March 28, 2013

In yesterday’s Supreme Court oral arguments over the Defense of Marriage Act, Chief Justice John Roberts asked if DOMA really deserved heightened scrutiny, given growing support for marriage equality. “You don’t doubt that the lobby supporting the enactment of same sex-marriage laws in different States is politically powerful, do you?”, he asked Roberta Kaplan, who argued the case against DOMA, “As far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case.”

And Roberts isn’t wrong. Over the last week, a rush of political figures have been falling over themselves to show support for marriage equality. Since Sunday, Senators Claire McCaskill, Jay Rockefeller, Mark Warner, Jon Tester, and Kay Hagan have announced their support for same-sex marriage. And that’s in addition to Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio — who announced his support two weeks ago — and Virginia’s junior senator, Tim Kaine, who told the Richmond-Times Dispatch last week that he has (quietly) supported same-sex marriage since 2006.

But there’s more to Roberts’ question than this. Buried in his question is a curious assumption: That recent political success represents the full acceptance of LGBT Americans into mainstream life. That might be true for some, but it’s far from accurate for many others. Just last December, for example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released data showing a rise in the number of hate crimes directed against gays and lesbians. Nearly half of the 6,222 reported hate crimes were motivated by racial bias. More than twenty percent of hate crimes were directed against people on the basis of sexual orientation. This marks the first time sexual orientation has surpassed religious affiliation as the second most-common motivation for hate crimes. And it’s not hard to find examples, like this one, of a young Texas woman beaten unconscious by a man yelling anti-gay slurs.

There’s more. In all but sixteen states and the District of Columbia, employers can dismiss workers on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Five other states just prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and nine other states limit their protections to public employment. In twenty states, LGBT Americans have no protections. That includes Virginia, where just last month a subcommittee in the House of Delegates voted to kill a state senate bill that would have banned employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Same-sex marriage is an important part of the fight for LGBT equality, but it’s far from the only part. What Roberts’ doesn’t seem to realize is that in much of the country, identifying the “wrong” way can still cost you your job, your safety, or even your life. And now that the Democratic Party is on board with marriage equality, it’s worth pursuing a new push for the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act — which would prohibit discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity — and which was last introduced in the 112th Congress by Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank in the House and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley in the Senate.

Attitudes are moving in the right direction, but between the Defense of Marriage Act, same-sex marriage bans in states across the country, and continued employment discrimination, there’s still a long way to go before LGBT Americans have their full due as citizens. Supportive politicians, in other words, still have a lot of work to do.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.