One Year After Marriage Equality, Progress and Peril for LGBT Americans

(Photo: AP/David Goldman)

People hold candles during a June 13 vigil in Orlando for those killed in mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub.

June was a momentous month for LGBT Americans, as the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s historic marriage equality ruling collided with a gun massacre at an Orlando gay nightclub, turning Pride celebrations into vigils for the 49 mostly Latino victims.

We noted last year that the LGBT movement’s big push after marriage equality would be to win more legal protections against discrimination. Even before the Orlando shooting, this year had witnessed an energetic right-wing pushback against those efforts, as well as continued pockets of resistance to the marriage ruling itself.

The post-marriage-equality backlash is the latest manifestation of a longer-term struggle that well predates the high court’s landmark Obergefell v. Hodges ruling on June 26 of last year. For decades, social conservatives have resisted every step toward cultural visibility and legal equality for LGBT people. In a by-now familiar pattern, progress triggers resistance marked by shifting strategies and new clashes. Since the lead-up to the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, both opponents and advocates of LGBT equality have adopted new strategies and tactics.

Anti-equality forces have increasingly cast their campaign as a fight for religious freedom. Until recently, a centerpiece of that strategy has been passing state-level laws modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But faced with energetic opposition and mixed results, conservatives have now adopted a more direct approach to defending LGBT discrimination from legal challenge. This is taking the form of so-called Government Nondiscrimination Acts, like one adopted in Mississippi this year, which bar the government from “punishing” discrimination based on specific religious beliefs about gender, sexuality, and marriage. A federal judge blocked the Mississippi law late on June 30, just before it was scheduled to take effect. Judge Carlton W. Reeves said it created “a vehicle for state-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The Mississippi law illustrates an important aspect of the strategic shift by those resisting LGBT equality, namely their intense focus on transgender people, characterized by fearmongering about imagined threats to women and girls in public restrooms. The portrayal of transgender people as a threat to children carries echoes of Anita Bryant’s “Save the Children” campaign to vilify gay and lesbian people in the 1970s, as well as of an anti-gay 2008 California initiative known as Proposition 8. Such raw anti-gay demonization has become less effective as more Americans have become familiar with gay and lesbian friends and family members. But transgender people and the issues they face are still less known and understood, making trans people more vulnerable to such scare tactics.

The effort to create panic around bathrooms was road-tested in Houston last fall, when opponents of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO)—which included sexual orientation and gender identity among characteristics protected against discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations—forced it to a referendum. The campaign was deceptive—signs touted “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms”—and ugly—a disturbing TV ad showed a young girl about to be molested in a public bathroom.

The unfortunate success of that campaign provided a road map for opponents of a nondiscrimination ordinance passed by Charlotte, North Carolina’s city council this year. Anti-LGBT activists there demanded and won a state law overriding the city’s ordinance and forbidding any localities from adopting similar legal protections for LGBT people.

The continued resistance to nondiscrimination laws means that in many states, a person could marry his or her gay partner, but be denied a hotel room in which to spend the night, and be fired from work the next day. That harsh reality is the reason why equality advocates, even before the Court ruled on marriage, were looking ahead to the need for a coordinated campaign to win nondiscrimination protections.

As Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson put it at the time, the idea was less to pivot from marriage equality to other issues, and more to harness the lessons of that campaign and apply them to the nondiscrimination battle. That strategy took shape last year with the launch of Freedom for All Americans, which has mounted a bipartisan, multi-year, state and national campaign focused on bringing together multiple organizations to win cultural and political battles and nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people. The campaign has specifically set out to mobilize the business community in support of nondiscrimination principles.

Freedom for all Americans invests in messaging research, effective storytelling, and activist training. It has produced an online Campaign-in-a-Box tool kit that instructs activists and organizations in the current best practices as defined by movement strategists.

And, in recognition of the particular vulnerabilities of transgender people, not only to discrimination but also to violent hate crimes, Freedom for All Americans recently launched its Transgender Freedom Project, where campaign director Matt McTighe says that some of the group’s most important work is taking place. The project aims to “dispel myths” and “introduce Americans to the people behind the policies that legislators are working towards and enacting.” It has aired an ad in North Carolina featuring a transgender man explaining that he could actually be arrested if he uses a public restroom. McTighe said last year that the movement would learn from the HERO defeat, noting that organizers lost 33 state-level fights over marriage equality “until we finally figured out how to win.”

Helping transgender people tell their stories is one of the ways that another new organization, the Trans United Fund, has set out to build the political power of transgender communities. The nonpartisan group, which launched in April, is meant to fill a need for trans-led and trans-centered political advocacy.

Founding member Hayden Mora says the current explicit, coordinated national attack on trans people is a crisis, but not a new one; the crises facing trans communities and particularly transgender people of color have often been hidden in LGBT discourse because of who is impacted. Nondiscrimination and religious exclusion laws are important political issues, he says, and so are HIV, anti-trans violence, and unequal access to education and health care. (The group’s presidential questionnaire, which so far has been completed by Bernie Sanders alone, addresses a wide range of issues.)

Trans United Fund made a social media splash when, in response to an anti-transgender ad made by then-desperate presidential candidate Ted Cruz toward the end of the GOP primary, the group made “Meet My Child,” a video in which parents of transgender people talk about their children. The huge response—Mora says more than 3.3 million people have watched the video—is inspiring parents of trans children to deepen their political engagement on behalf of their loved ones. 

Another relatively new group, Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, “addresses, organizes, educates, and advocates” for issues of importance to LGBTQ Latino communities, according to the group’s website. The group, launched in 2014, promotes family acceptance of LGBTQ Latinos and mobilizes against deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Jorge Gutierrez, the group’s director, who has been in Orlando working with people affected by the shooting there, says that the long-term investment of the LGBT community in marriage equality paid off with a Supreme Court victory. But, he said, for LGBT people of color, there was no need to stop and figure out what was next after marriage, because the needs were already so clear: poverty; lack of access to education, housing, and medical care; and for some, the threat of deportation for themselves and family members.

One immediate consequence of the Orlando killings has been that some LGBT groups are putting gun violence more visibly on their agendas. Equality California announced that it would put its “full weight”  behind gun control measures. The Human Rights Campaign announced that it would take on the National Rifle Association and push for greater gun control.

The fact that the victims of the Orlando shooting were overwhelmingly people of color could provide what longtime LGBT advocate and media strategist Cathy Renna calls a needed “kick in the ass” for the LGBT equality movement to deal more effectively with issues that have a disproportionate impact on LGBT people of color.

Gutierrez welcomes greater recognition by movement leaders about the range of issues that influence the daily lives of LGBT people of color, but calls on strategists and funders to make sure that organizations and leaders already at work on these problems are at the table when policies and priorities are being discussed.

Mora also believes that the Orlando tragedy could lead organizers to grapple more constructively with the way multiple challenges intersect in the lives of many LGBT people, including racism, violence, anti-Muslim sentiment, and mental health care. It is an opportunity, he says, “for us to re-center as a community and build something new.”

This article has been updated. 

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