Rebecca Juro

Are We Listening?

Filed By Rebecca Juro | November 05, 2009 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: ENDA, Kalamazoo, Maine, politics, Prop 8, same-sex unions

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.

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Um . . . Rebecca?

Why not a word about the likely passage of Ref. 71 in Washington state?

If 71 ultimately passes, Washington will have voter-approved marriage for same-sex couples (albeit without being called marriage)-- something that you wrote is unlikely "even in areas traditionally considered more liberal and progressive than most."

Care to comment?

It was a considered omission, John. At the time I wrote the piece, I hadn't yet heard whether Washington's referendum had passed or not, so I went with what was already known at the time.

Also, John, what's now law in Washington isn't marriage, it's civil unions with all the trimmings, just like we have here in NJ. Hopefully, it'll work much better for Washington lesbian and gay couples then it has for those here in Jersey.

I know that I am definitely tired of most people thinking that there is only one pony in the race for equality.
Marriage is an issue not THE issue. I have always said and I maintain that we must make headway over a broad spectrum in the movement.
This hyperfocus on marriage ends up demoralizing people because they have become so attenuated to using marriage as the measure each loss seems like a drastic defeat.
We need to place this in perspective. We are losing pretty often on a single issue but we are gaining on other issues. We need to direct our energy and attention to the places and fights where it will do the most good.
We have continually allowed our opponents to pick our battles for us as a community. It is not a winning strategy. We need some coordinated leadership which knows how to act and cannot be drawn into reacting only.

Rob, few people aside from Andrew Sullivan would say that marriage is THE issue.

I do understand your point, but I think you may be underestimating the degree to which the debate over same-sex marriage is helping other items on the agenda.
It has certainly grabbed the attention of the public in a way that 35 years of activism could not achieve on issues of job discrimination.
I did notice that, within just a few months of the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision, civil unions became the default position among the majority of the electorate.
Opponents of same-sex marriage were also put on the defensive with regard to job discrimination because suddenly they needed window dressing to attempt to argue that they're not bigots.
I know it seems counterintuitive to get your foot in the door by shooting for the moon (marriage), but I think that is at least one element in the positive things that are happening, and I believe that is happening because straight people are paying attention to us and our lives in ways they never did before.

Aside from the hate crimes issue ( I can't support it because of the military and prison stuff) I'm totally with you, and the activists of QueerToday are with you. Over 100 million dollars has been spent on losing marriage campaigns over the past ten years or so. We've got to refocus our energies on fighting for our basic rights and building a stronger more progressive movement that lifts everyone up.

Mark, I'm not sure what you mean by not being able to support hate crimes because of military and prison stuff? Not sure what one has to do with the other...?

A trans activist, who is not gay and who can get a traditional marriage, lectures gays and lesbians that they should give up on marriage for the foreseeable future and instead focus on legislation that benefits - wait for it - trans people. How selfless.

Who decided that our entire movement's priorities have to be dictate by an organized group of people who comprise a tiny fraction of 1% of the population, and who define themselves by gender identity, not sexual orientation? I have no problem with trans people and oppose discrimination against them. But it is ridiculous that they have been grafted onto a movement based on sexual orientation. It is even more ridiculous that we have to endure these lectures about priorities the same people who invited themselves in.

Maybe next week, Rebecca can lecture us all about how we should oppose health care reform unless it includes gender reassignment surgery in the public option. Trans uber alles.

Ah, where do I begin?

First, you know nothing about me so you have no idea if I happen to be gay or not. For the record, I'm a transsexual woman and my sexual orientation is lesbian.

Second: "Who decided that our entire movement's priorities have to be dictate by an organized group of people who comprise a tiny fraction of 1% of the population, and who define themselves by gender identity, not sexual orientation?"

Um no, you've got that backwards. That would be the Human Rights Campaign Executive Board who actually behaved that way a couple of years ago during the last go-round with this bill. That Board of course, was made up of people who define themselves exclusively by sexual orientation not gender identity (Donna Rose doesn't count as she was not kept in the loop and was worked around rather than with).

What we're demanding is economic justice. I know that's probably not very important to those with nice homes and well-playing jobs, but for the rest of us it's a very real issue, especially in this economy.

Haha, Rebecca responded to this well, but: you're complaining that she's lecturing you about how marriage should be supplanted by trans rights (that's not really what she wrote at all, but whatever), and your respond by saying that the LGBT movement should kick the trans people out who've been there from the beginning.

If you don't believe there's any connection between sexual orientation and gender identity, that's your prerogative. I think most people do before they overintellectualize it. If LGBT orgs are going to ask trans folks to volunteer and donate under the premise that they'll be there for them, then they get a voice in the movement too.

Not to mention, Alex, gender identity and sexual orientation are two very closely related spectrum that cross one another often. I don't consider myself transgender, but I also don't consider myself 'masculine.' I think there are many ways I gleefully break gender stereotypes.

I am proud to do so, and encourage others to break free of the box as well. Sexual orientation and gender identity aren't mutually exclusive. They're closer tied than some folks on either side want to admit--THAT is why the T DEFINITELY belongs. We all share so much, and we all break the social boundaries in similar ways. We HAVE to stick together.

