The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The internal challenges facing the LGBT movement

Amanda Keller holds a flag as she joins other gay marriage supporters in Linn Park at the Jefferson County courthouse in Birmingham, Ala. Alabama today became the 37th state to legalize same-sex marriage. (Hal Yeager/Associated Press)

As I argued in my previous post, the challenges facing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in a post-marriage-equality world are legal and cultural. But they are also internal. The LGBT community must face the struggles in its own backyard if it is to sustain the spectacular momentum of the past decade.

In my remarks to the second annual LGBTQ conference at Harvard University yesterday, I asked three questions. Will professed gay allies be there once full marriage equality is achieved? Will we — as a nation and a community — finally talk about the T in LGBTQ? And will the LGBT community vocally and proactively make common cause with others seeking equality and freedom from discrimination?

I dealt with the first question earlier today. The short answer is maybe. A new poll from GLAAD-Harris shows that even among those who support LGBT equality, there is a significant level of cultural discomfort when that support goes from the abstract to the personal. So, now it is time to tackle the remaining questions.

The T in LGBT has been relatively silent compared with the L, G and B. Since the 1969 Stonewall Riots kicked off the modern gay civil rights movement, we have been involved in a 45-year national conversation about what it means to be gay, lesbian or bisexual and how the right to equal protection under the law applies to those who are. One questioner at Harvard yesterday challenged me on how much the nation has discussed bisexual issues. Her point was valid. If the L, G and B were the “Brady Bunch” girls, B would totally be Jan.

But I also asked the audience how many of them knew that the White House hosted a meeting with bisexual activists in 2013. Only a few hands, including the questioner’s, went up. In fact, she said she was at the meeting. That’s a level of recognition transgender Americans have yet to witness. As I have argued before, part of trans invisibility had to do with so few trans people coming out publicly. But the real problem has been a visceral discomfort with even talking about the T of LGBT. Many of us, gays and straights, don’t understand transgender issues, let alone know exactly what they are. There are many people within the LGB community who don’t and don’t care to understand trans issues. That has to change.

Thanks to high-profile activists such as actress Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, the T is speaking up and getting noticed. This manifested itself in two landmark ways. Cox was the first transgender person to ever grace the cover of Time magazine last June. And last month, President Obama became the first sitting president to say the word “transgender” in a State of the Union address.

An earthquake moment is in the offing with Olympian Bruce Jenner’s impending coming out as transgender. It might be the moment the nation talks more seriously about the T in LGBT — whether Jenner actively participates in that ongoing conversation or not. His transition from male to female has been happening before our very eyes: the cover of People magazine on newsstands now being the latest example. When the reality television chronicling his transition airs, it will be the talk of the nation. The conversation most likely will not be pretty, but having the conversation on such a national scale at all will be revolutionary.

Finally, the LGBT community must do a better job of making common cause with others seeking equality and freedom from discrimination. Where is the community on immigration? On economic inequality? On racial justice?

There are “Dreamers” who are also LGBT. There are immigrants yearning to come out of the shadows who are also LGBT. When will we realize that their concerns should be our concerns?

There are poor LGBT Americans. There are millions of people who would benefit from an increase in the national minimum wage who are also LGBT. The income inequality endured by gay families is a story that continues to go untold. Here’s one stat for you from a 2013 Williams Institute study:

Almost one in four children living with a male same-sex couple and 19.2% of children living with a female same-sex couple are in poverty, compared to 12.1% of children living with married different-sex couples. African American children in gay male households have the highest poverty rate (52.3%) of any children in any household type.

There are African Americans who are harassed by police or being discriminated against in numerous ways who are also LGBT. When will we realize that their concerns should be our concerns? Even without the direct LGBT link, their concerns are our concerns.

I discussed this last week with Robert Raben, a Democratic strategist who runs his own progressive communications firm in Washington and has been vocal on the need for the LGBT community to be more front and center on civil rights. He told me that Trayvon Martin was “bullied” by George Zimmerman on that rainy February 2012 night in Florida. Raben was emphatic when he pointed out that if there is one issue the LGBT community can relate to, it is bullying that leads to death, either at someone else’s hand or our own. Agreed.

In the new movie “Pride,” a true story about gay Londoners finding common cause with striking coal miners in the 1980s, one of the protagonists asks a question as a way of rallying the others to get on board. Paraphrasing here, “What’s the use of fighting for gay rights if you’re not going to fight for someone else’s?” If the gay civil rights movement is truly going to be “Unified by Our Diversity: Solidarity Within and Beyond the LGBTQ Movement,” it will have to take that theme to heart — and act on it.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj