We hear the word a lot these days, don't we? Organizations like to tell us they're fighting for it, politicians and activists like to tell us that the passage and enactment of certain laws represents it. Yet, if we take the time to really consider the term "equality" and what it actually means, we begin to understand that true equality, especially in America, is still a relatively rare thing.
First, let's define our term. Merriam-Webster defines the word "equality" as "the quality, fact, or state of being equal." Clearly, for a complete definition of "equality," we also need to define the word "equal." Merriam-Webster's first two definitions of the adjective form of the word seem to provide the most relevant answer for our purposes here:
- exactly the same in number, amount, degree, rank, or quality
Using these definitions as our guide, it quickly become obvious that the situation we have in most of America in terms of how it treats its LGBT citizens under the law cannot be credibly defined with this term.
A state like New York, where gays and lesbians are legally protected against discrimination and allowed to marry while transgender people are still denied those basic civil rights, does not meet this standard, nor does a state where the rights of all LGBT citizens are protected against discrimination but gays and lesbians are still denied the legal right to marry, such as New Jersey.
Similarly, Massachusetts just passed a new law that will protect its transgender citizens from discrimination in employment, housing, credit, lending, and education. However, this new law will not offer transgender people the protections against discrimination in public accommodations that the state's non-transgender citizens already enjoy, and therefore it cannot be said to create a legal status for transgender people in the state where the term "equality" can be accurately applied, either, no matter what some activists may try to tell you.
The only states where the term "equality" might currently be reasonably applied to the laws regarding LGBT people are Iowa, Connecticut, and Vermont, where LGBT people are both fully protected against discrimination and have their their right to marry protected, as well, along with Washington, D.C. and some local jurisdictions where the combination of local and state laws result in full anti-discrimination protections and marriage rights for all LGBT people.
Of course, the state of our federal body of law regarding LGBT Americans doesn't even come close to approaching this standard, with legal recognition by the federal government of same-sex marriage still specifically prohibited under the Defense of Marriage Act and no federal laws currently existing to guarantee civilian LGBT Americans fair treatment or protection against discrimination of any kind.
Despite these realities, we see the word "equality" inaccurately thrown around with abandon by political figures, activists, and the media to define everything from marriage rights for gays and lesbians in states where it's still legal to fire or refuse to hire someone or throw them out of their home or a bar or restaurant for no reason other than their being transgender-identified, to letting gays and lesbians serve openly in the United States military, a government entity that continues to define transgender Americans as mentally disordered and therefore unfit for service based solely upon their transgender status.
The hard truth is that for most of America in most of the ways that matter, anyone who tries to tell you that the current state of our laws represents true equality is lying to you, plain and simple. Indeed, it's difficult, if not flat-out impossible, to truthfully define as equality any set of laws where some citizens are protected but others are not. Simply put, you can't even accurately call any set of laws "civil rights," much less equality, when only certain select groups of citizens are protected by those laws while other Americans are left behind unprotected to fend for themselves.
So I say to the activists, pundits, and politicians who like to keep defining the half-baked civil rights laws that prevail in most of our country with the term "equality," stop it. You're lying, we know you're lying, and you're not helping yourself, your organization, your political party, or your cause by continuing to lie to people who already know you're full of it.
Instead, let's start defining the term "equality" accurately, as a still-unrealized goal we're working toward in this country, not a politically convenient brand-name label some are so eager to slap on any kind of social or political progress that brings us closer to that final destination. It's time to stop pretending that civil rights laws that protect the wealthiest and most politically connected segments of American society but leave poorer and less politically potent minority groups disadvantaged or left behind entirely and legitimately qualify to be defined with this term.
It's time to start being honest with ourselves, and with the rest of America. You can't call it equality unless and until everyone is truly treated equally under the law, and that's just not what we have in most of modern America, not even in some areas of this country popularly considered to be among the most progressive.
It's only when we in the LGBT community finally start seeing equality for what it really is, as something we're still actively striving for, not a status we've already arrived at, that we'll ever have a real chance of actually achieving it.