Marriage Equality as a Catalyst for Full LGBT Equality?

A confession: I haven't always supported putting same-sex marriage at the forefront of the LGBT-rights movement. A friend once asked me why. "Not everyone will get married, but everyone needs a job, and everyone needs a roof over their head," I explained. "I wish we'd focus on nondiscrimination laws first." But I've waffled over this too. If someone gets evicted after their landlord discovers that they are gay, they can probably find another place to live, but no one expects same-sex couples to want to find another family, let alone a partner of the opposite sex, in order to gain equal recognition and benefits under the law. In part because of the importance of family, marriage equality has been the defining LGBT-rights issue of the past decade. Recently, though, I've come to realize that that is probably a good thing for the fight for other LGBT rights too.

Earlier this month I read an article in The Atlantic about how the messaging of the LGBT-rights movement has led people like Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to come out in favor of marriage equality. Sure, Portman's change of heart was prompted by having a gay son, but also, as Noah Berlatsky wrote, "because gay rights advocates have been so successful in linking the personal and political together ... in large part ... by focusing on marriage." It makes sense: Marriage is as personal as relationships get, and the themes of commitment and love resonate with a lot of people.

At the same time, other rights, especially those that benefit the less privileged, are less likely to pull at people's heartstrings. For instance, 29 states currently allow employment and housing discrimination based upon sexual orientation. Unlike marriage, this isn't about commitment and love; frankly, it's about whom someone is sexually attracted to. A man who is fired from his $12-an-hour job for being gay might be in a relationship, but he just as well might be perpetually single and hooking up with men he meets through Grindr or Craigslist. Such a guy is just as deserving of protection from employment discrimination as any other LGBT person, but he's not exactly a poster child for the LGBT rights movement.

Ultimately, emphasizing marriage equality seems to be helping the fight for these other rights. Whereas dominant images of LGBT adults used to involve AIDS or ideas of sexual deviancy and immorality, the main image is now one of committed couples. Now when policy makers and the public consider the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), they are influenced by the image of committed couples. When people think of adoption laws, they think of committed couples. Even when considering something like the anti-LGBT bullying epidemic, people may now see LGBT youth through a more positive lens than before, thanks to the focus on committed couples. Of course, there are other factors at play too, such as more people knowing someone who is LGBT than in the past.

However, I do have some concerns about placing so much emphasis on couples and families. Not every lesbian, gay or bisexual person wants to get married or have a family, and I wonder what may be the implications of passing something like ENDA by presenting a selective image of what it means to be LGBT.

Still, I have to admit that by highlighting committed same-sex couples and playing into America's family-values ethos, efforts toward marriage equality have helped shatter people's misconceptions about LGBT people and put a face on other LGBT-rights issues. Frankly, the marriage-equality movement has done this in a way that a push for ENDA alone might not have been able to do, because the latter wouldn't have focused on the relationships and the corresponding deeply personal stories that have made the fight for marriage equality so successful in such a short period of time.

Be it Harvey Milk's call for people to come out to their friends and families or lesbian and gay widows' heartbreaking stories of being shut out of their dying partners' hospital rooms, personal stories have defined the LGBT rights movement. Sure, I wish that there were more coverage of the stories of the people who face harassment at work for being gay, or of the public schools that teach that homosexuality is unnatural and wrong as part of sex education, but I am thankful that leaders in the LGBT-rights movement have done a good job overall of making the political personal.

Though I don't usually believe in trickle-down rights, I am optimistic that the fight for marriage equality will make the remaining battles for equal rights for LGBT Americans a little easier to fight. At least I hope so; it would be painfully ironic if the Supreme Court ruled that Adam and Steve can soon get married but they can't afford to buy a house together because no one will hire them.