Married in Massachusetts, Fired in Florida: Turning the Tide of LGBT activism?

By Amy L. Stone

At the moment I write this, same-sex marriage laws are being seriously considered by three state legislatures across the country, and at least one state governor has signed a same-sex marriage law. This shift—same-sex marriage being passed by legislatures rather than through judicial ruling—has been seen as a sign that the tide has shifted for LGBT activism.

And indeed, progress is being made across the country.

Among many other accomplishments, in the past decade, a federal hate crimes law has been passed, along with numerous LGBT-supportive public policies under Obama. The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy has been rescinded in the military, leading to open inclusion of lesbian and gay military members. In 2003, sodomy laws across the country were overturned with the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas. And according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a majority of citizens of the United States are covered by nondiscrimination laws that include protections based on sexual orientation either in their home state or city. Some of these nondiscrimination laws include gender identity and expression, which provides protection for transgender individuals. 

Same-sex marriage has also made tremendous gains, considering that just a decade ago it was not central to the agenda of the LGBT movement.  In 2002, same-sex marriage was legal nowhere in the United States. Now, over 6 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, and it is recognized in four other states. And many other states have domestic partnerships and civil unions that grant the same state-granted rights of marriage to same-sex couples. With this expansion of same-sex marriage rights, a slim majority of Americans support same-sex marriage for the first time in history. According to scholar Gary Mucciaroni in his book Same Sex, Different Politics, this is a dramatic change from less than 35% support for same-sex marriage in 2000.

This “turning of the tide” has included large-scale cultural changes, from a decline in the Republican Party interest in anti-gay politics to an explosion of LGBT coverage in the media and news. As I sit in my living room in San Antonio, Texas, I can watch Kurt from Glee kiss his boyfriend and the gay couple from Modern Family raise their child.

Here’s where things get complicated. I also live in a state where you can be legally fired from your job for being LGBT.

I argue that, although the tide has turned, the evident progress of the LGBT movement depends on where you live. This huge disparity is largely a consequence of a dearth of federal laws and policies about same-sex marriage and nondiscrimination. Thus, this LGBT movement progress is largely regional, rather than national.  I celebrate and attend the weddings of my friends across the country, but like 27 other states Texas has a same-sex marriage ban written into the state constitution. The Texas constitutional marriage ban was passed in 2005 by voters. In my book, Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, I analyze the long history of how LGBT movement gains have been retracted at the ballot box through referendums and initiatives. From the first referendum on a nondiscrimination law in Boulder, Colorado, in 1974 to the repeal of legalized same-sex marriage in Maine in 2009, the Religious Right has tried LGBT rights in the court of public opinion. The LGBT movement has mobilized movement resources to fight these ballot measures—millions of dollars, countless volunteer hours, and political capital—with often little tangible result. Indeed, when LGBT rights go before the voters, 69% of the time those rights are rescinded. The liberal allowance of ballot measures on civil rights in some states—California, Oregon, Maine—and the difficulty of putting constitutional amendments on the ballot in others—Massachusetts, Iowa, New York—accounts for some of the regional differences in same-sex marriage.

These differences in progress are primarily but not exclusively regional. Legally, there is tremendous variation between different states across the country. But there are other signs that the tide has not entirely turned for the LGBT movement. For example, two politicians with a long history of anti-gay opinions and legislation—Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum—are being seriously considered by the Republican Party as presidential candidates. Gingrich has long fought against LGBT rights laws. Santorum openly supports sodomy laws, opposes same-sex marriage and describes the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as a “tragic social experiment.”

In addition, there is also a tremendous variation in the impact of movement progress on LGBT individuals. For example, while nondiscrimination laws help employed individuals keep their jobs, and same-sex marriage or domestic partnership laws create more stable health insurance benefits for same-sex couples, if you have neither a job nor health benefits these laws may be of little consequence to you. A recent study of over 6,000 transgender and gender non-conforming individuals by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found alarming levels of discrimination, poverty, homelessness, job loss, physical and sexual violence. The combination of anti-transgender discrimination and structural racism was particularly debilitating.

With all of this in mind, I argue that the LGBT movement has made considerable progress over the last decade, and the activism to legalize same-sex marriage has made the most dramatic growth. But like many other social movements, this progress is uneven with tremendous regional variation.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, LGBT Activism: Has the Tide Turned?

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