Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The LGBTQ Rights Movement Isn't Simply About Marriage

By Michael AlterPublished October 21, 2014

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The focus on achieving marriage equality across the nation, while an incredibly noble, worthy, and necessary goal, has the potential to be limiting to the LGBTQ rights movement as a whole by focusing the general public only on one aspect of what it means to be queer in America today.
By Michael Alter, 10/21/2014

Writing for the majority in U.S. v. Windsor, the Supreme Court case that last year struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional, Justice Kennedy said that "DOMA… is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment." This statement highlights what to many people is the most important portion of the debate surrounding same-sex marriage legalization: same-sex married couples deserve no less dignity for their expression of love than heterosexual married couples.

            For this reason, it is right that now over 60% of the people in the United States live in states where same-sex marriage is legal. Given recent decisions from the Supreme Court, Appellate Courts, and District Courts it seems now inevitable that same-sex marriage will be legal in the eyes of every state in the union, the federal government, the District of Columbia, and the several Native American Tribes.

            However, there is something else that I think is worthy of mentioning. The implications of the rulings regarding same-sex marriage is that not just the couples should not be made to feel like their relationship is inferior, but that the individuals should not be made to feel like their desire for such relationships is also unwanted. As much as it is fantastic that people all across this country are finally being able to live out their dreams of being married to the ones they love, it is important to remember that they are people — and people care about more than just marriage.

            Comparisons have been made between the current fight for equal marriage rights and the past-but-still-not-over fight for civil rights for racial minorities. Some people could even make the argument that U.S. v. Windsor is the modern version of Brown v. Board of Ed. (which, if so, is a bit disheartening given that Windsor was 5-4 and Brown was unanimous). And while it is easy to see such similarities as protest marches, parades through certain areas, court cases that reach national levels of attention, bigoted counter-protests and episodes of violence, the differences are quite numerous. The differences in skin color making casual identification of the "other" far easier and the persistent, regular use of extreme violence by police forces and their incredible reluctance to integrate are only the most obvious.

            The legacy of racism through over 250 years of slavery was and often still is more pernicious than anti-gay bigotry. The civil rights movement targeted many different things in American society in order to combat that legacy, and people recognized that, whereas it could appear to many people today that LGBTQ rights campaigners are targeting the institution of marriage above and perhaps even to the exclusion of other institutions. It is worth remembering that the goals of the civil rights movement were many, and were about much more than just being able to sit anywhere on a bus, or stay in any motel, or eat at any restaurant lunch counter. Workplace and housing discrimination, voter disenfranchisement, school segregation, and many other issues were all targets of the movement.

            The percentage of homeless youth that is LGBTQ is disproportionally large, and the physical and mental care that must go into caring for homeless youth is often not adequately tailored to the more specific needs and/or fears of LGBTQ youth. According to the CDC, the LGBTQ population is more vulnerable to addiction and substance abuse, which can affect long-term mental health and can preclude other life choices which are often already more difficult for these individuals to deal with than for the general heterosexual population, such as adoption. Same-sex marriage is a fundamental right that should be extended to all American jurisdictions. However, to say that housing and workplace discrimination, not to mention the other issues, will be solved by equalizing marriage obviously makes no sense. The targets of the civil rights movement were more than the right to vote; the targets of the LGBTQ rights movement have to be more than the right to marry.

            My concern in writing this was that, when state #50 adds its name to the list of places where same-sex marriage is legal, an unfortunately large number of people will think that "gay rights has been achieved" in a similar way that some people believed that civil rights had been achieved with the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. For those who truly believe that our legal system should not discriminate against people based on color, creed, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or other such things, it will be important to remind other people that victory in the fight for the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide will not be the end, but "the end of the beginning" in the fight to secure equal rights for members of the LGBTQ community.