It's times like these when, even though you're proven right, you take no joy in it.
Back in February, I wrote that same-sex marriage is overall a loser issue in this country right now and that our community would be far better served by focusing on getting basic civil rights protections like ENDA and hate crimes passed first, before taking on the much bigger and far more lengthy battle for same-sex marriage rights. I took plenty of flack for my position in the comments on that post, but I think yesterday's results back me up.
The problem, made obvious yesterday in Maine and in the California Prop 8 fight last year, is that while there is a significant amount of support for SSM, sometimes even enough to get a law passed initially, that support is generally soft among the electorate and a well-organized repeal effort has always proven successful at the ballot box thus far. Conversely, support for (non-SSM-allowing/affirming) anti-discrimination protections seems to be growing increasingly stronger, as voters in Kalamazoo, MI, successfully rejected an attempt to repeal an anti-discrimination law protecting their LGBT citizens.
What does this tell us? Nothing really new, just a confirmation of what we've known to be true for a long time and which continues to be: There is significant support for SSM in this country, enough to get these bills voted on and sometimes even passed, but it's soft support, not solid enough or active enough to protect those laws from repeal when our opponents get them placed on the ballot.
Conversely, Kalamazoo teaches us that what actually is becoming popularly considered to be a basic civil right by more and more Americans is the right to be protected against discrimination in one's daily life, in the workplace, in public accommodations, and in housing. More and more we see these kinds of laws (as opposed to those granting SSM rights) gaining and maintaining support around the country even when challenged.
In my opinion, it is and has always been about religion. It's about people using Jesus to justify mistreating those more harshly oppressed than themselves and hiding behind Biblical quotes to validate their bigotry. I'm not a Christian, but I wonder how ol' JC would feel about that? If we are to take the events depicted in the Bible as literally as the most vocal of those opposing SSM do, I'd bet he wouldn't be too happy to see his name and his words used in this way.
I suspect that the difference in how these initiatives do at the ballot box is reflected by how they do in the state and federal legislatures. At all levels of government, it's far easier to successfully make the case that it's wrong to assault and murder LGBT people because of who and what we are or that it's wrong to deny someone a job or an apartment just because they're LGBT then it is to argue successfully in favor of SSM. While there certainly are some who will oppose our interests no matter what the issue may be, it's clear that a significant portion of the electorate remains staunchly opposed to SSM, enough to make it to the polls to vote against it in an off-year election, but that number declines sharply when the issue is one of legal protection for LGBT's against discrimination.
In short, even in post-Bush America it's still a lot easier to make a successful religion-based case against granting same-sex marriage rights than it is to make such a case against granting anti-discrimination protections to LGBT people. The numbers (not to mention common sense) confirm that this is the case nationally. We're certainly seeing that hard reality wear away slowly, but it's a slow process, and I doubt it will be completed in our lifetimes.
What I believe we can take heart in here is that we're winning on the basics. It's becoming more and more the cultural wisdom in this country that no one should be singled out and treated badly just because they're different. In fact, American culture, as it has so many times before, is evolving once again and embracing us as never before. Would Rachel Maddow or Ellen Degeneres have their own mainstream television shows and be getting the ratings they do ten or fifteen years ago? Could Hilary Swank have won an Oscar for "Boys Don't Cry"? Could "Trans-America" have even been made and released in mainstream theaters? "Brokeback Mountain"? Thirty years ago, the closest to out and open we had was David Bowie, Sylvester, and Joan Jett, none of whom really fit the bill. Could Barack Obama, a Presidential candidate who openly supported LGBT civil rights initiatives (forget his race) ever have won the White House? Now we've got daily representation in major media, our own television channels, and let's not even get started on the Internets.
The reality is that we've reached the point where the vast majority of Americans believe it's wrong to hurt, kill, or discriminate against their fellow citizens just because they're LGBT. We're not yet far enough along that road, however, for a solid majority of voters to support the extension of marriage rights to lesbians and gays in most areas of this country, even in areas traditionally considered more liberal and progressive than most. Much of the support marriage equality enjoys is indeed soft support, and as we've seen most recently in Maine and California, it can be swayed against us with an effective oppositional campaign.
I believe we've been receiving a message from the American electorate in regards to our issues over the last couple of elections, a message that's being accurately reflected in the Democratic Party's current federal legislative agenda, and that message is this: "We think you should be protected from hate violence. We think you should have the right to work and to live where and how you choose. We think you should have the same basic civil rights as everyone else. We're not so sure about the marriage thing, though. Our religious leaders tell us God says it's wrong, and many of us take that very seriously. A lot of us just aren't ready to go there yet."
There's no question, of course, that time is on our side. As time goes on, the electorate becomes increasingly more liberal and progressive, just as it has throughout American history. It's the children of the 60's and 70's who are now increasingly taking the social and political reigns of power in this country as the children of the 40's, and 50's retire and die off, and it's steadily pushing American culture toward the left. Over time, we will have marriage equality in this country. While some of us may not live to see it in our lifetimes, I believe it's inevitable given the history of our nation and the evolution of its laws and culture. At the same time, I also believe that we've got more groundwork to lay in order to make it a reality sooner rather than later.
If we are ever to be socially and politically potent enough to be able to reliably sway these kinds of ballot initiatives in our favor in the future, the first thing we must do is establish an equal economic playing field, or at least as close to equal as we can manage. The foundation of that effort must be getting an inclusive ENDA passed into law. We can argue from now until Doomsday about the relative effects ENDA would have in actually preventing workplace discrimination and in helping America as a nation become less hostile to its LGBT citizens, but what ENDA would do in the most practical sense would be to help put more money in the pockets of American LGBT workers. LGBT's with more money in their pockets can make more donations, do more lobbying, attend more activist events, and generally make themselves much more influential in the political process than those who are unemployed or underemployed and just scraping by.
We're winning on the basics, and we need to capitalize on that, right now. We need to focus our efforts like a laser on getting ENDA passed into law during this session of Congress, brooking no more delays or excuses. Once we have that, the country probably won't change as much as we'd like or hope right away, but it will set the stage for things becoming easier and progress becoming more rapid as the American LGBT community and our activists find ourselves with more time and money to devote to the movement for full LGBT equality as the economy improves and businesses start hiring again. ENDA will help relieve at least some of the economic pressure on many in our community who might be willing to contribute to the cause but remain silent and uninvolved because they cannot afford the time or the amount of discretionary income needed to participate.
It's also worth remembering that it's not just transgender people who are greatly impacted by the lack of federal workplace anti-discrimination protections. While gays and lesbians are protected in more states than transpeople are, the reality is that all LGBT's living in most areas of the United States are still without even the most basic of civil rights protections. The passage of an inclusive ENDA isn't just a trans issue, or even a low-middle-income issue. It's an issue that strikes directly to the heart of the question of whether or not we're going to be strong enough as a community and as a cultural and political force to beat back the next attempt to roll back our civil rights.
Simply put, if we want to see anything approaching relationship equality in this country anytime soon, we need to ensure our economic equality first. We won't get one before we get the other and start making it work for us. It's a lot easier to credibly argue that we deserve to marry the person we love once we've already established as a matter of law that it's not acceptable to kill us or beat us up, or to deny us a job or a place to live just because we're different. Even though we may have to grit our teeth in acknowledging that bitter reality, it's time we started making it work to our own advantage.
Socially, politically, and even just at the average American kitchen table, it's the only plan that makes any real sense at all.