I'm proud to be a cis ally, and say 'eff-off' who has a problem with Transgender rights being a priority. Why the hell shouldn't they be?

As a note, in full, the Trans population comprises about 8% of the population.

It's transsexuals who comprise about 1% of that.

Please avoid thinking of trans as being just transsexuals. It's rather inconsiderate and privileged.

I think I disagree with the idea that we are losing on marriage equality. This year we have won marriage equality in three states. We lost gaining it in a fourth. If this were a test, 75% would be a passing grade. We are winning on marriage equality right now. Maine hurts, but there is no particular rational reason to focus what happened there this year instead of what happened this year in Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and for that matter Washington.

We apparently can not win a ballot initiative battle on marriage in any state. This isn't necessarily a problem yet. The next three states likely to get marriage equality- New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia-- do not have citizen-originating initiative processes. If Illinois somehow gets its stuff together and passes a marriage or civil union bill, there is no chance of a ballot initiative there either.

I agree with you that basic gay rights initiatives like ENDA are more important than the marriage issue right now. I think that the loss in Maine does demonstrate that there are certain fights that we need to do a lot more prep work before we willingly enter them, for example I think the Maine loss adds great support to EQCA's insistence that a 2012 prop 8 repeal campaign is wiser than one in 2010. I do find it frustrating that many parts of the blog community have somehow tended to focus on the marriage issue (and for that matter DADT) to the point that it has distracted from more basic goals that we need to concentrate on first, like ENDA and the just-passed hate crimes bill.

But, I don't agree with the implication here that marriage equality and the more "the basics" type battles you describe are somehow in conflict. The thing is that marriage equality battles are matters of local political organizing, ENDA and DADT and whatnot are matters of federal political organizing. They take place in different spheres, they use different kinds of resources. State marriage equality battles do not become national organizing issues except when these big flashy initiative battles break out, and it's not precisely speaking possible to take local action on a federal bill.

Basically I think there's room for a discussion about whether we as a community have got some weird priorities, but I'm not comfortable with blanket calling "the battle for same-sex marriage rights" the problem here at a time when targeted local efforts on marriage equality both can be done without interfering with national priorities and are meeting with good success.

But how can we define local efforts as "good success" if the laws that result are left wide open to repeal efforts which always win? How does that qualify as success?

In order to prevent these laws from being repealed we need a stronger, more affluent, and more influential activist community. In order to have that we need to ensure our right to earn a living and maintain a place to live to provide for ourselves and our families. Simply put, one isn't going to happen until we secure the other because unless we do we will continue to be out-spent and out-campaigned by our opponents.

Now THAT'S a constructive comment! Bravo!

"Who decided that our entire movement's priorities have to be dictate by an organized group of people who comprise a tiny fraction of 1% of the population, and who define themselves by gender identity, not sexual orientation?"

I think the key here is "our" movement. Ours. It's not about gays, lesbians, bisexuals, or trans- people. It's about all of us and how we act and react not just to the world at large (through these elections) but also to ourselves (through this comment thread, for example).

I personally think that this attitude is the reason we're able to get stomped consistently. We can't complain about our rights and how we're treated badly by a fickle majority if we're going to do the exact same thing to OUR subsegments. Like Rebecca says, taking care of the basics is important in laying a foundation to change the more complex institutions, and there's nothing more basic than treating each other with a modicum of the respect we're asking of others.

Also, "I have no problem with trans people and oppose discrimination against them," and, "Maybe next week, Rebecca can lecture us all about how we should oppose health care reform unless it includes gender reassignment surgery in the public option. Trans uber alles," seem to be at odds. I'm getting sick and tired of people parathetically saying that they support XYZ while simultaneously trying to denigrate it. That's just dumb.

AMEN! I'm sick of having to have this same argument over and over again. You know what it feels like to me? Having to argue with a homophobe about why my rights are as important as theirs. I don't sense a difference.

Transgender folk contribute tirelessly to our community DESPITE our having dissed them repeatedly. They've been the glue OF our community. I'm just plain tired of this same tired argument constantly. If transgender people make you uncomfortable, whatever. Too bad. Don't try to justify your own discomfort. Its yours, not mine. Own it and don't put it off on the rest of us.

"If you don't believe there's any connection between sexual orientation and gender identity, that's your prerogative. I think most people do"

How would you know? We've never had a community-wide conversation about this. There certainly was never a vote or even a poll. All of a sudden, one day in the 1990s, the letter "T" suddenly appeared and it became politically incorrect not to use it.

There is no logical or political reason we should consider trans people an integral part of the gay/lesbian movement. Gender is not the same thing as sexual orientation.

The best and maybe only argument I have ever heard in support of this is that homophobes equate gay with gender transgression, so therefore we should as well. Homophobes equate us with all sorts of things. Why would we want to start building our identity based on what homophobes believe?

So tired... so very tired... Rebecca, I give you props for all you do. You came out to talk about the priorities of our community, and--surprise surprise--what are the comments about: people's discomfort.

