What a relief it was to hear that the US Supreme Court had overturned Section 3 of the “Defense of Marriage Act” that was signed into law by centrist Democrat Bill Clinton in 1996. No longer can the federal government define marriage as exclusively heterosexual.
Now it’s back to the states, for this Court is for nothing if it isn’t states’ rights. The President can decide if federal marriage benefits are defined by the definition of marriage in the state one lives or the state one is married in, but the battle for full marriage equality depends upon politics at those state levels and some long, drawn-out court cases that must begin soon with same-sex couples suing for recognition in their non-accepting home states.
One legal hurdle is gone, and the celebrations all around the nation were exuberant, maybe overly. There should be relief that on the way to full human rights the law has taken this turn even as the right-wing flails in reaction and there’s so much more to do.
The push for marriage all began with the hope embedded in Hawaii’s surprising legalization of marriage equality in 1993. Since then, the majority of the resources of the LGBT community and its allies have been focused upon marriage equality.
In addition to this lengthy court case, thirteen states have since changed their laws with one or two more following soon.
The concentration of resources on marriage equality isn’t surprising because for those in LGBT communities who are privileged not to have to worry about their jobs and wealth – those who control the most resources – this is the cause that touches most immediately upon their self-interest.
But in the 29 states where someone can be fired for being gay and the 34 for being transgender, those not so privileged experience more life or death issues. The more basic issues of jobs, careers, and income loom large.
As Harvard professor and author of A Queer History of the United States, Michael Bronski told Salon.com: “All of these probably white, probably upper-middle-class people who’ve been fighting for marriage because it’s a good fight, will they be as willing to give $500 a year to Lambda [Legal] to fight trans youth harassed by police? We’re dealing with how people’s politics come out of their experiences.
“A white middle-class couple living in the suburbs of Illinois may not have much desire to think about transgender youth, possibly of color, living in New York City or San Francisco. Isn’t that the job of the national organizations to convince people that this is as important as the issue of same-sex marriage?”
Journalist-filmmaker David France, known for his documentary chronicling activism during the AIDS crisis, How to Survive a Plague , was even more concerned: “This is a deeply conservative victory and, yes, a too expensive one, given what our leaders have let slide in recent years. Marriage won’t stop the runaway HIV epidemic among our young. It won’t stop religious hatred, sexual assaults, reparative therapy crimes, bullying, Mormons, Boy Scouts or popes.
“Although I am myself gay-married, and while I do enjoy being endorsed by a SCOTUS majority, even a slim one, I’ve been utterly dumbstruck watching every resource at the community’s disposal channeled into this one optional and limited middle-class goal.
“We used to be revolutionaries. We once were outlaws. And now: betrothed? If we settle for this, we let the whole world down.”
For those not privileged, news that the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act had obtained its fiftieth U.S. Senate sponsor and was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee by a 15-7 bipartisan vote on July 10, could have raised the hope of some economic security.
But even FOX and CNN gave no coverage to the furthest ENDA had advanced in the seventeen years since it was first introduced to Congress. And one wonders how many in the LGBT community even know ENDA is a cause.
Even in the former slave state of Missouri, the state’s senate ended its session by for the first time passing the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act. The fight for this first step by Missouri’s LGBT political advocacy group, PROMO, has been long and grueling, but it hasn’t received anything like the amount of attention and financial support that has left Missouri to promote the marriage cause.
It’s not unusual for those in any demographic who have risen in a class system above overt discrimination to forget what it’s still like for the majority. It’s not unusual for them even to deny the discrimination others experience, refuse to believe that much discrimination still exists, or blame those who experience it as bringing it on themselves. Just think Clarence Thomas.
But times like these are also tests as to whether any community of people actually exists. Is the category being used to lump people together a fiction? Or is economic class what really and primarily divides Americans from one another when it comes down to it?
The pursuit of marriage equality without the same effort invested toward ending workplace and accommodation discrimination confirms the claims of many activists that there really is nothing we can call the LGBT community. There are the elite and the rest, different generations, L’s, G’s, B’s, T’s and others, as well as many other divisions whose identities are based upon their personal interests.
Even the earliest versions of ENDA did not include provisions to protect transgender people. It was added in 2007, but Barney Frank then believed transgender people should be sacrificed to make its passage more successful, thereby riling many activists.
Socio-economic class is the major divider in Capitalist America. So we’ll see how it plays out in the so-called LGBT community. But for those who really want permanent equality for all, it can’t be a barrier.
“People shouldn’t consider themselves progressive just because they support their own rights,” said veteran LGBT activist Allen Roskoff. “I’m tired of people saying they’re progressive because they just support their own rights more than equity for all.”
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.