Supreme Court Gay Marriage: Is Marriage Equality Really the Last Civil Rights Struggle?


As the country braces for the Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s ban on gay marriage, Proposition 8, it has become increasingly clear that no matter what happens within the court’s chambers, marriage equality is unavoidable. This month, Minnesota became the 12th state in the union to legalize marriage for same-sex couples, and even notorious right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh has conceded defeat, admitting that “this issue is lost” and that marriage equality is “inevitable.” 

Having lived through the dark days of Bush’s re-election campaign, one predicated on homophobic and xenophobic fear tactics, it is astonishing how rapidly the turnover has been with regards to American public sentiment about marriage equality. According to a Gallup poll, in 1996, 68% of Americans opposed marriage equality, while in 2012, only 48% opposed it. The effort for marriage equality has been swift and, despite early defeats, is now on the brink of potential national legalization. What a wonderful sight to behold. But the work is not over, so why are we acting like it is?

The continual framing of marriage equality as the “last civil rights struggle” ignores the glaring reality that homophobia and transphobia are still rampant in the United States and instead, implies that marriage is the end-all-be-all for the LGBT community. What about trans people? What about genderqueer/non-binary people who don’t fit the whitewashed, marital norm that marriage-equality groups like the Human Rights Campaign continually highlight as the emblem of gay life? And what about the various LGBT rights issues that are being avoided in the quest for marriage equality?

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 20% of homeless youth are LGBT, a staggering reality when you consider that only 10% of the entire general youth population in the United States identifies as LGBT. What’s more, LGBT youth are approximately 7.4 times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence than heterosexual homeless youth. Another startling statistic: transgender people are 28% more likely to experience physical violence than those who are gender-normative, according to GLAAD. To be LGBT in the United States is still incredibly dangerous, and, as the most recent homophobic hate crimes in Manhattan’s West Village tell us, there is no such thing as a safe space to be LGBT.

These harsh realities are largely missing and often, outright eliminated, from the mainstream efforts of marriage-equality organizations like the Human Rights Campaign. This myopic focus on marriage equality above all else has sidelined debate and organizing around other incredibly important LGBT issues. Too often, it is the “T” in LGBT that is left out. Transgender people are erased from the marriage-equality movement and their concerns are deemed secondary in importance to obtaining marriage equality. This is unacceptable. We cannot continue to demonize, stigmatize, and sideline transgender people in the name of making gay and lesbian married couples more palatable. This is not real progress. This is not real equality.

Marriage is a civil right. To deny it to a couple based only on sexual orientation is a clear violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and I sincerely hope that the Supreme Court will both overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. And yet, it is imperative that we acknowledge that marriage equality is one struggle, just as marriage is one of many equally valid and worthy expressions of love and sexuality. We cannot continue to privilege marriage over all other forms of relationships, and we cannot continue to privilege the marriage-equality movement over all other LGBT issues.

Instead of heralding marriage as the ultimate step in equality or the fundamental emblem of a healthy and valuable relationship, we need to shift the discourse. We cannot continue to privilege marriage to the detriment of other relationships, just as we cannot continue a narrow focus on marriage equality as the final step in LGBT rights. We should use marriage equality as a springboard to unite around other equally important issues in the LGBT community. Lives are at risk, and marriage equality alone will not end homophobia or transphobia. 

So while we hold our breath and hope that the Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, it’s important to remember that no matter what the Supreme Court decides, marriage equality is not the end. In fact, it is only the beginning.