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No Gays Left Behind

The LGBT movement has a much longer road ahead than it seems

AFP Stringer/Getty Images

For those who don’t follow every twist and turn of the gay rights battle, the Supreme Court's invalidation of two major gay-marriage bans—the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Prop 8—may seem like the final victory for gay equality. Even some gay people seem to think the end is nigh, in part because the full legal impact of DOMA’s demise is not yet clear. Can those living in a state without gay marriage, for instance, hold a wedding in a friendly state and thus secure newly won federal benefits?

But a movement that, for understandable reasons, has come to be associated almost wholly with the fight for marriage equality now has a lot of private soul-searching and public dialoguing ahead. To avoid the risk of stalling, becoming irrelevant, or leaving many of its own, most vulnerable people behind, the LGBT movement must come to grips with the full nature of its challenges and the genuine diversity of its constituents and allies.

Planning for the future, of course, has already begun. The Los Angeles Times reported this week that gay-rights groups have announced a 5-year plan to win marriage equality in the remaining 37 states that still bar gay marriage. Lest folks think the Supreme Court’s work here is done, the strategy does not involve winning gay marriage in Alabama and Mississippi any time soon. Instead, it means winning enough states—through public education, lobbying, and litigation—to go back to the Supreme Court in a climate more ripe for a 50-state ruling.

Freedom to Marry's Evan Wolfson, a chief strategist of the marriage equality movement, speaks often of achieving a “critical mass” of states that allow same-sex marriage, which would make it easier in the future for the Supreme Court to strike down bans in the remaining states. This was the history lesson from Loving v. Virginia, the aptly named 1967 decision ending bans on interracial marriage. By that year, 34 states had ended their own bans, giving the justices a more solid argument for striking down bans in the remaining 16.

Expect, then, to see the LGBT movement use the same strategy that began to yield fruit in the 2012 elections. After decades of focusing on the rights and benefits of equality, gay advocates began to realize—with the help of enormous investments in research—that these messages were turning straight people off. Rights and benefits didn’t resonate with them as the reason they themselves valued marriage. Instead, love, commitment, and responsibility were the watchwords that worked. And by 2012, the year the first sitting president personally endorsed same-sex marriage, three states chose for the first time to legalize gay marriage by ballot vote—after a 30-state losing streak.

In this sense, so long as funders, advocates and allies don’t lose interest, we know what works. Gay groups have become far more sophisticated and coordinated in just the last five years, and the roadmap to full marriage equality seems clear, using this blend of state work (Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Nevada and Hawaii appear to be the next batch of low-hanging fruit) and litigation. And the most anti-gay states don’t need to change their tune in order to end marriage discrimination nationwide—the courts are likely to do that (assuming they don’t somehow swing wildly right) just as soon as a bunch more states and a bunch more hearts are won.

Therein lies a strategic and ethical challenge. It’s true that little investment in Alabama or Mississippi is needed to reach full marriage equality in, say, five to ten years. But marriage isn’t everything. And more to the point, Alabama and Mississippi have gay people who need protections and deserve equality just as those in coastal states and big cities do. The risk is that these folks will be left behind. Plus, the LGBT civil rights movement has a unique challenge that the black civil rights movement did not share: Queer kids generally grow up in straight families. In hostile states and communities, these kids can suffer for much of their lives under parents who find their own kids disgusting and unworthy of equal treatment.

That’s a powerful argument for both investing in anti-gay states and in tailoring that work to changing hearts and minds, not just laws. This work too, has begun. A new report from the Building Movement Project on the “Future of the LGBT Movement” surveyed dozens of LGBT and ally organizations and conducted 30 hours of interviews to help determine the future of the movement. The report identified a “tension between [the LGBT movement’s] current priorities and its future direction,” finding that, while its focus on marriage and military access was a helpful tool for building understanding and acceptance, those issues were ultimately limiting. “The broader public has found marriage, with its symbolic and systemic advantages, a pro-gay policy agenda they can support,” says the report. “However, marriage has also become so identified as the movement, especially for non-LGBT allies, that it threatens to leave out other crucial issues that would ensure full acceptance and just treatment of all LGBT people.” The report concludes there is a “growing disparity in capacity, leadership, and bench strength between groups and regions based on location, activities, and focus of the work” and that “the LGBT movement will need to develop and invest in a broader vision”—including building organizational capacity “beyond the coasts”—“that supports the aspirations of a larger number of individuals and organizations to once again make what seems impossible, possible.”

At a time like this, when LGBT people have so much to celebrate, it’s imperative to remember just how broad the movement is and how diverse the population, and its needs, really are. For too long the public face of the movement has been white men from blue states. Complacency around HIV/AIDS is growing as medical research makes leaps and bounds, with infection rates among young gay and bisexual African American men projected to reach 50 percent within a decade. In general, despite dramatic jumps in public approval of homosexuality, opposition to equality and even hatred of LGBT people remain major problems. Although 51 percent of Americans back gay marriage, a recent poll found that even young people are nearly split on whether same-sex relations are morally acceptable (48 percent say yes, 44 percent no).

This may help explain why, by some estimates, up to 70 percent of those who’ve engaged in homosexual activity remain closeted about it. And the failure of Congress or President Obama to push through job-protection measures makes this situation needlessly worse: How can people come out if they fear losing not just their loved ones, but their livelihood, too? For transgender Americans, who are just beginning to get the respect they deserve, discrimination and mistreatment are a daily challenge, and their rates of depression and related ailments are higher than the already high rates for gays and lesbians.

Finally, much of my current research focuses on the unconscious element of anti-gay sentiment. Undoubtably, much ongoing homophobia exists in the form of bias that’s not always reflected in people’s policy positions. They may support gay marriage in principle, and may vote for the candidate or ballot initiative accordingly; but they may still feel disgust or fear around gay people, and treat them accordingly—from hiring decisions to how they express love for a homosexual son or daughter.

If a lot of the problem is going on in the unconscious regions of our brain, the work for full equality must move well beyond same-sex marriage and even beyond policy work. It must come to terms with what the African American equality movement began to learn after the 1960s civil rights bills were finally passed: legal equality is only half the battle.