Yesterday, I delivered the keynote at the second annual LGBTQ conference at Harvard University. The theme of the conference — “Unified by Our Diversity: Solidarity Within and Beyond the LGBTQ Movement” — sounded like a definitive statement of where things are in the gay rights movement. In reality, it was an aspirational goal we are struggling to attain. The movement faces many challenges to actually make the conference’s theme ring true. But I focused my remarks on three of them.
Will professed LGBTQ allies be there once full marriage equality is achieved? Will we — as a nation and a community — finally talk about the T in LGBTQ? Will the community vocally and proactively make common cause with others seeking equality and freedom from discrimination?
So much incredible progress has been made that it is difficult to keep up with all of it. Today, we are celebrating Alabama becoming the 37th state where marriage equality is legal. Did you ever think you would see the day when same-sex weddings would happen in such a conservative, Deep South state?
Ten years ago, a majority of the nation didn’t support gay rights, especially same-sex marriage. Today, the reverse is true. A Washington Post poll from April 2014 put support for marriage equality at 59 percent. A May 2014 Gallup poll showed that 55 percent of Americans were in support. Another Post poll last June showed that 50 percent of Americans believed there to be a constitutional right to marry.
How far the LGBT rights movement has come and the potential for sustained support can be seen in two unlikely communities. A Pew Research Center poll from last March showed that 61 percent of young Republicans, those ages 18 to 29, favored marriage equality. A Pew poll of Catholics also from last March found support for same-sex marriage at 50 percent among U.S. Catholics. They have been at the forefront of acceptance of same-sex relationships for years now.
But in my last post, I highlighted a warning sign for the LGBT civil rights movement. While announcing its support for anti-discrimination laws protecting gays and lesbians, the Mormon Church conditioned that support on there being exemptions, not just for religious organizations but also for private employers, landlords and service providers. This dovetailed with an AP poll released last week that showed 57 percent agreed that wedding-related businesses should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex married couples because of religious beliefs.
This is the post-marriage-equality terrain on which the next battles for LGBT equality will be waged. And the movement is nowhere near ready.
For instance, 21 states and the District of Columbia have anti-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation. But only 18 of them cover both sexual orientation and gender identity. Those states are also among the 37 where same-sex couples can legally marry. That means folks in Alabama and Pennsylvania, Utah and Virginia can marry legally today and be fired legally tomorrow for being gay or lesbian. The federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which passed the Senate in November 2013 with 64 votes, went nowhere in the House.
Added to the remaining legal hurdles the LGBT community must face are the cultural ones that have been ignored or not seen because of a decade of progress on LGBT issues. GLAAD, an organization that monitors the portrayal of the gay community in the media, released a troubling survey Monday conducted on its behalf by the Harris poll. What it reveals is an uncomfortable cultural divide and a lack of real acceptance of LGBT Americans.
The data also show that 34 percent of Americans are uncomfortable attending a same-sex wedding, 43 percent said they would be uncomfortable bringing their child to a same-sex wedding and 36 percent are uncomfortable seeing a same-sex couple holding hands. While 29 percent would be uncomfortable having a playdate supervised by a gay dad, 28 percent would be uncomfortable with gay moms.
Now, the GLAAD-Harris data are of all respondents. But when the responses are teased out from LGBT allies, the very people who have helped propel increased public support and legal recognition, the level of their discomfort with LGBT humanity reveals how much more work has to be done. For instance, 19 percent of gay allies said they were uncomfortable learning a family member is LGBT, 20 percent said they were uncomfortable attending a same-sex wedding and 16 percent said they were uncomfortable hearing people talk positively about LGBT community.
This conditional acceptance was vividly played out in a Washington Post story last month about Tracy Curtis and Kathryn Frazier, a lesbian couple in Oklahoma planning their January wedding. Kathryn’s boss Tim Lashar and his wife, Kelly, were among their closest friends. Kathryn and Tim talked about homosexuality and the Bible all the time. Tracy’s Bible study group was led by Kelly. “The two of you have been special to our family in many ways, and we pray nothing but happiness for you,” wrote Tim and Kelly in a note declining to attend the ceremony. Tim told the Post reporter, “I’m sure we’ll discuss it at some point. Because I have to wonder if they think, deep down, that we don’t accept them.” He need not wonder.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, summed up what is going on culturally. “Support for legal rights for the LGBT community should not be confused with acceptance toward the LGBT community in general,” she told me. “You cannot legislate acceptance or create it merely by judicial decision. Dialogue and exposure are the building blocks of greater acceptance and we need, more than ever, to engage our fellow citizens.” That engagement must not only be between gays and straights. It must also happen within the LGBT community. And I’ll get to that and what it means for transgender Americans and making common cause with others fighting discrimination in the next post.
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