What's Next in the Fight for Gay Equality
This article by Evan Wolfson was originally published on June 26, 2015 in The New York Times. Read the full article here.
I always believed we would win, but I didn’t expect to cry.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday, that the Constitution guarantees gay people the freedom to marry, is a monumental and inspiring victory. America got it right. Love won. We all did.
That, indeed, is something to celebrate. And now we must get back to work.
Securing protections from discrimination for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans needs to be our priority. In too many parts of the country, people can still be fired, evicted, refused service or even humiliated at stores or restaurants because of their sexual orientation or gender identity — in other words, just for being who they are.
The threat of discrimination also hurts productivity, undermines teamwork and, as Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, has noted, keeps too many talented employees from bringing their whole selves to work. These harms are not theoretical. The Williams Institute at U.C.L.A., which studies gay issues, found that 27 percent of all lesbian, gay or bisexual workers reported on-the-job discrimination and that 7 percent have lost jobs because of their sexual orientation.
A study by the National LGBTQ Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 90 percent of transgender workers surveyed said that they had faced discrimination or harassment in the workplace. Nearly one-fifth of transgender Americans surveyed reported being refused a home or apartment and 11 percent have been evicted because of their gender identity.
Federal law, which already rightly protects people from discrimination based on race, sex, ethnicity, age and religion, should be updated to expressly include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Unlike at the start of the marriage work, polls show that a strong majority of Americans back explicit federal protection from anti-gay discrimination in the workplace. But — here’s the problem — nearly 90 percent don’t know that it does not exist.
Many of the same strategies and tactics we employed to win marriage equality in courts, in legislatures and on ballots can be deployed in this next fight. One successful strategy was to rack up local and state wins. At least 20 states already prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (and most of them also protect gender identity). We need to fight to expand those numbers, even as we press for federal protections.
To take another page from the marriage playbook, we need to drive a national conversation that calls attention to gaps in civil rights law and puts a human face on discrimination through emotionally compelling storytelling. And, as we did with marriage equality, we need to run a genuinely bipartisan campaign that enlists many champions, including Republicans and businesspeople.
New national efforts like Freedom for All Americans, and statewide initiatives like Texas Wins and Freedom Indiana, are trying to apply the Freedom to Marry model to the nondiscrimination effort, joining civil rights stalwarts such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Various bills prohibiting anti-gay discrimination have been introduced in Congress over decades. In 2007, the House approved one such bill, but it became a nonstarter because it didn’t cover transgender Americans. In 2013, the Senate passed a bill that included both sexual orientation and gender identity, but it only addressed employment, and never got traction in the House. There is support on both sides of the aisle in the House; we just need to expand it.
The classic pattern in our history is that when opponents fail to block civil rights gains, they try to subvert them, often abusing the banner of religion. But the American people know that religious freedom is protected in the Constitution and is fully compatible with civil rights. A Public Religion Research Institute poll reports that 60 percent oppose special carve-outs for businesses trying to discriminate, even under the guise of religion.
In addition to the political and legal work, the movement must focus on cultural acceptance. That includes combating the bullying and homelessness that too many young people endure, as well as ensuring that seniors can age with dignity and not be forced back into the closet. The real goal, after all, is not just good law, but good lives.
Happily, the freedom to marry will be a gift that keeps on giving. The transformative power of seeing couples marry — and the empathy that inspires — will energize us advocates as we keep pushing toward the more perfect union America promises.
Getting our country to where it needs to be won’t be easy; winning marriage equality certainly wasn’t. While the campaign I lead — led! — has now succeeded and will close its doors, the work of our movement, and the broader quest for justice, is far from over.