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Rebecca Juro

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Reality Check: Why Marriage Needs to Take a Backseat to Workplace Rights

Posted: 08/13/2012 4:00 pm

It never ceases to amaze me how the wealthier portions of the LGBT community and their political allies continue to try to promote the fallacy, indeed the out-and-out lie, that same-sex marriage has become a mainstream value in America, one we as community should be focusing the bulk of our energies on. Anyone who looks at the numbers and the history with a truly unbiased eye knows that this is patently untrue, that in reality nationwide same-sex marriage is still nothing more than a fantasy in modern America and likely will continue to be so for a long time to come.

In order to really make progress on the marriage-rights front, the first thing that needs to be accomplished is leveling the economic playing field. The reasons should be obvious to anyone who's been paying attention.

It Makes Economic Sense

Right now, the primary concern for most lower- and middle-class Americans, regardless of sexuality or gender identity, is jobs. Simply put, there just aren't enough to go around. That's a big enough problem just in itself, but when you add in the fact that in most of the country, it's still perfectly legal to fire or refuse to hire someone solely because they happen to be LGBT, it makes staying employed and keeping yourself and your family out of hunger and homelessness even harder. The simple reality is that if you're trying to figure out how you're going to feed your family and pay the rent that month, the very last thing on your mind is how you can help LGBT Americans gain the right to marry.

If marriage advocates want to get the entire community on board working toward the goal of nationwide equal marriage rights, the way to do it is to ensure that the bulk of the community has both the time and the money to devote to the cause, and that's accomplished by making sure that as many of us as possible are gainfully employed and not focused just on our day-to-day survival. The best way to achieve that goal, at least in the short term, is to protect the right of LGBT Americans to live and work free of discrimination nationwide.

It Makes Political Sense

In all the advocacy around the issue of same-sex marriage, the big full-color celebrity commercials, the emails and direct mailings from the major organizations and the radio and television features, the one truth that same-sex-marriage advocates never talk about, the thing they'd just rather you'd just forget, is that unlike in the case of LGBT workplace equality, same-sex marriage is already constitutionally banned in 31 states, with more bans on the way if the right wing gets its way. What that means, in the practical sense, is that barring a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that strikes down all these state marriage bans in one fell swoop, which is highly unlikely, given the Court's currently sharply divided partisan makeup, at most only 19 states, 11 more than already allow it, could conceivably permit same-sex marriage if their legislatures decided they wanted to. It means that even before allowing same-sex marriage could be considered by the legislatures of any of the 31 states that constitutionally prohibit it, each of those bans would have to be legislatively repealed, one by one. More than simply years, at minimum we're most likely talking about a decades-long effort here.

Conversely, the path to nationwide LGBT workplace protections is not only much shorter but a far smoother one, as well. Sixteen states, double the number that currently allow same-sex marriage, already protect all their LGBT citizens from discrimination in the workplace, with an additional five protecting gays and lesbians, but not those who are transgender, from workplace discrimination, as well. With no state constitutional bans on LGBT workplace protections in place anywhere in the U.S., states have been passing these protections into law at a much faster rate than those granting same-sex marriage rights, with four states -- Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Connecticut -- passing laws protecting their transgender citizens from workplace discrimination in just the past year.

Unlike marriage rights, which must be fought for and won state by state, the passage of a federal workplace anti-discrimination protection law would guarantee those rights instantly to every single LGBT American. Workplace equality can become the law of the land in America without having to win the political support of 42 state legislatures and governors who will have to approve same-sex marriage rights, including the 31 states that will first have to repeal their own constitutional bans, before they can even begin seriously debating the issue.

When you compare the two issues side by side, the logic is both obvious and unavoidable: Gaining nationwide anti-discrimination protections in the workplace is a far easier and less time-consuming task, politically, than achieving nationwide same-sex marriage is now or likely ever could be within most of our lifetimes.

It's Just Plain Common Sense

Looking at the issues from a social and cultural perspective, the difference in the challenges becomes even clearer. Marriage is a concept heavily wrapped up in religion and people's religious beliefs, while the right to work is much more of a secular American value, more tied to the economy and the basic idea that able-bodied citizens should be gainfully employed and supporting themselves wherever and whenever possible.

You can argue the nuts and bolts of economic policy across the partisan divide all day long, but one thing most Americans agree on, regardless of ideology, is that those who can work should be working. Even a substantial number of Republicans have voted in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) when it's come up for a vote in Congress in the past, including newly anointed vice presidential candidate and author of the economically destructive and lower-and-middle-class-family-crushing "Path to Prosperity," Rep. Paul Ryan.

In a nutshell, it's a heck of a lot easier to invoke God, religion, and the inherent anti-LGBT bigotries therein when talking about marriage than when talking about someone's ability to get and keep a job and provide for themselves and their families. In modern American economic, social, and cultural reality, that's just a no-brainer.

If we start redirecting the money and (wo)manpower that we're continuing to waste on fighting unsuccessful same-sex marriage battles toward lifting all boats economically for a while until we get ENDA or something similar passed into law, what we'll eventually find is that we'll be far better equipped as a community and an activist force to take on the much tougher and far longer-term battle to win same-sex marriage rights.

More LGBT Americans working means more money, more time, more boots on the ground, more cultural impact, and more political influence. That's an equation that can't help but lead to more success overall, particularly in the post-Citizens United era, and therefore a correspondingly easier time of making same-sex marriage a reality in more American states than ever before.

For years the big-money activists preached incrementalism to trans people, telling us that we had to build a foundation of political success and support for more attainable goals before they could move on to protecting our civil rights. Now those folks to need to bow to the demands of political reality and take a strong dose of their own medicine. For same-sex marriage to become a reality in this country beyond a relative handful of states anytime soon, it's time for marriage-equality advocates to pop the top, take a big swig, and swallow hard. It might not taste too good to them going down, but it's the only way to effect a cure.

 

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