What to Do When ‘I Do’ Is Done

What to Do When ‘I Do’ Is Done

LGBT activists and funders are debating the movement’s post-marriage priorities.

By Peter Montgomery  The American Prospect  February 14, 2015

Equal Rights

Equal Rights

In the year and a half since the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, federal and state courts have been overturning laws against marriage by same-sex couples at a dizzying pace, sometimes more than once in a single day. Giddy activists have joked about the challenge of keeping color-coded marriage equality maps up-to-date. News stories about gay couples marrying in places like Oklahoma, Utah, South Carolina, and Idaho are now so common they hardly seem surprising.

With the widely shared expectation that the Supreme Court will soon return to the issue of marriage and may strike down marriage bans nationwide, LGBT leaders find themselves asking a question that would have seemed improbable just a few years ago: What should be the priorities of the LGBT movement once legal marriage equality has been achieved?

The most likely candidate for the kind of coordinated, national- and state-level strategy that fueled the marriage equality campaign is a push to get all LGBT Americans covered by laws barring discrimination against them in employment, housing, health care, and public accommodations. Brutal persecution of LGBT people around the globe, often with the collusion or encouragement of American anti-gay activists, is another growing concern. Those issues are likely to draw support from across the ideological spectrum of LGBT organizations.

Some movement strategists also want to address the effects of economic inequality and institutionalized prejudice on the lives of LGBT people. Efforts to move those issues to the center of LGBT activism, however, may run up against another current: the well-funded effort to make LGBT equality more palatable to Republicans and other conservatives.

Of course, while marriage equality is a reality in 35 states and Washington, D.C., it is not yet a done deal nationally. Lawyers are still staying up all night writing and filing briefs. Equality advocates are still sparring rhetorically, legally, and politically with anti–marriage-equality religious and political leaders who are fighting to the bitter end. And even if the Supreme Court overturns remaining bans and all 50 states turn blue on marriage equality maps, Navajo equality activist Alray Nelson wants it to be known that people living in more than 500 tribal nations will still lack marriage rights.

Still, with those cautions noted, the end does seem to be in sight, and that has LGBT funders and leaders looking ahead, considering what lessons can be drawn from the marriage equality campaign, how to keep LGBT activists and supporters engaged in the movement, and where to direct the energies and resources that have poured into campaigns for marriage equality. “I believe it’s not about pivoting from marriage,” says Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson. “It’s about harnessing the marriage work and success to getting success on other fronts.”

One important accomplishment of the national conversation about marriage is that it has had a humanizing impact on how many Americans view LGBT people, couples, and families. The marriage movement has been “a powerful vehicle to express the shared humanity of LGBT people,” says Janson Wu, executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), a Boston-based legal group that has played a key role in both the marriage equality campaign and the broader LGBT equality movement. The resulting advances in overcoming prejudice should support progress on other issues facing LGBT people. “Marriage vocabulary is powerful, connective vocabulary that helps transform people’s understanding,” says Wolfson.

Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Arcus Foundation, agrees that marriage equality campaigns encouraged a humanizing dialogue about LGBT people. The downside, he says, is that marriage has so dominated public conversation that people who aren’t intimately familiar with the LGBT community may think it is the beginning, middle, and end of what the community needs. In reality, he says, “marriage equality will affect a fraction of the LGBT community, and a fraction of a fraction of that movement’s needs.”

The Philosophical and Political Divide

What are those community needs? In October, longtime LGBT strategist Urvashi Vaid received a Spirit of Justice award from GLAD. Vaid ran through a set of issues that are barriers to full-lived equality for many LGBT people, including poverty, racism, misogyny, violence, immigration policies, policing, and detention. While organizations have been working on all those fronts, she said, the LGBT movement lacks sufficient focus on many of these issues, despite the fact that women make up half the LGBT community and people of color a third of it. “The question that confronts the LGBT movement today,” she said, “is whether we are willing to retool our movement to push for the redistribution of economic resources and political power that is needed to change the lived experience of LGBT people in all parts of our very diverse communities.”

Just a couple of weeks later, after Republican victories in the midterm elections, Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, posed a very different question. “This is really a time of choosing for LGBT advocates on the left,” Angelo told the Washington Blade’s Chris Johnson. “Do you support the left agenda, or do you actually support equal rights for Americans? Those who fall in the latter category are going to be the ones who are going to be com[ing] to the table with Republicans and find[ing] solutions, ways to pass things, like employment protections for LGBT individuals, that also reach consensus among Republicans.”

The philosophical and political divide reflected in these two approaches, sometimes framed as assimilation versus liberation, is as old as the LGBT movement itself. “The tension between the equality frame and the liberation frame has been present since the moment of Stonewall, if not before,” says Andrew Lane, executive director of the Johnson Family Foundation and advisory board chair of the Movement Advancement Project. In recent years, as the movement has focused on gaining access to institutions such as marriage and the military, some progressive advocates have been frustrated about the lack of attention given to less conventional goals.

Doubts about the marriage equality campaign have been somewhat muted by its successes. But some advocates fear that rhetoric used in the marriage campaign could make it harder to ensure that people in less traditional, nonmarital relationships have legal protections. Nancy Polikoff, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law and author of Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, supports marriage equality but says marriage “doesn’t solve anything for people who aren’t married, people who don’t want to get married, or people who have their lives organized around relationships that don’t resemble marriage.” She worries that some of the campaign rhetoric about the unique nature and importance of marriage could make it harder, once marriage equality is achieved, to assert the need to protect all forms of family.

Wu and Vaid both say the movement can and must do both equality and liberation work, and identity politics and progressive organizing. But time and resources are always limited, and the pre-existing fault lines within the LGBT movement may become more visible once marriage is no longer dominating the conversation.

Will Money Talk?

These fault lines could be exacerbated by another characteristic of the marriage equality movement: the emergence of major conservative funders such as hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer and activists such as former Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, who helped get the Republican votes necessary to pass marriage equality legislation in New York.

Jeff Cook-McCormac, senior adviser to Singer’s American Unity Fund, says the involvement of conservative funders and activists has had “a profoundly positive impact” by changing the perception among Republicans that LGBT equality is only an issue for those aligned with the left. He says that while more than 230 Republican state legislators have stood for the freedom to marry, only a small number have lost their seats. Center-right lawmakers no longer need to see support for LGBT equality as a death knell for their career.

But that’s just one piece of the picture. LGBT journalist Michelangelo Signorile has noted that Singer “backed some of the most anti-gay politicians—and defeated others committed to full LGBT equality—by pouring millions into superPACs and the Republican Governors Association.” Signorile worries that publicity focused on Singer’s support for a handful of pro-equality Republicans may be aimed at making moderate Republicans feel better about voting for the GOP. Meanwhile, he wrote in August, “Singer is undermining LGBT rights—and all progressive causes—by helping opponents of equality win more House races and helping Republicans win control of the Senate.”

Cook-McCormac says the involvement of center-right funders and activists “has fundamentally changed the way the gay rights movement does business.” He means helping achieve bipartisan cooperation on pro-equality legislation. But others worry about the potential that donors could push the movement’s broader agenda to the right. That’s a valid fear, says Get-EQUAL’s Heather Cronk, because money always comes with strings. Urvashi Vaid says of Singer that it is “outrageous to ignore the fact that he is virulently anti-choice and raised millions to oppose the most LGBT-supportive president we have ever had.” She acknowledges that coalition politics is partly about tactical relationships and opportunistic work but is clear that she does not view these conservatives as spokespeople for her or the broader movement.

Peter Montgomery is a senior fellow at People For the American Way Foundation.