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The Supreme Court's LGBT Catch-22

For advocates, the DOMA decision was a huge win -- but the Voting Rights Act decision could be a major setback for gay rights.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Last week the Supreme Court issued two of the greatest wins and setbacks to civil rights we've seen in the last 50 years. In ruling key elements of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, it validated the love I share with my wife and that of other LGBT couples whose relationships have been all but invisible. But instead of opening the floodgates for gay rights to take hold across the country, it may have stalled them, by neutering a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that ended federal oversight of voting-law changes in states with a history of racial discrimination.

As a black lesbian raised by my black grandparents from the South, I know all too well the struggles of black Americans to obtain and sustain the vote. And as the former president of the District of Columbia's successful marriage-equality campaign, I've experienced firsthand the plight of the LGBT community as it seeks to emerge from the shadows into the light of full equality. So the decisions last week were personally bittersweet for me. But they also illuminate how critical a fair and open election process is to further advancing LGBT rights, particularly in the South, which is home to some of the most anti-gay laws and policies in the country.

Despite the recent momentum behind marriage equality, LGBT people still have a ways to go to achieve full equality. There are still no explicit nondiscrimination protections for LGBT workers, which means they can be legally fired in more than half the states in the country simply because they are LGBT. The 2 million children being raised by LGBT parents are left economically vulnerable under antiquated laws and family policies, and LGBT youth face burdens of biased school policies, homelessness, and over-criminalization.

All of these issues are compounded for LGBT people of color like myself and are exacerbated for LGBT people living in the South. More than half of the 19 states that have no LGBT-inclusive laws or protections whatsoever are located in the South, including Texas, South Carolina, and Virginia -- states that were covered under the Voting Rights Act preclearance statute, but began moving forward with laws to restrict voting less than 48 hours after the Supreme Court's decision to strike it down.

This stifling of the democratic process will make it more difficult to upend the layers of anti-gay laws on the books in these states and others across the South. Progress will require the election of fresh pro-equality lawmakers who will vote to repeal constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, and who will enact laws to protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment and housing. It will require an electorate ready to thwart or support relevant ballot measures as necessary. In short, it will be even more difficult to achieve the full freedom to work or to marry without the unobstructed freedom to vote.

The voter-suppression tactics that were successfully blocked by VRA's preclearance requirement last year were clearly aimed at disenfranchising the "rising American electorate" -- the growing coalition of people of color, millennials, and others voters who are more likely to support progressive candidates and causes in general and LGBT rights in particular.

Recent polls show that a majority of millennial, black, and Hispanic voters now support marriage equality. Other surveys show that African Americans also demonstrate close to unanimous support for basic equal rights for LGBT people and believe it's important to solve the issues of housing and workplace discrimination, bullying, and hate crimes that persist.

And these would-be voters don't just believe in these issues, they show up at the polls to elect candidates who share their values, especially African American voters. During the 2012 presidential election African Americans turned out in enormous numbers, casting a higher percentage of votes than white voters for the first time on record. Ninety-four percent of these votes went to President Obama, with the vast majority going to like-minded lawmakers down-ballot who support LGBT rights. Black voters also helped to usher in marriage equality in Maryland, demonstrating their highest levels of support at the polls to date.

Simply put, progressive ideas, including LGBT rights, advance when people of color and young people vote. So it's not surprising that states most hostile to LGBT equality are also the strongest proponents of voters-suppression measures. Voter-ID laws fragment the electoral power of voters of color and make it more difficult for them to cast ballots, thereby clearing the field for anti-gay forces to win.

The enthusiasm of the rising American electorate is a direct result of the success of the Voting Rights Act, which ensured that their votes would be counted fairly. Without the check it provided, the progressive voices critical to advancing LGBT issues may be silenced in future elections, drowning out our quest for full equality.