Beyond (Marriage) Equality

Last week, GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking the freedom to marry for all same-sex couples across the country. Hopefully this June, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide in our favor and remove one of the largest "gay exceptions" in the law -- the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. The speed with which we have progress in the last 11 years, when Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry, has been remarkable.

With all of this progress, many have wondered whether the LGBT movement is close to full equality by now? The answer may come as a surprise.

Equality is not the finish line. Simply removing discriminatory laws from the books should be the bare minimum of what we seek.

The ultimate prize is not equality -- it is justice.

Let me explain what I mean. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Enacted 11 years after Brown v. Board of Education, this landmark legislation was critical for African-Americans to be able to vote and build political power in the South. Even armed with the weapons of the 14th and 15th Amendments enshrining equal treatment and the right to vote into our Constitution, civil rights lawyers still could not dismantle the mass disenfranchisement of black people throughout the country, and especially in the South, given the numerous and creative ways that government officials would evade litigation. In response, the Voting Rights Act gave the federal government the enforcement tools needed to increase the number of black registered voters by over 700,000 in a matter of a few years.

Yet, this crowning achievement of the civil rights act is slowly being eroded by the Supreme Court, in the name of "equality" -- the belief that we should all be treated the same, no matter what unique challenges we face. The Court has been striking down race-conscious legislation under the theory that our laws should be colorblind. But we know that our society is not color-blind, nor is it blind to LGBT or HIV status -- not when a recent survey found that over a third of Americans are still uncomfortable with the sight of a same-sex couple holding hands.

We still need laws and protections that address the specific obstacles that we face as a community. What we must do now is move beyond formal equality and toward justice for our community.

So, what does a movement for LGBTQ justice look like?

First and foremost, a movement for LGBTQ justice means that no one is left behind, especially the most vulnerable in our community. We have not achieved justice while there exists an epidemic of violence and murder against trans women, particularly trans women of color, or while 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. Instead, we must demand greater accountability from police and prosecutors, and greater government support for and affirmation of LGBT out-of-home youth to ensure that the most vulnerable in our community do not end up on the streets.

And as the events in Baltimore demonstrated, a mere 40 miles away from the U.S. Supreme Court last week, the words inscribed above the Court's main entrance, "Equal Justice Under Law," still do not apply to everyone in our community.

A movement for LGBTQ justice is committed to economic justice, which must begin with employment discrimination protections. What good is the ability to marry if you can be fired the next day for wearing your wedding ring? And how effective are our employment discrimination laws if the religious right carves out exemptions so broad you can drive a truck through them? It is no wonder that LGB and especially T individuals, as well as LGBT people of color, are disproportionately poorer than the rest of the population. It is beyond time for Congress to pass comprehensive LGBT discrimination protections that treats sexual orientation and gender identity the same as any other protected characteristic when it comes to religious exemptions.

A movement for equal justice under law means that all families are protected, and not just those who can or choose to marry. The LGBT community was born out of redefining familial bonds so that we are all family, regardless of genetics or marriage. Our families come in all shapes and sizes, and we must overhaul our outdated family laws that fail to acknowledge this reality.

Finally, and most importantly, a movement for equal justice under law means that LGBT people are not just protected -- we are affirmed and celebrated. What if, in addition to ensuring that LGBT students are safe in school, we made sure that all students learned about the contributions of LGBT people to history, literature, and science. That every June for LGBT history month, schoolkids had to choose their favorite LGBT leader to write a report about. Think of that the difference that would make for the next generation.

The arc of the moral universe does not bend towards equality -- it bends toward justice. The country is looking to the LGBT movement to see whether we have the will and the tenacity to create a more just and affirming world for everyone. Let's show them we have what it takes.