Activism in a Post-DOMA United States

Fall 2015, Hannah Friedman

By: Hannah Friedman, SY ’17, for the Fall 2015 Issue (PDF version)

In the wake of the celebrations on June 26, 2015, I saw countless articles and Facebook posts about how although same-sex marriage was now legal across the United States, the fight was far from over. Same-sex marriage, though touted as one of the largest barriers facing LGBTQIA+ people, does not address issues such as employment discrimination, housing discrimination, bullying in schools, access to hormones and surgery for trans*people who wish to transition, and queer youth homelessness, to name a few. I saw articles discussing these issues, and while I was happy to see that people were aware of the great challenges still facing the queer community and the United States at large, most of these articles and posts did not mention any course of action. Awareness is an important first step, but concrete action needs to follow. Furthermore, while the queer community fights for true equality, it must ask itself what issues are worth pursuing, and to what end. There are many questions to reflect upon, such as to what extent is complete integration into mainstream, non-queer society desirable? And how should spaces for queer people be delineated? What problems are most pressing right now? These answers likely differ for each individual, but policy is not created for the individual.

To begin understanding where national queer activism currently stands, an overview of the major activist organizations serves as a good starting place. The Human Rights Campaign, one of the largest and most conservative of these organizations, covers a broad range of issues in its work. It provides resources related to coming out, healthcare (particularly HIV/AIDS), fighting discrimination, and trans* specific issues. In the past, it has lobbied for the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded the definition of hate crimes to include those motivated by prejudice against gender identity and sexual orientation. While the work the organization has done in the past is good, it has also drawn criticism for giving high “equality ratings” to companies with suspect morals, such as Monsanto, Goldman Sachs, and Wells Fargo, whose policies and actions have caused tremendous harm to people queer and non-queer alike. Others criticize the organization for focusing too much on issues prioritized by the privileged segments — read: white, wealthy, cisgender, male — of the queer community.

It is understandable that these national organizations often feel divorced from the average queer person who is not devoting their life to activism. Beyond simply donating money (the easiest way to become a member of any of these organizations) or maybe signing a petition, in order to become a really participate you must employed by them. Furthermore, since they are national organizations, they deal broadly with a wide array of subjects rather than specifically focusing on certain pressing issues. National organizations such as the National LGBT Task Force often have more broad policy goals, and the Task Force in particular presents studies that examine the effects and existence of discrimination in all acts of life. However, it still receives sponsorship from similar companies like Wells Fargo, Comcast, and Hilton, and those who are involved in the activism directly are usually interns or employees of the organization itself.

While the work [HRC] has done in the past is good, it has also drawn criticism for giving high “equality ratings” to companies with suspect morals, such as Monsanto, Goldman Sachs, and Wells Fargo, whose policies and actions have caused tremendous harm to people queer and non-queer alike.

One of the unique challenges of activism in the United States is the importance of state law. In the United States, each state has a great deal of power to enact its own legislation, set its own boundaries, and in some cases, choose which federal programs to participate in. The result of this independence is a hodgepodge of laws and regulations that differ vastly by state. These different regulations and laws can create vastly different experiences for residents of Massachusetts and residents of Mississippi, who have unequal access to healthcare and to education. Much legislation is even passed on a smaller scale in counties, cities and towns. What is legal in one part of the country may not be legal in the next state over or even the next county over. This uneven assembly of laws makes activism not only more complicated but also more important at the local level. In the case of LGBTQ+ rights, often specific towns will pass their own anti-discrimination laws even without any such law at the state level. These laws can profoundly impact the people living within that particular area, and often it is more feasible to approach activism locally, one city at a time, because a city or a town is easier to convince than an entire state.

In response, many grassroots organizations with more specific goals and audiences now exist. These organization which often work on a state by state or even community by community basis do not have the resources to spread themselves out so thinly, so often they must pick and choose which battles to fight. The ultimate result of this approach is to create a more concrete, directed organization that focuses on one or two issues or a single community and often depends more heavily on the groundwork of the activists. The work done by national organizations is also important, because eventually policy and legislation should reach the federal level, and the resources necessary for research are often not available to smaller groups. However, most LGBTQ+ individuals will never directly interact with the HRC, and their work occurs primarily at the local level.

Grassroots activism and organizations also require active participation from their members, who are usually much smaller in number than members of national organizations. That means time and effort and perhaps some money, although much can be done by individuals without much in the way of financial resources. In this way, it is more reflective of the LGBTQ community, whose own experiences are individual and highly dependent on place. As with all movements, individual members have their own agendas and priorities, and these can be much more reflected in local movements where one voice weighs more heavily and where resources can be targeted to those directly in need in a specific area. For example, the Triangle Community Center in Fairfield, CT provides support, programs and community for those in Fairfield, Litchfield, and New Haven counties. In October of this year, they were present at a town hall meeting discussing the situation and needs of trans* people. While the audience of a town hall is much smaller than the audience of a courtroom or of a large pride march, the potential for effective local change is still quite present, and local support can show LGBTQ+ people that broader community support exists. In modern times where national support for LGBTQ individuals is very high in comparison to support only twenty or thirty years ago, addressing disparities in the support certain communities provide is vital for those who most need immediate acceptance from those around them and not just from “the nation” and national organizations. Activism does not need to come in the form of marches, protests, and rallies. It can also appear in small gatherings, high school Gay-Straight Alliances, and in organizations that provide resources to those with HIV/AIDS. It appears in town halls and school boards and places of worship. This is the activism necessary for the everyday lives of people who will never be a member of the HRC or the Taskforce, but who can still contribute much with their voices.