We appear to have reached a tipping point in the push toward marriage equality in America. The movement is sweeping (or at least, ambling quickly) across the nation. Tuesday night, Illinois became the 15th state to decide that all marriages between two loving people were valid in the eyes of the law. Congratulations, Illinois! It’s a great day, to be sure; it loosens the stranglehold of entrenched gender roles; it acknowledges LGBT Americans as full human beings deserving of dignity; it chips away a little bit of religion’s outsize influence in our society; and most of all, it confers all of the privileges and status of marriage equally among all couples. Those are all great things. But as with many movements (cough cough, feminism, I’m looking at you) it’s a boon mostly benefiting the privileged in the community, so in honor of this moment, I’d like to point out a few LGBT civil rights issues that we need to keep our eye on.
Many people in America don’t realize that most states still allow an employer to discriminate against LGBT employees and applicants based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. In fact, only 17 states have laws on the books that include LGBT individuals as a protected group. So, appropriately (surprisingly?) our Congress has decided to take a break from lighting things on fire and throwing their toys from the pram and has actually decided to make a law to deal with this, called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA. It’s likely to pass the Senate with ease, as all 55 Democrats and several Republicans are expected to vote for it.
But let’s not get out our platform heels and disco balls just yet: it’s likely to be stalled in the House, which is still run by the Tea Party, who are totally about taxes and not at all a bunch of religious fundamentalists (ahem). So, if we want LGBT equality, we’d better get on the task of hounding our representatives about it. It’s far from a slam dunk, but with lots of pressure and arm-twisting, we did eventually get this same angry mob to pass a Violence Against Women Act that included LGBT people too. ENDA is a big issue because, maybe even more so than marriage equality, it crosscuts most segments of the LGBT community. Not everyone wants to get married. But pretty much everyone needs a job.
Equality of Economic Opportunity
Americans generally harbor the stereotype of the affluent gay professional (think Will from “Will & Grace”), and while there are plenty in the community who fit that description, there as many or even more gays living on the fringes, in poverty. After all, if your employment is an open question simply by virtue of who you are, it’s not hard to see why it might be tough for some to make ends meet if they don’t live in a gay-friendly place or work in a gay-friendly industry. And generally speaking, it’s the kids who have it the worst. While the general youth population is about 10% LGBT, the homeless youth population is about 20% LGBT. This is due to a high rate of family conflict among gay and transgendered youth, whose parents either abuse them until they run away, or throw them out of their homes and disown them. Even more heartbreaking is that many of these kids are at much higher risk for sexual victimization and violence once homeless, and twice as high a risk of suicide. Who wouldn’t be, after the way some of these parents react?
Despite the fact that the most recent version of VAWA was expanded to include gay and transgendered individuals, there is still a lot of work to do to bring the homeless shelter system up to speed on the need to shelter LGBT individuals. The trans community has a particularly tough row to hoe, as many individuals who do not identify as male are still forced into homeless shelters for men, where they are targets for abuse and violence.
Equal Concern for Public Health Issues
African Americans as a group are at higher risk for HIV infection than the general population, but it is a particularly big problem among gay black men, who are marginalized both by racism in the gay community, and homophobia in the black community (and not just the church community). The rate of new infections among gay black men is double that of their white counterparts. These factors contribute to increased risky behavior, less willingness to admit to risky behavior, and the tendency to stay insular within the gay black dating pool. I’m not a gay black man (obviously), but I have seen what kind of treatment some gay men of color often put up with from their communities attempting to police their masculinity. It’s the dictionary definition of “patriarchy hurts men too.”
While the march of marriage equality may help move the needle on attitudes toward gays in the black community (which will help remove some of the shame and stigma attached to being gay) we need more than that, sooner than that. We need a public health campaign for this, pursued with the same vigor as anti-smoking campaigns, or anti-drunk-driving campaigns.
Transgender/Intersexed Visibility and Acceptance
I am a cisgendered woman. That means, I mostly identify with the set of reproductive bits I happen to have been born with. I don’t have any idea what it must be like for the roughly 700,000 Americans who are not comfortable in the body they got dealt. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the cisgendered privilege I enjoy. There’s a lot of work to do on this.
Germany has recently introduced an “other” box for the gender option on birth certificates in case the child is born intersexed or the parents simply wish to allow the child to define his/her gender when he/she gets older. Can you imagine such an option becoming common here? I would pay to watch Pat Robertson’s head explode. I’m not saying that particular initiative is what’s most important for the transgender community; it’s just an example of what can be done if you start thinking about shaping public policy around the principle of inclusion. And, if we’re to achieve that, we need to start listening to trans voices. That means, oh radical feminists, accepting trans women as women. And it means, my cisgendered friends, remembering that trans people are people and worthy of the same respect and freedom from discrimination and prejudice as anyone.
So, let’s toast to marriage equality! I’m thrilled that many of my dear friends who couldn’t marry before will be able to do so now. My lovely old voice teacher and his partner of 60 years can finally tie the knot. The recognition of marriage equality surely will have a role in righting the many inequities faced by LGBT Americans, and will play its part in the relaxing of strictly assigned gender roles, which will benefit all of us. There’s nothing to dislike here. But let’s not forget, equality doesn’t begin or end there. There is still so much left to be done.