What's Next for the Gay-Rights Movement?

Can other issues, like workplace protections, gain as much public support as marriage rights?
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Noah Berger/AP Images

Back in March, Atlantic Wire writer Richard Lawson asked readers, "If gay marriage does happen, finally and universally, what's next?"

The article elicited the inevitable comments ("gay divorce", "a baby in a baby carriage"), but among the flippant responses emerged the question: Will the gay-rights movement and its supporters be able to support other LGBT causes with the same fervor as marriage equality?

Yesterday morning, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that married same-sex couples were entitled to the same federal benefits as opposite-sex couples. And while the decision by no means rules that gay marriage has happened, "finally and universally," the ruling does indicate the United States is moving in that direction. Reporting on the decision, Lyle Denniston from SCOTUSblog wrote, "the obvious practical and political impact...was to advance the cause of equality for homosexuals everywhere in the country, perhaps further than it had ever gone in more than four decades of gay activism."

There is no doubt the LGBT community should celebrate the landmark decision. But now is also a crucial time to ask about the future of the gay-rights movement and the nature of activism.

First of all, even though the Supreme Court has struck down DOMA, the dominoes are not automatically going to fall in favor of same-sex marriage. Even though the decision will affect federal law, gay-marriage advocates still have laws to fight for in individual states

"There's a still a long, long laundry list of things that need to be accomplished," says Stacy Long, the Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. But "it's the hard work in the trenches that can bring an end to discrimination in all forms."

Without the banner of same-sex marriage for activists to rally behind, will progress stall? There's hardly any question that gay marriage has become a hugely unifying issue for the LGBT movement. To use one example, the "marriage" category Human Rights Campaign's blog turns up 385 pages of results. (To compare, "hate Crimes" turns up 31, "Workplace Issues" produces 81 pages).

One of the reasons the right-to-marry has become such a battle cry for both gay and straight activists alike is its relative accessibility. Unlike issues such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic or transgender homelessness, marriage is something that virtually everyone in America is familiar with.

The gay marriage movement received floods of encouragement in the months leading up to today's decision. Celebrities took a stand against DOMA, wielding their influence on Instagram and Twitter. In April, Facebook became a sea of red as users changed their profile pictures to show infinite incarnations of red and pink equal signs.

"The marriage conversation is a starting point because it's so relatable for people," said Long. "It's one of the issues that we use to teach the public about how we live our lives."

Suzanne Goldberg, a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in sexuality and gender law, echoes Long's statement. "So many people are married, have been married or want to be married," she said. "Most people can understand the suffering that the denial of marriage rights causes."

Other activists have taken a more cynical approach when it comes to the popularity of marriage rights. According to lawyer and author Dean Spade, the marriage crusade is the most visible issue not because it speaks to any sort of urgency within the gay-rights movement, but because it "aligns best with the conservative pro-marriage trends of the country, is the most appealing to corporate media and corporate sponsors and aligns well with the needs of white gay elites."

There are still plenty of issues LGBT-rights groups champion that have the potential to become the focus enormous nonpartisan campaigns. One of the most likely is the passage of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which has been kicked around Congress for nearly a decade and would protect workers from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Workplace equality, after all, shares many of the qualities that drew people of all walks of life to the gay-marriage movement. It's relatable, relatively non-threatening, and has already has legislation set up to support it.

"There's overwhelming public support for employment protections for LGBT people at the federal level -over 80 percent -but Congress has yet to pass legislation," says Long.

"It might not get the same attention," she says. "But the actual work gay rights advocates are doing goes far beyond marriage," adding that work done to reduce discrimination in the workforce, the number of LGBT elderly in the prison system, and harassment in schools "continues apace."

Other issues, like the homelessness among gay and transgender teens, will likely be more difficult to rally people behind. Homelessness and prostitution is not nearly as telegenic an issue as marriage equality, and those affected are usually hidden from view and are silenced from lack of money, power or health. Revelers should keep this in mind when celebrating the Supreme Court's legislation. Yesterday morning's decision was a landmark, true, but the LGBT movement still has a long way to go.

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Sarah Fentem is a writer based in Chicago.

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