In two days, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in Obergeffel v Hodges, what will likely be a landmark decision regarding same-sex marriage that is expected to focus on equal protection and the right to full faith and credit. Activists and members of the community are eager for the Supreme Court to hear arguments and release their decision, which will hopefully be a major victory for proponents of marriage equality. I am with them: it seems absurd, in 2015, to still have to be arguing that people who are in loving, committed relationships should have access to the benefits of state-sanctioned monogamy, or that those rights should be transferable across state lines. Marriage equality will be a victory, but it is just a battle, not the war.
Marriage equality will be great, but I think the problem is that focusing on it has detracted from some of the even more important issues facing the LGB community. I say this as someone who does not necessarily identify with the community, but someone who has listened to many of the concerns articulated by those who do: bullying in schools, a refusal to discuss sexuality in health classes, discrimination in the workplace and the housing market, access to appropriate and sensitive healthcare, hate crimes, and suicide among the LGBT community are also major concerns facing the community, perhaps even greater concerns impacting an even wider range of rights violations, that will not be solved when SCOTUS rules on Obergeffel v Hodges.
Let’s talk workplace discrimination, arguably the next area where progress has been seen for the LGB community, but where said progress has still proven insufficient. It is currently illegal for the federal government or for federal contractors to discriminate based on sexual orientation, but that is a fairly recent development. Under current Congressional rules, House staffers can be fired or refused promotions on the basis of their sexual orientation. A vast majority of states lack any law protecting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation, and even fewer protect against discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is a piece of legislation that would serve as a federal-level prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation, but it has yet to be introduced by the 114th Congress. And this is an issue on which we are arguably seeing progress-~-a sad statement on this country’s level of tolerance and acceptance of the LGB community.
If that lack of tolerance is pervasive, it starts early: a 2005 survey of teens in the United States revealed that the number two reason why adolescents are bullied is because of their real or perceived sexual orientation. Approximately 9 out of 10 LGBT teens report having been bullied at school, with fairly devastating consequences: students who identify as LGBT are on average five times more likely to skip school because they feel unsafe, and about 28% felt forced to drop out of school altogether. That same study indicated that LGBT teens were two to three times more likely than their non-LGBT counterparts to commit suicide. Those numbers might be a decade old now, but the 2011 numbers are not any better: the CDC’s data indicate that LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-LGB peers, and the numbers are much worse for LGB youth coming from non-accepting families.
All of that is just focused on LGB-identified individuals, without taking into account the statistics relevant to the trans community, where things are equally bad if not worse. Marriage equality might be a step towards acceptance for cisgendered LGB individuals, but it does nothing to address transphobia or protect the rights of trans individuals in the United States.
The reality is, we have a long way to go, even beyond the issues of bullying and workplace discrimination, and equating “marriage equality” with “equality” does more harm than good. It makes it seem like the other problems will just go away, or that they are less important, if the courts rule in favor of same-sex couples in this upcoming case. But consider a few things: violence against the LGBT community actually increased in 2013, and though I don’t have the numbers for 2014, I’d guess they don’t look good either. A very large number of LGBT youth have been harassed, or feel unsafe, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBT youth are still at particularly high risk of homelessness, and are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Violence against trans individuals, especially trans people of color, is inexcusably frequent in the United States.
I’m as excited as anyone (well, anyone not directly effected by the decision) by the possibility that the Supreme Court may rule in favor of same-sex couples, giving a large number of individuals access to the rights and privileges of matrimony in the United States. But marriage equality is a battle, and I’m scared that when we win it, we may well lose sight of the war. LGB Americans deserve more than the ability to apply for a marriage license; they deserve to feel safe in their homes, in their schools, and in their communities. They deserve education, including sex education, that addresses their needs and their lived realities. They deserve legal protection when hate crimes are committed against them, and they deserve a country that promotes tolerance such that those crimes cease to be committed. They deserve access to their religious and spiritual communities of choice, and they deserve to be able to be themselves at work without fear of being fired or denied opportunities for advancement.
If we win this court case, take a moment and celebrate. And then remember that there is more work to be done. The fight for equality is far from over, and we all need to be in it, to the very end.