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Where Do We Go From Here?

In the wake of the California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Proposition 8, an outcome that was expected for months, the question of how to respond has been reverberating across the LGBT community.

While it was clear that the judges in the case were leaning towards keeping Prop 8 on the books, there was still a wide variety of reaction to the ruling. Several cities staged protests to express their anger, people were upset that President Obama did not issue a statement on the decision, and others advocated placing another referendum on the ballot box to legalize gay marriage. Some even called for a march on Washington.

What took many people by surprise was an announcement from attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies that they were filing a federal lawsuit to force the Supreme Court to make a final determination on gay marriage. This was an unexpected development because Olson and Boies are probably most famous for their roles in the lawsuit concerning the contested election between Al Gore and George W. Bush (Boies represented Gore, Olson argued for Bush) and neither has a record of involvement with LGBT issues. Olson in particular has spent his career working on behalf of conservatives like Ronald Reagan, Rick Santorum, and John McCain, none of whom can be considered a LGBT ally.

Although their argument that Proposition 8 violates the constitutional right to due process and equal protection may be legally sound, their actions run counter to the sentiments of leading LGBT organizations and their allies, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, and Human Rights Campaign, who feel that federal cases are the wrong strategy at this time. Their concerns are that the lawsuit could be dimissed by lower federal courts, and should it make its way to the Supreme Court, very few people believe the current justices are going to decide in favor of LGBT issues, which would have a long-lasting negative impact on LGBT rights.

There are many questions raised by the Boies/Olson suit. How can people with no seeming interest in our community take the lead on such an important issue? Are LGBT groups cautioning against a federal case out of pragmatism or a desire to be the people making the argument? Is there a deeper meaning to the fact that couples named in the lawsuits are willing to ignore the suggestions of experienced activists and push forward despite almost certain defeat (in addition to the conservative tilt of the current Supreme Court, the Defense of Marriage Act declares that the federal government cannot recognize same-sex relationships as marriages even if individual states do)?

While these issues are being debated, results from a Gallup poll published on May 27 point towards another strategy for LGBT rights. Fifty-seven percent of people remain opposed to gay marriage, but when it came to other issues, it was a different story:

Sixty-seven percent believe domestic partners should have access to employee benefits like health insurance.

Inheritance rights for domestic partners are supported by seventy-three percent of people.

Fifty-four percent said they were in favor of adoption rights for gay and lesbian couples.

Military service by openly gay people was seen as acceptable by sixty-nine percent.

While this survey did not ask about employment discrimination, a 2008 Gallup poll found that eighty-nine percent of people believed LGBTs should have equal employment opportunities and protection against being fired on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Given such widespread support for these issues, why aren’t they being given more priority? Are we missing an opportunity to achieve tangible measures of equality by focusing so strongly on gay marriage, something the majority of the population does not appear ready to support for the foreseeable future? Even twenty-five percent of self-identified liberals believe gay marriage is wrong, and they tend to be the most supportive of LGBT issues.

Many proponents of gay marriage emphasize the financial and social advantages of being married, but I suspect that if LGBTs had no barriers to employment or inheriting their partner’s estate, receiving employement benefits, or adopting children, many of us would not place such importance on having formal recognition of our families. One could argue that marriage has actually stalled acceptance of the different types of living arrangements and family structures that LGBTs have always created.

Imagine if the millions of dollars that were spent on Prop 8, and would be required for another ballot initiative in California, instead went towards these issues? I think we would produce results that would affect a wider spectrum of the LGBT community than those who stand to benefit from marriage.

Much has been made of the social stratification of the LGBT community, particularly when it comes to activism. I think that an emphasis on securing people’s financial security could motivate a new group of volunteers to contribute their talents to the movement for equality. The Gallup numbers indicate that America is ready to treat us as equals in a number of important areas. Will we pay attention to the signals and take the appropriate action?

From “Blackout” for 6/1/09 by Anthony Rucker


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