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Marriage Rulings Should Spark Broader Movement Building

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

The Supreme Court’s rulings on marriage will not lessen the everyday – sometimes subtle, often not – ways that many LGBT people get treated as less than equals.

With the pair of Supreme Court rulings striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, it seems at first glance as if we could be reaching the “turning point” that President Obama predicted in his remarks at the White House’s LGBT Pride Month celebration. But despite the progress in the march towards the inevitability of marriage rights, I can’t fully join in the celebration because today’s victories follow too closely on the heels the Court’s other decisions gutting the Voting Rights Act and chipping away at affirmative action. As a gay man of color, all four decisions matter deeply to me, but I think that these contrasting rulings should remind all of us that there’s quite a gap between removing barriers to equality and actively ensuring that justice is realized. 

Today’s victories over discrimination against same-sex couples have limits in their potential to broadly ensure justice for the LGBT community. The issue has little practical impact on the daily lives of the large share of the community who are single (a least 46% by some estimates). Furthermore, the patchwork of conflicting laws across this country will only get more complicated as states grapple to figure out the impact of today’s rulings. There are 29 states that have no protections against anti-LGBT discrimination in housing and employment. This legal mess both allowing and prohibiting discrimination could put people at risk of being fired for coming out at work when they try to access the benefits they’re entitled to as married couples. It’s therefore not surprising that a recent Pew poll shows that LGBT people actually rank “equal employment rights” as a higher priority than same sex marriage. 

The Supreme Court’s rulings on marriage will not lessen the everyday – sometimes subtle, often not – ways that many LGBT people get treated as less than equals. One in five LGBT people report having been treated unfairly by an employer because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This discrimination is, for the most part, legal in the workplace and has real impacts on people’s pocketbooks, which may help explain why – despite the “gay affluence myth” – LGBT people are more likely to be poor than straight people. In addition, nearly one-third of LGBT people report having been threatened or physically attacked because of their sexuality, and last month’s string of violent anti-gay attacks (including one murder) in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village – where the historic Stonewall rebellion helped spark the modern LGBT movement – put the rising rate of violence and hate crimes in stark contrast with the polling on increasing acceptance of LGBT people. 

These many remaining reminders of injustice against LGBT people are some of the reasons why the leaders interviewed and surveyed by the Building Movement Project (BMP) – an affiliate of Demos – for our new report “At The Crossroads: The Future of the LGBT Movement” think that the movement’s core vision and policy demands have to go beyond marriage. The laser-sharp focus on same-sex marriage by the movement’s most influential organizations and leaders had paid off in many ways, but today’s LGBT leaders are searching for a broader vision that is truly responsive to the needs of the wide diversity of the LGBT community (particularly those who are single, poor, people of color, transgender, etc.). The movement’s leaders are also interested in fostering stronger alliances with other progressive movements, in part because they recognize the challenge of fending off the backlash that will be inevitable from the opponents of equality – who are already practiced in the obstruction politics of the Tea Party

There is a lot to celebrate in today’s rulings, but there are still many barriers to this being a moment of lasting change and transformation. How the LGBT movement interprets its success on marriage in the context of setbacks for racial justice could expand not just the struggle for LGBT equality but help revitalize and align the progressive coalition that will be needed to continue the long fight for full inclusion and justice for everyone.

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld is a co-director of the Building Movement Project, which works to strengthen U.S. nonprofits as sites of social change.