If I wrote this piece would we be having this conversation? No. Because I'm a cisgender queer man. No one would question my authority--maybe disagree with me--but noone would say "you're just saying that because you're such and such!"

Many cisgender queer men happen to agree with Rebecca as well! I happen to think marriage can be part of a many-pronged approach, but I see a potential to win with ENDA THIS YEAR so I would like to invest my time, energy and money into that now. Many cisgender queer men think marriage is a bunch of hooey. If they were here saying so, what would these comments look like.

Rebecca, you make VERY valid points, and its too bad folks got to stick their fingers in their ears and squeeze their eyes shut every time they see a trans person, and miss out on this very poignant and timely point.

Some folk just too crazy to be real!

How would you know? We've never had a community-wide conversation about this. There certainly was never a vote or even a poll. All of a sudden, one day in the 1990s, the letter "T" suddenly appeared and it became politically incorrect not to use it.

Hey, great idea! 'Cause having a majority group in a community vote on what to do with a minority within the community led to such just results in Maine last night, right?

And for the record, claiming that "T" only appeared in the community in the '90s is sheer revisionism. Or do you think that there weren't any trans people throwing stones at the cops at Stonewall?

The transfolk were the FIRST to throw the stones, because us cis folk were too chicken shit! We have a movement today THANKS to the trans people.

They rioted in Compton's Cafeteria in San Fran, too, before any of the rest of us thought to fight back. Almost a decade earlier.

But how can we define local efforts as "good success" if the laws that result are left wide open to repeal efforts which always win? How does that qualify as success?

Again, the repeal efforts aren't possible everywhere. Just speaking in structural, practical terms. For one example if New Jersey gets marriage equality, the repeal/referendum effort would require 3/5 of the legislature to approve a constitutional amendment before it goes to voters. Logically if the legislature is 3/5 in favor of a constitutional amendment vote then they would not be passing the 50%+1 marriage law in the first place. In Iowa, where the referendum process also has huge barriers to entry, a referendum will likely happen but it will take four or five years to get on the ballot, long enough that the landscape will be different by then. In DC marriage equality law has already been ruled outside the bounds of what the local referendum process can be used for. And so on. We can't call it success if marriage equality is repealed by popular vote, we apparently can't win a popular vote, but there are lots of places where it's possible to outright prevent a popular vote from being allowed in the first place. For the time being, this is where marriage equality fights can be productive and successful.

In the long term, I agree that in order to get to the point where we can do things like win popular votes on marriage equality (or in general win marriage equality battles outside of those limited contexts where local circumstances coincidentally happen to protect us from ballot initiative) we have to get those neglected "basics" down. But I don't think it's helpful to overstate the situation. "Marriage equality" is multifarious and there are worthwhile short term goals to be found there.

If it isn't obvious this was intended to be a reply to Rebecca's comment two up. Sorry 'bout that.

Angela Brightfeather | November 6, 2009 1:16 PM

Dianne, at 64 come this Sunday, I've probably been around longer than you and I would like to inform you that I was not the first Transgender person born. I also have participated in GLB events and issues since I was 20 years old, making me a part of the GLB community for the last 44 years. So don't tell me that the 90's was the first time I muscveled my way, screemeing for GLBT rights and fighting people for them. Your wrong and you can't kick me out after accepting my help and support over 44 years ago. So you can stick that idea right now.

As far as SSM goes, I'm all for it, just like I was all for GLBT rights many years before the 90's. What changed things in the 90's was the March on Washington and the ommission of Trans from that march. Trans leaders who gathered at that time agreed that they would never allow that to happen again. It was also the first time that Transgender people had a real problem with HRC, one of the organizers of that march and their insistence that they would not change the name of the march to include us. Perhaps that is why you consider it the beginning of something due to your first recollection of Trans, forceably inserting themselves into the GLBT equation. Your still wrong though and you show a terrible lack of study and research on the subject.

SSM at the state level is not SSM at the federal level. It's that simple. The 1000+ laws that adversly affect GLBT people because of DOMA and discriminates against their marriage status will not go away until DOMA is repealed. That means that 100M has been spent on trying to achieve a partial remedy or provide a bandage on a sore at the local level only. That 100 M could have been used more affectively to lobby Congress to repeal DOMA than to change state laws that are only partial and mean nothing from one state to another. It could also have been used to fight a much more affective judicial battle all the way to the Supreme Court, which has begun already.

And Dianne, the next time your walking down the street holding hands with your better half and someone yells out "Dyke, Lezbo, go to hell" and throws a beer bottle at your head, remember that they are not clueing in on your being Lesbian because they caught you sleeping together, but on the gender expression signals your simply sending when holding hands. I assume that you have more sense to undestand that, even if they don't have a clue why their sending that bottle your way, outside of the hate they feel for you and your partner.

Most GLB people do understand that it is how they conduct themselves naturally and as happy couples do, that send the signals to others that they are not acting along what others consider "straight" gender expression conceptions and causes them to become victims of hate.

That is exactly why we are in the same boat and deserve to be in the same fights. Homophobia is our common enemy Dianne, not Transgender people. That binds us in an irrevocable common fight to support each other to the very end.