November 4, 2015

KOWALEWSKI | The Continued Fight

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It is now November. In this column, I could choose to partake in the endless speculation about the presidential election. However, rather than writing about something that won’t occur for another year, perhaps it would be more productive to think about the past year. With less than two months left in 2015, what has changed in America?

I could talk about the recent two-year federal budget agreement, or maybe the nuclear deal with Iran. To be certain, these are significant changes in national policy, and their importance should not be understated. But their effects seem distant to the average American. To find a truly significant change, it is necessary to look elsewhere.

In my opinion, the most groundbreaking development of 2015 is undoubtedly the national legalization of marriage equality following a landmark decision by the Supreme Court. In any context, this would be an historic story. Yet it deserves particular attention because of how rapidly this change came about. The first state to legalize same-sex marriage was Massachusetts in 2004. Just 11 years later, equal marriage is the law of the land in all 50 states.

As we consider this rapid progress, we should also draw attention to the overwhelming social acceptance of this decision. Yes, Republican presidential candidates were predictably outraged. And yes, a certain Kentucky county clerk made news headlines over the terrible oppression of, well, having to do her job. But the fact that she received so much attention is notable in itself. By-and-large, even in the most conservative areas of our country, the new rule of marriage equality was recognized.

This didn’t just happen. The campaign for marriage equality was built upon decades of setbacks, hate and oppression. Nonetheless, despite seemingly insurmountable opposition, the LGBTQIA+ rights movement has never backed down from the fight for equality. It has been waged in the courts, at the ballot box, the workplace and perhaps most of all, among friends and family. The success of this effort stands as a shining example of the possibility for change in America. Looking at what has already been achieved by the LGBTQIA+ rights movement, how could anyone say that progress isn’t possible?

But as we celebrate, we must recognize that victory in the battle for marriage does not end the fight for equality for the LGBTQIA+ community. We must recognize the severe inequalities that continue to exist in the law and in our society. And we must take note of our failures.

On Tuesday, Houston residents voted on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. Often known as HERO, this measure was designed to prohibit discrimination on a wide variety of personal characteristics, including race, age, disability and most controversially, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The opposition to HERO was vociferous, relying on conspiracies and fundamental misconceptions of what it would do. Critics of the law repeatedly raised the example of predatory men using the non-discrimination law to infiltrate women’s bathrooms. Despite no evidence of this problem ever occurring, anywhere, this transphobic line of attack came to dominate the debate over HERO. The facts didn’t matter — indeed, their entire campaign of opposition was built on the foundation of fear and ignorance.

It worked. In one of the country’s largest cities — with an openly lesbian mayor, no less — the public rejected HERO by a double digit margin.

The defeat of HERO is a prominent example of how the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights is far from won. In a majority of states and localities, there are no laws against discrimination of LGBTQIA+ individuals. This means it is legal to fire someone for identifying as gay, and perfectly acceptable to prohibit service to a transgender man or woman. These are fundamental protections — the basic ability to earn a living and participate in your community — denied purely on the basis of bigotry.

We must reject the thinly-veiled arguments against non-discrimination laws — cries of how they represent so-called ‘special privileges’ for LGBTQIA+ individuals. The truth could be no farther. New anti-discrimination laws would merely extend current protections, closing a gap in the law that directly targets LGTBQIA+ Americans.

We must accept that LGBTQIA+ rights are not limited to the right to legally marry, but also include the right of queer people to live and work safely. Further, we must recognize the intersections of income, race, sexual orientation and gender identity. We can celebrate the increasing prominence of transgender Americans, such as Caitlyn Jenner, but it is difficult to truly equate the experience of a wealthy, white transwoman with that of an impoverished transwoman of color.

All-in-all, we must embrace a more expansive conception of the issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as how these problems are exacerbated by continued poverty and racism. What about homelessness among LGBTQIA+ youth? Educational institutions that are unaware, and even hostile, to the particular concerns facing LGBTQIA+ students? The continued prevalence of the HIV/AIDS crisis? Higher rates of poverty, mental illness and abuse among the LGBTQIA+ community? These are only a few examples of the problems that the movement must turn its energy toward.

In 2016, we will see a lot of coverage about meaningless controversies, gaffes and speeches. It is my hope that LGBTQIA+ Americans will not grow complacent. We need a federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. We need increased acceptance and protection for transgender Americans. And we need public policy that addresses the unique concerns of LGBTQIA+ Americans, especially those of color and those in poverty.

I hope that this is made clear to elected officials and candidates across the country. The movement for LGBTQIA+ rights is far from over. All of us — gay, straight, white, black, cisgender, transgender — should continue to speak out, campaign and vote. We have seen the incredible potential for change in this country. May we take note of these victories, acknowledge our failings and remain dedicated to the pursuit for true equality.

Kevin Kowalewski is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Democratic Dialogue appears alternate Thursdays this semester.