Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court listened to arguments about marriage equality and are expected to issue a ruling by late June. With the country on the cusp of a final, decisive victory for the marriage equality movement, it’s time for the queer community to look around and ask itself an important question: what comes next?
We’ve spent decades struggling with a variety of issues — employment, HIV, housing, elder care, homelessness, bullying — but for the last decade, no LGBT political movement has consumed as much attention as marriage. Once that issue is legally settled, it’s hard to say what comes next.
According to National LGBTQ Task Force executive director Rea Carey, once LGBT people achieve full marriage equality around the U.S., a huge part of the current movement could become politically disengaged.
To prevent that from happening, it may be instructive to look at Massachusetts, the first state to gain the freedom to marry. About a decade ago, before the marriage movement entered its current mode of high intensity, marriage became legal in Massachusetts; mayors from San Francisco to New York State briefly issued rogue marriage licenses; and President George Bush voiced his support for a federal constitutional marriage ban. Around that time, organizers in numerous states began laying groundwork for marriage campaigns, influenced heavily by prior successes.
But counter-intuitively, there was one state where interest in marriage quickly waned: Massachusetts.
“Few local efforts have garnered the sustained local and national attention and engagement of (the marriage) effort,” said K.C. Coredini, Executive Director of MassEquality, through a spokesperson. “In the immediate aftermath of that campaign’s success, some supporters naturally shifted their attention to other initiatives — either to expanding marriage to other states or to other issues altogether.”
There’s every reason to expect that other states will experience the same phenomenon: a contraction of equality organizations caused by a migration to other issues.
And there’s certainly no shortage of intersecting issues to address: protections for trans people, youth and elder concerns, homelessness, bullying, and nondiscrimination. “Important considerations include how to take lessons from the marriage movement and apply them to a broader range of issues, and how to leverage the energy and movement built aroundmarriage to advance other critical issues,” said Michael Crawford, a longtime LGBT activist and strategist.
After the initial achievement of marriage equality in Massachusetts, organizers’ first priority was to make sure their victory was secure. MassEquality held one-on-one meetings with stakeholders, as well as group listening sessions, to decide whether the organization should remain in place, or simply disband. Leaders decided that the organization should continue to exist. Several years later, in Connecticut, the state marriage equality organization disbanded after achieving its goals.
MassEquality determined that it still had plenty of work to do — as will the equality organizations in many other states. First, the state’s marriage law had to be defended from an attack by anti-gay legislators. It took three years of political maneuvering before Massachusetts secured lasting equality, largely through political organizing to defeat a proposed state constitutional amendment.
In the coming year or two, “I expect that we’ll see an increase in attempts to pass ‘license to discriminate’ and ‘religious freedom’ legislation,” said Crawford. Such a bill recently passed in Mississippi in 2014, and another failed in Arizona. Although marriage equality may become the law of the land this year, it’s likely that anti-gay groups will attempt to undermine equality by chipping it away through discriminatory bills. Particularly in conservative states like Alabama and Nebraska, stopping discriminatory legislation will likely require full-time vigilance, public education, and lobbying for the next few years.
What comes after that? In Massachusetts, once marriage was definitively protected, it was time for LGBT leaders to fulfill a promise to partner communities. When MassEquality was founded, “the community promised the transgender community, young people, communities of color and others that if they worked with us to focus solely on marriage equality, which was necessary in order to win, we would come back for these other important issues,” said Coredini.
And that’s just what the organization is doing now. Recent accomplishments include the passage of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill and the creation of a statewide commission on LGBTQ elders. They’re also partnering with the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, the Anti-Defamation League, and other groups to address issues that affect ally communities. Cultivating attention to allies is the best way for LGBT organizations to remain relevant, since LGBTs and their allies will have intersecting concerns long after the marriage question gets settled nationwide.
Across the country, one of the biggest challenges facing queer organizers over the next decade will be addressing trans inequality. MassEquality found that even in liberal Massachusetts, extensive public education was needed to overcome misconceptions and apathy on trans issues. A 2011 nondiscrimination bill was only able to pass after key provisions were stripped, such as protection from discrimination in public places; MassEquality continues to work on recovering from that setback.
It may seem discouraging that so much work remains to be done for trans quality a decade after marriage came to Massachusetts. In part, that’s simply due to the invisibility of the issue, which enjoys far less media attention than marriage.
“The successes that we are seeing on marriage is one possible reason that it continues to be an important issue,” said Crawford. “There needs to be greater coverage and more nuanced coverage that more accurately reflects the diversity of the trans community and the range of issues needing political attention.”
But that’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: there’s not much coverage because the public isn’t as interested. And the public isn’t as interested because there’s not much coverage. Currently, marriage equality is selling plenty of newspapers; but that situation won’t last forever. At some point, someone’s going to need to figure out how to break the cycle of avoidance when it comes to trans visibility.
And don’t hold your breath for that to happen any time soon. A study in 2008 by the Horizons Foundation found that less than 5 percent of LGBT people donate to LGBT causes. An interested as the queer community has been in marriage, we remain surprisingly disengaged from the actual work that needs to be done.
At last count, 36 states enjoy the freedom to marry, and the remaining 14 are likely to join them in the next year or two. It certainly would be a shame if the success of marriage failed to import into complementary movements.