Supreme Court Marriage Ruling: No Silver Bullet for LGBT Equality

04/28/2015 09:40 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
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As the Supreme Court is set to hear four cases on state marriage bans, it is no coincidence that so-called "religious freedom restoration" acts are popping up across the country to sanction discrimination by businesses, employers and public officials. Echoes of the civil rights movement serve as an important reminder that marriage is not a fix-all. What we do next will define the future of this movement.

Marriage equality captured the nation's imagination in ways no one could have predicted. The movement highlighted the 1,138 protections afforded to married couples and seemed to promise that marriage would be a silver bullet for full equality.

Much in the same way, African Americans expected education to be the silver bullet to address racial inequality. We thought that if we got our people educated, everything would change. However, numerous structural and cultural barriers needed then, and still need, to be addressed simultaneously.

LGBT advocates and allies have invested heavily in the movement for marriage equality, yet all the while, black transgender women are being killed for who they are, and homeless LGBT youth are sleeping on our streets. These issues did not go away while we were working on a silver bullet.

Our strategy for full equality must be holistic and multi-pronged. We must learn from our missteps before we move on.

Black and brown people have been fighting for justice for centuries, and we celebrate the fact that more same-gender-loving couples can get married. But LGBT people of color are facing compounded discrimination based on our race, sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Marriage equality can't free an individual from being legally fired for being perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Marriage equality doesn't mitigate the fact that black same-sex couples who are raising children experience disproportionately high rates of poverty and unemployment.

In seeking a more just, equitable and fair society, advocates and justice-seekers must always hold an awareness of the multiple ways people's lives are negatively impacted by injustices, even while working on the particular issue we are committed to. We must recognize and remember that the people we are advocating for are dealing with more than just our subject matter.

It starts with seeing where there is crossover -- where your issue bumps up against other issues, and then partnering with people who are skilled in that area while still working on your organization's primary area.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated this understanding when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. When critics told Dr. King the war was not his issue, he responded, "Oh, yes it is." Young black men were going to Vietnam and dying in higher proportions. He could see the intersection. He could see the relatedness.

As LGBT people of color, as men, as women, as immigrants, as disabled people -- we cannot bifurcate and separate ourselves down the middle.

Not only does marriage miss the mark when it comes to recognizing our intersections, it misses the mark when it comes to reaching our potential allies. Even with the significant shifts we have witnessed, not everyone is onboard yet, including my own community.

Marriage means so many things to so many people. For some, their faith and its framing of marriage inform the lens through which they view LGBT people -- a lens that is not addressed by courts ruling on marriage equality. Here lies the work of helping people understand that every person is a child of God and deserves to be treated fairly.

At Many Voices, we encounter many black pastors who demonstrate openness. They want to be supportive but are blocked, whether by their theology, personal discomfort or concern about backlash. So we work to remove blockages.

One of the most effective strategies has been to look at the concerns of black LGBT people as issues of justice. These religious leaders are often unaware of the ways in which black LGBT people are challenged economically, are homeless, are under-educated. They work on the school-to-prison pipeline without realizing that black LGBT youth are caught up in that pipeline just like everyone else. In this way, we can remove the blockages, because in their hearts, they are committed to the improvement of people's lives.

When we talk to black clergy about Indiana's or other states' so-called "religious freedom restoration" acts, and say that this is about discrimination, they get it. Wasn't access to public accommodations the fight of the civil rights movement?

This isn't about equating one struggle with another. It is about echoes of injustice ringing loud and clear.

Black clergy comprehend that we should not be sanctioning discrimination in our laws. They understand that these bills are not really about religious liberty, because the constitution already guarantees that right in the First Amendment, and these bills bring harm to a segment of our society.

This is the moment for our nation to acknowledge that LGBT women and men, especially LGBT people of color, are fighting for our lives -- not just for our way to the altar.

It is the moment for the LGBT movement to recognize that the LGBT people who are leading and participating in the #BlackLivesMatter movement have hit upon something. These millennials understand that all of us are under assault. Everyone is marching because oppression affects us all.

Their leadership -- which is largely young, black, female and queer -- is the embodiment of what it means to be a person living at the intersection, impacted by various systems of discrimination. If our leadership looks like the oppressor, or if the leadership is not willing to risk being different, we will get the same limited results.

We now have a fresh crop of leaders who do not look like the leaders of the past. That is when you know you are shaping a future.

It's time to decide what the next 10, 20, 50 years of the LGBT movement look like. Leading up to the Supreme Court hearing and the June ruling on marriage, we have an opportunity to cast a vision for a more fair, equitable and just society.

It is up to us to do the work right now to create that future. Our millennials are crafting it. It is time the rest of us follow suit, even if it means long-time leaders taking a seat, sharing their wisdom, and giving up the spotlight.

As co-director of Many Voices, Rev. Cedric Harmon works directly with black religious leaders and other people of faith to engage diverse topics at the intersection of religion, faith, and human sexuality. An ordained pastor affiliated with the National Baptist and Missionary Baptist Churches, he provides trainings, workshops, coaching, and presentations -- always creating a safe space to connect the concerns of LGBT families with black churches' historic commitment to liberation, freedom, and justice.