From the ubiquity of gay marriage news these past few weeks to the outpouring of support from politicians, it would appear that the tide is turning in favor of LGBT equality. Unfortunately our current trajectory will leave many in our community behind.
Even in this affirmative pro-gay moment, many political observers have criticized lawmakers for needing opportune political timing to reconsider their views of gay marriage. Focusing on this set of leaders obscures a more alarming group of offenders who implicitly support the narrow understanding of LGBT equality that this political shift suggests.
The motives of lawmakers are no surprise. As John Mcwhorter, contributing editor at The New Republic, points out, "evolutions seem always to be towards targets that will lend political advantage." These new converts avoided seeking out some prerogative power to champion equality by waiting for public opinion. Even in the case of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), whose conversion on the issue was premised on his son's coming out as opposed to actually valuing equality, the lawmaker possibly waited two years to mitigate a severe backlash.
Politicians may consult their constituents before reversing their opinions, but I am struck by how they narrowly address marriage in their newfound empathy for LGBT people. Even if marriage is the most public issue in LGBT politics today, these new supporters almost never mention the myriad of other types of discrimination and oppression that LGBT Americans face.
It is not as if this were their first encounter with LGBT-related issues. Congress has been grappling with them for decades, from failing to move on critical pieces of LGBT legislation such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act with protections for same-sex couples after almost a year of gridlock.
LGBT representation in the national policy arena that can help the government consider a broader set of policies supports this mismanagement of priorities. A complex institutional environment that resembles that of elected office compels national LGBT organizations to be pragmatic. By focusing on issues that enter the public consciousness, they are doing a disservice to the LGBT community's most vulnerable members whose needs do not nearly reach the same level of prominence as those of our privileged class.
We all know that politicians, as elected officials often bound by public opinion, tend to be opportunists. What about organizations that have less of a stake in the status quo? Why don't organizations that claim to represent the entire LGBT community, such as the Human Rights Campaign, "the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans," diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality we face?
Wes Ware, executive director of BreakOUT, an LGBT youth center in New Orleans, noted that the youth he works with have a much different understanding of LGBT politics. His members, most of whom are youth of color, worry about a very different set of issues, such as police profiling and juvenile justice reform. He points out that his organization has much less in common with mainstream LGBT organizations than their racially focused counterparts. A national survey conducted by FIERCE, an LGBTQ-youth-of-color-led organization in New York City, found that marriage equality was the least urgent issue for their members. Cuts to social services, homelessness and transphobia are much more threatening for their constituency. The national LGBT policy agenda affirms these youth's feelings of neglect.
The bottom line is that the LGBT movement's current prioritization of issues deprives the most marginalized members of representation. As a result, the strength of the entire movement is diminished as gaps in policy are overlooked and, even worse, the American people are denied an accurate representation of what total LGBT equality demands.
Moreover, the current premium on pragmatism and its lack of interest in creating a broad coalition undermine our movement's ability to produce transformational leaders. These individuals are, as leadership studies scholar and Leadership author James MacGregor Burns states, people who can do the important work of bridging previously disaffected groups. What we have now resembles more of "preservational leadership," which is not conducive to redefining the public agenda beyond the most tenable goals. How can we improve the lives of every LGBT American if those informing our elected officials do not have the capacity to inspire far-reaching progress across agencies and party lines? This appears to be a vicious cycle.
Well-funded national organizations must seek out new strategies to present a more comprehensive range of discrimination faced by the most marginalized LGBT people. They are in a position -- and under a moral obligation -- to shift their followers' aspirations through a broader understanding of equality.
Just as Sen. Portman can center his understanding of LGBT equality only on an issue that will affect his son, our self-appointed LGBT leaders enjoy a special, institutional legitimacy without feeling the urge to set goals that meet the needs of all their constituents. They must move past this tendency in order to build public consensus about who we are and what we need.
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