Date of Award




Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of Political Science

Content Description

1 online resource (ii, x, 206 pages) : illustrations (some color)

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

Julie Novkov

Committee Members

Patricia Strach, Udi Sommer


Legal Mobilization, Political Opportunity, Social Movements, Homosexuality, Gay liberation movement, Gay rights, Gay activists, Sexual minorities

Subject Categories

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies | Political Science


This research examines the question of strategic choice in the context of the gay and lesbian rights movement. Although social movements often combine legislative, electoral and legal strategies to effect change, systematic legal efforts on behalf of gay rights did not emerge until well after a concerted lobbying and legislative campaign arose. Why did a politically powerless group seeking rights turn to litigation much later than we might have expected? A targeted case study of gay activism in Boston confirms that political opportunity is an important external factor that shapes strategic choice. However, the impact of these structural factors is mediated by activists’ systematic optimistic bias, or the tendency to exaggerate opportunity and minimize constraint for the purpose of sustaining social movement activities. By situating the question of strategic choice in a multidimensional framework, the analysis indicates that activists tend to capitalize on defeat in one institutional venue in order to facilitate mobilization in another. In addition to illustrating the productive effects of political and legal loss, the implications for cause lawyering are discussed. Contrary the myth of rights, which holds that lawyers naively rely on courts to bring about social change, this research indicates that gay activist attorneys voiced concerns about law’s limitations while effectively representing gay interests inside (and outside) the courtroom.