Marriage Equality: What’s Next?
With unprecedented victories in the fight for marriage equality over the last two years, a majority of states now have legalized same-sex marriage. Even with the recent ruling upholding constitutional bans in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the question of same-sex marriage being legal in all 50 states seems to be when, not if.
In the mid-1990s, as the movement gained traction in reaction to the Defense of Marriage Act, making marriage rights a priority was controversial—even among advocates for LGBT civil rights. They feared that that the focus on the long-shot issue of marriage equality could jeopardize other important civil rights initiatives.
Were they right? What has happened with other advocacy efforts for civil rights?
Many LGBT people are still grappling with the same issues that originally galvanized the LGBT civil rights movement. “While it feels like we hear about a new victory every day, for many LGBT people, their lived experiences simply are not matching that narrative,” said Maya Rupert, policy director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “The reality is that a lot of the momentum around marriage hasn't translated to a number of other issues, including trans rights, LGBT youth homelessness, violence against trans women of color, and the myriad other issues that disproportionately impact the most marginalized in the LGBT community.”
“Many of us are concerned that we have placed the finish line too close to the start of the race,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “We are very worried that many of our best workers, thinkers, and funders will stand down once marriage is legal nationwide because we set our sights too low.”
Something as simple as being able to display family photographs at work can remain a risky prospect. “We now have a situation where same-sex couples can marry in states that otherwise lack legal protections for LGBT people,” said Ineke Mushovic, executive director of Movement Advancement Project, a think tank. “Wearing a wedding ring may end up costing a gay worker his job.”
It is legal to fire or refuse to hire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity in more than half the states. Despite 40 years of advocacy by a broad coalition of civil rights groups, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the proposed federal legislation prohibiting workplace discrimination, still has not passed. But as many as seven out of ten Americans believe that federal workplace protections already exist for LGBT workers, and this diminishes advocates’ ability to mobilize support. Even in Massachusetts, a state with explicit workplace protections and the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, LGBT employees face discrimination. Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders has filed a discrimination charge against Walmart after it refused to allow an employee in Swansea, Massachusetts, to add her wife to her health insurance plan, because they wouldn’t provide coverage for same-sex spouses. Although Walmart finally changed their policy in 2013, the couple still have over $100,000 in medical bills.
Further, the wide discrepancies that exist in state laws continue to have negative ramifications, especially for LGBT families. According to Lambda Legal, close to half the states permit second-parent adoptions by an unmarried partner. But then some states won’t recognize those parents, making them vulnerable in legal disputes with ex-spouses, ex-partners, or other relatives. Rules around filing taxes also vary by state. Since the 2013 Supreme Court Windsor decision that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, the IRS now recognizes same-sex marriages, no matter where the couple resides. But if they are in a state without it, couples can’t file their state taxes jointly, adding a layer of complications and financial costs.
Movement Advancement Project’s recent report, Paying An Unfair Price, looked at the economic impact of discrimination and found a higher percentage of LGBT Americans are living in poverty than non-LGBT Americans—and this discrepancy is greater in states with minimal protections against discrimination. “Anti-gay laws really have a one-two punch,” Mushovich explained. “First, these laws make it more likely that an LGBT person or family will struggle economically. But then the laws most hurt those who have the fewest financial resources.”
Rates of anti-LGBT violence remain steady, according to a recent report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, the umbrella organization of local anti-violence groups. Thirty-two percent of those who reported incidents of violence to law enforcement said they were then subjected to additional harassment by the police. And the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s 2014 National Schools Climate Survey found 74 percent of LGBT students were verbally harassed, and almost 36 percent were physically harassed.
Additionally, civil rights issues such as hate crimes and workplace discrimination haven’t received nearly the same media attention as same-sex marriage. “The media’s focus on marriage equality has introduced millions of Americans to committed same-sex couples, who simply want to marry the person they love,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) president and CEO. “But we have to continue the conversation and shine light on other issues facing our community—not just legislatively, but culturally too.”
Of course, there are positive repercussions to the media’s gaze on marriage equality. “It has increased visibility for LGBT people,” said Meghan Maury, policy counsel at the National LGBTQ Task Force. “Advocates have also learned a great deal about bringing the message of LGBT equality to the country in a way that more people feel personally connected to it.”
Advocates report more openness to LGBT civil rights issues among politicians and government officials—and with the general public. “The conversation has changed so dramatically and been catapulted to a much higher level,” said Beth Littrell, senior attorney at Lambda Legal. “It has taken away some of the lines around ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and erased ‘them.’”
And it has attracted new sources of funding. “The shift in public dialogue has helped many foundations see how they can support LGBTQ communities within their existing funding priorities,” said Kristina Wertz, director of engagement at Funders for LGBTQ Issues. “For example, a foundation focused on social services is more likely now than ever before to make sure their grant dollars are helping LGBTQ people too.” According to the organization’s 2012 Tracking Report: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Grantmaking by U.S. Foundations, foundation funding for LGBTQ issues grew from $32.1 million 2003 to $121.4 million in 2012.
The momentum around same-sex marriage has also created important coalition building. “We’ve found out which partners will stand next to us,” said Maury. “There is now a much broader civil rights movement working together.”
Moving forward, advocates hope that the current energy garnered from the same-sex marriage victories continues, and will be channeled toward achieving other civil rights initiatives vital to LGBTQ equality.