Have We Hit the Tipping Point for LGBT Equality?
Though the debt ceiling is dominating most political dialogue, the past week has included several important milestones for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Congress held its first hearing on repealing the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), an effort President Obama endorses. Same-sex marriage became legal in New York, meaning the number of Americans living in a state with marriage equality more than doubled. And the certification of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s repeal means that gay, lesbian, and bisexual servicemembers will be able to serve openly beginning Sept. 20. Add to those victories a new poll (PDF) confirming the trend that more people support allowing same-sex couples to marry than oppose, and it seems the times couldn’t be rosier for the LGBT movement, especially compared to where things stood 15 years ago. But this spate of successes does not necessarily indicate snowballing momentum. While there is plenty of reason to be optimistic that future victories might come more easily because of the progress that’s been made, there is a more immediate concern about backlash as conservatives continue to fight a very well-financed campaign against equality.
BEHIND OR AHEAD? Social justice for the LGBT community is arguably far behind public opinion. A majority of Americans did not support interracial marriage until almost 25 years after the Supreme Court overturned its ban in Loving v. Virginia. Ninety percent of voters think that LGBT people are already protected from employment discrimination, but in most states they aren’t. And though 73 percent support passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to create those protections, the bill is unlikely to pass while Republicans control the House. Even if it did, there still would not be federal protections for housing, health care, or public accommodations. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has also made it clear there will not be a vote to repeal DOMA under his leadership, so both ENDA and DOMA are legislatively adrift for now. In the meantime, opponents of equality are still very much on the offense. Rhode Island just passed an unpopular civil unions bill so weakened by religious conservatives that any religious organization (like a hospital) can completely disregard a couple’s union. Minnesota and North Carolina will face ballot measures in 2012 to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage. And through an enigmatic fundraising campaign called “Ignite An Enduring Cultural Transformation,” marriage equality opponents are pouring millions of dollars into anti-gay state groups, which may allow them to create even more new challenges to equality in the coming election cycle. Battles have been won, but the war wages on, or as the New York Times said this weekend, “One Step Forward, More To Take.”
BACKLASH OR BACKFIRE? The ousting last November of three Iowa judges who ruled for marriage equality was a reminder that backlash often follows success. California recently passed the FAIR Education Act, which will require that California schools include contributions of LGBT people in curricula. Such a law strikes at the heart of anti-gay fear-mongering, which is built upon the false notion that the queer community is somehow a “threat” to children. The backlash has been intense, and a coalition of groups is already spreading lies about the law in hopes of repealing it at the ballot. Such backlash can be very destructive, but can also reveal the true colors of “family” groups’ insidious motivations. As same-sex couples married in New York yesterday, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) actually protested their unions under the false premise of “Let The People Vote” — false because New York state doesn’t actually have a referendum process. Proudly condemning couples’ commitment ceremonies cannot be a positive PR move, particularly given there was little to distinguish NOM’s protest from that of the much-despised Westboro Baptist Church. If the ill-fated “marriage vow” of Iowa’s FAMiLY LEADER is any indication, such brazen backlashes can easily backfire if taken too far. Voters get to look behind the curtain of the “defend marriage” and “protect children” rhetoric to see the underlying vitriolic homophobia in its purest form.
SEEING THE LIGHT: If anything, the extra focus on LGBT issues may be increasing the public’s understanding of sexuality and gender. The media attention on the harmful ex-gay therapy offered in Marcus Bachmann’s Christian counseling clinics provides an important opportunity to shine light on the bogus ideas that inform anti-gay beliefs. Dispelling the myth that people can choose or change their sexual orientation is the key to winning support for LGBT equality, and for once, the federal government is helping to further that education. By resisting DOMA and calling for heightened scrutiny for sexual orientation, the Department of Justice is taking ownership for the history of discrimination perpetuated by the government and calling for its end. The DOJ is also working with the Department of Education to make sure schools are held accountable for the bullying that takes place in them, such as in California’s Tehachapi School District and hopefully soon in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District. Likewise, educating voters about the true impact of discrimination is key to future victories. Activists in Maine are going door-to-door to share the stories of couples who have faced such oppression in hopes of passing marriage equality at the ballot in 2012. Minnesotans are similarly using family videos to win their ballot fight. Maryland equality advocates have formed a new governor-led coalition modeled after New York’s to create lots of public dialogue over the next year. The movement is energized and motivated to keep the successes coming. And though the road to equality has many bumps and setbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel seems brighter than ever.