive LGBT equality. It's a smart pivot for a network that's always smudged the line between real journalism and right-wing propaganda. And after Obergefell, Fox's attempts to depict the LGBT community as sore winners will likely be even more prevalent. 

It's been many years have passed since O'Reilly first turned his attention to the looming specter of same-sex marriage, but Fox News' role as a bulwark against the advancement of LGBT equality remains largely unchanged.

Video by Rachel Percelay and John Kerr.