We Haven’t Turned the Corner on Marriage Equality Yet

With the 2012 popular vote supporting marriage equality regardless of gender winning in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, the struggle for marriage equality has turned a corner. It’s not the corner, but an important corner nevertheless.

We can quibble all we want about whether human rights should ever be put up for a popular vote, but the fact that for the first time on a state-wide level activists have been able to beat back the huge funding mechanisms and built-in grassroots networks of right-wing churches and bigots is a symptom of an on-going cultural shift. And that’s worth celebrating.

Along with the reelection of President Obama and other progressive wins, much of the regressive right-wing has acknowledged that they’re on the run. They’ve concluded that the Evangelical vote has lost the clout it held for the last decades.

“I think this was an evangelical disaster,” lamented Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and former head of the Southern Baptist Convention. It indicates, he concluded, “a seismic moral shift in the culture.”

“Billy Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association bought full-page ads in newspapers; that made no difference,” Professor Saun Casey of Wesley Theological Seminary reported. “Ralph Reed spent tens of millions of dollars getting out the vote in battleground states; that didn’t make the difference. And you add all of that up, and it was not enough because of the changing demographics of our country.”

And by “changing demographics” we don’t just mean what FOX talker Bill O’Reilly opined – that “the white establishment is now a minority.” We don’t just mean that younger generations don’t care who loves whom. We mean that there is also a continuing moral shift toward the justice of equality.

The coming generations will find the whole marriage equality issue a yawn, even young Evangelicals, because of the steady work that older generations have done to get us here. The country is not where it was in the 1950s or even the 1980s.

What we’ve learned is that marriage equality can win at the polls. We also know that marriage equality is gaining popularity in opinion polls.

A November 9th Pew Research Center poll, it’s third on the matter this year, shows that marriage quality has hit the highest favor (49 percent) and lowest opposition (40 percent) ever. The trend to support it is moving ahead regionally, though the South still polls 56 percent against, lagging about ten years behind the rest of the country,

To continue to move forward we must see marriage equality as a part of a long-term national strategy based upon what we know is the history of these wins. This means it’s not the next step everywhere.

Marriage equality can prevail in states where the ground has been prepared by previous wins. It can win in states that already have protections in place for sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace and in public accommodations.

Twenty-nine states don’t guarantee protection from being fired openly from ones job because of ones sexual orientation, and thirty-four states don’t guarantee that protection based on gender identity. To jump immediately to a vote for marriage equality in these states would not be effective while it saps a lot of activist energy.

Not only is a job protection guarantee a prior and important step toward the goal of marriage equality, but it’s a more crucial need for members of the LGBT community who don’t have it. If one is threatened with losing one’s job, healthcare, and other legal protections, the issue of marriage almost seems to be a luxury.

Those privileged in occupations where job security isn’t a threat cannot forget that most LGBT people are still insecure enough in their workplace that they cannot put a picture of their partner on their desk or use accurate pronouns when discussing what they did during the past weekend. And this doesn’t even include those who work for employers who will dredge up other reasons for their bigoted firing of LGBT employees in states and municipalities where there is legal protection.

Our energy and resources, then, need to be funneled first to adding sexual orientation and gender identity protection to every state’s and the federal government’s human rights laws. Though this past election brought an expansion of rights in some localities – Paul Ryan’s hometown added domestic partnership benefits – it also saw the elimination of rights in towns such as Salina and Hutchinson, Kansas.

On the national scene, campaigns to abolish the Defense of Marriage Act cannot eclipse efforts to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity by civilian, nonreligious employers with at least 15 employees. ENDA has been introduced but failed to pass in every congressional session since 1994 except one.

Then again, the corner marriage equality has turned this year is also important as the issue moves closer to a hearing in the Supreme Court. Currently four cases are awaiting review from its justices.

Since we know the Supreme Court is not an objective legal body, the four popular wins in November will add to the pressure on the Court to affirm marriage equality. The four right-wing ideologues on the bench and the conservative Justice Kennedy need social pressure to discover useful legal arguments to support their decisions.

In fact, the longer it takes for marriage equality cases to get to these justices, the more lower court opinions affirm marriage equality, and the more state and local decisions pile up to affirm LGBT people, the more likely this conservatively dominated Court will be persuaded to come up with a pro-LGBT outcome. It’s important to take the time.

So, the work continues. No doubt, the work of activists in support of LGBT non-discrimination and marriage equality will bring the country to a tipping point. But we’re not there yet.