The Campaign for LGBT Equality Won’t End with Marriage Victory
Some people have been asking me what I think will happen to the gay rights movement once the freedom to marry becomes the law of our land. Will there no longer be a need for national organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and GLAAD? And what about state lobbying groups such as Equality Delaware (Florida, North Carolina…name your state), and local LGBT support groups such as CAMP Rehoboth?
Certainly, the struggle for marriage equality has been our signature issue in recent years, but it is far from our only one. And while it may be a little more difficult for LGBT organizations to raise money without the passion the marriage issue has mustered in our movement, queer people will still need all the clout we can marshal to protect and advance the gains we are achieving.
Just as the Civil Rights Act of 50 years ago did not bring an end to racist acts and attitudes, neither will a Supreme Court decision upholding the right of same-sex couples to wed put a stop to homophobic acts and attitudes. The NAACP, Urban League and other civil-rights groups continue to have a full agenda half a century after passage of the Civil Rights Act, and gay/lesbian/transgender rights alliances will be needed as far into the future as any of us can see.
For one thing, there will continue to be narrow-minded politicians who want to rescind same-sex marriage, and they will mount seemingly endless campaigns to undo our civil rights in much the way the GOP continues to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act even though it’s working well and most people like it. As long as a politician thinks a base of popularity can be built on bigotry, he (and an occasional she) will go for it.
As LGBT people become more fully protected in American society, there will be an even greater need for advocacy groups to assure that laws are not being violated. Legal organizations such as Lambda Legal and the ACLU will have ample opportunities to defend gay citizens from illicit bias and to make sure new laws and court rulings don’t take us backwards in time.
One such recent Supreme Court decision threatens to do just that, and it sets back a decade’s worth of effort to protect LGBT people in the workplace—one of the numerous situations where discrimination remains legal under federal law. For years, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has failed to pass the House of Representatives, though it did pass the Senate last year. Now, it appears the act will have to be revised in the wake of this summer’s Supreme Court ruling in Hobby Lobby’s corporate religious-rights suit. The revision is likely to make passage of job equality even more difficult.
Many national LGBT rights organizations have withdrawn their support from the current version of ENDA, concerned about its exemption that would allow religious organizations to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Those demanding a change in the exemption include the ACLU, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, NGLTF, GLAAD, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center.
The provision, which was included in the bill to improve its chances of passage among more conservative religious legislators, “has long been a source of significant concern to us,” according to a joint statement by several of the LGBT groups and distributed by the ACLU. “Given the types of workplace discrimination we see increasingly against LGBT people, together with the calls for greater permission to discriminate on religious grounds that followed immediately upon the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, it has become clear that the inclusion of this provision is no longer tenable.
“ENDA’s discriminatory provision, unprecedented in federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, could provide religiously affiliated organizations—including hospitals, nursing homes and universities—a blank check to engage in workplace discrimination against LGBT people. The provision essentially says that anti-LGBT discrimination is different— more acceptable and legitimate—than discrimination against individuals based on their race or sex.
“If ENDA were to pass and be signed into law with this provision,” the joint statement continues, “the most important federal law for the LGBT community in American history would leave too many jobs, and too many LGBT workers, without protection.” What’s more, such a discrimination provision in federal law could invite states and cities to follow the unequal federal lead. Of course, 29 states still offer no jobs protection of their own to gay citizens; the number rises to 32 for transgender people.
The hard work remaining to bring employment equality to LGBT people is just one reason we will continue to need a strong network of national and state-based gay rights groups. Other issues include fair housing and accommodation (there is still no federal protection), elder care, bullying in schools and cyberspace, hate crimes, censorship, adoption and parental rights, and even (he types incredulously) the right to donate blood.
Just this year gay activists have had to battle serious efforts by some states, most notably Arizona, to allow businesses to turn away gay customers on religious grounds. (Religious persecution is the right wing’s current mantra for supporting most forms of discrimination and one that will have to be countered again and again in the years to come). I don’t know why any gay male or lesbian couple would want to eat a cake concocted by a chef who spits at the very mention of their wedding, but the notion that states need to enact laws to protect holier-than-thou bakers from queer customers is a food fight of desperation staged by right wing political groups frustrated that they’re losing the battle to keep marriage straight-exclusive. Still, even the most harebrained scheme can gain traction—the legislature passed the measure in Arizona and the governor had to veto it—unless there is a well-organized response system from within the LGBT community.
Local groups still have important roles, too. Statewide, Delaware has been very progressive in enacting LGBT rights legislation from marriage equality to protections for people based on their gender identity and expression. Still, community-based organizations such as CAMP Rehoboth will always be needed to support people on an individual and small-group basis. There is always a member of the community whose rights have been violated; there’s always a young person terrified to acknowledge her or his sexual orientation; there’s always a victim of bullying or harassment to protect; there’s always a gay senior citizen with dwindling assets and nowhere to go; there’s always someone in need of HIV testing and other health counseling.
So don’t bemoan the imminent passing of the vast network of national, state, and local LGBT organizations that have accomplished so much in the 45 years since the Stonewall riots. Many of them will still be around for another 45 years— and as long our people continue to support their work.