Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



It is now commonplace to hear the LGBT rights movement being described as the last, or the next, or today’s, pre-eminent civil rights issue. This chapter will explore what that means from several perspectives: What does the label tell us about the civil rights paradigm itself? If the achievement of marriage equality is the great civil rights achievement of this generation, what does that suggest about a future for equality more generally? How have new forms of, and technologies for, movement building affected the idea and practice of civil rights? Does the civil rights paradigm have a future? I focus in on three aspects of the social meaning of civil rights: legal doctrine and legal institutions, social movement strategies, and the tension between the discourse of challenges to social hierarchy and that of civil rights.

What we learn is that LGBT advocates have contributed to the overall project of formal equality under law primarily by developing an extraordinary strategic and tactical dexterity, uniquely so at the state level and in its alliance with the business sector. As to the latter, however, there are serious potential disadvantages. In the current political framework, the possibility of advances in substantive equality law-–either statutory or Constitutional-–has shrunken to the point that, even as LGBT rights groups make breakthroughs in achieving goals such as marriage equality, they will do well to avoid having to take backward steps with regard to such overarching concepts as the disparate impact principle or heightened scrutiny. For the future, the big question for this movement-–and all other social justice movements in the United States-–is whether it will deploy its talents and resources to challenge embedded, structural forms of discrimination.

Publication Citation

Nan D. Hunter, Civil Rights 3.0, in A NATION OF WIDENING OPPORTUNITIES? THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT AT FIFTY, (Samuel Bagenstos and Ellen Katz, eds., University of Michigan Press forthcoming)