There are many signature issues around which the gay, transgender and allied communities rally — repeal of DOMA and DADT, passage of an inclusive ENDA, same-sex marriage. Social justice today for LGBT people seems to be defined by bumper sticker acronyms and any one of them, indeed, all of them are worthy of our undivided attention.
Wait a moment though...are they really? What is the true measure of success? What is winning for the LGBT equality movement?
Before the rocks and bottles start flying, give me a chance to tell you why I ask.
Arguably, 2009 was a great year to live in Kalamazoo, Michigan. We saw gays and transgenders come together as never before. We, in unity and with our allies, passed what is undeniably one of the nation's strongest municipal non-discrimination ordinances. As part of the campaign team, I found myself privileged to experience firsthand the currents and eddies that swirled around our community. In retrospect, perhaps the most salient fact about the campaign for Ordinance #1856 is this: While Kalamazoo residents overwhelmingly believed everyone should be treated fairly and equally, a disproportionate number of them did not know that gay and transgender citizens were not protected by law from discrimination.
You heard right, most people in Kalamazoo did not know that it was possible to be denied employment because you were gay or transgender, or evicted, or refused service at a restaurant if the manager even thought you were. This is certainly a gross over-simplification, but it speaks to the underpinnings of what is truly important as LGBT people move toward fully endowed citizenship.
We live in a society that believes its own myths. Somehow, we think, if repeated often enough, we really will live in a place where everyone is fairly treated and considered equal. Not likely, the struggle for gender equality did not begin with Women's Suffrage and did not end with the women's liberation movement. Racial inequality and bigotry did not cease when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The issues mentioned in the first paragraph are indeed worthy, yet, not one represents an end unto itself. The road to equality for us did not begin at Stonewall nor will it end with repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. Equality is an on-going, ever-evolving process--there is no end game.
Raising public awareness in Kalamazoo was a near Herculean effort centering on rights broader society believes to be essential and furthermore, takes for granted. Moreover, while any of the issues above may serve to illustrate fundamental themes of equality, picking them off one by one as they matter parochially will not suffice.
"We, in unity and with our allies..." This partial sentence illustrates the principal contributor to victory in Kalamazoo. Here, we measured success as unity being a pervasive quality throughout the community, not exclusively among gay and transgender citizens. Unity, one short but immensely powerful word without which, nothing much is possible.
Broadened debate must ask entire communities; if not the nation, in what kind of place they wish to live. If we fail to do this, then we may have nothing in our future but small, or local and eventually insignificant victories. We must come together to make not simply strategic, issue specific, but broad, unified decisions about the issues confronting us today and into the future.