The Supreme Court’s decision that same sex couples have the right to be married in all 50 states is an historic victory in the struggle for equality for LGBTQ people in the United States. It is the result of a determined, well-organized mass campaign, which was fought state by state and in the early years faced many reverses.
The past decade has seen a massive and rapid shift in social attitudes in the US towards LGBTQ people, which is also mirrored in a number of other societies. It was only 11 years ago that the Supreme Court overturned state laws banning gay sex. It was only ten years ago that Massachusetts became the first state to adopt marriage equality. Polls now show that a majority of Americans, especially young people, support marriage equality.
Marriage equality, upheld by the highest court in the country, is more than a symbolic recognition of the love and commitment shared by LGBTQ couples. It means that a whole number of legal benefits enjoyed by married straight couples will now be extended to married LGBTQ couples. From hospital visitation rights to survivor benefits, the long list of benefits granted to married couples are a reminder of the very real consequences when federal and state governments don’t legally recognize your relationship. We believe all couples, married or not, should have these benefits.
The Supreme Court decision comes in the wake of the victory in Ireland, the first country in the world to bring in marriage equality by popular vote. This stunning change took place in a country where for decades the Roman Catholic Church had an effective veto on social policy. Our Irish sister organization, the Socialist Party, has followed up by introducing the Employment Equality (Amendment) Bill to remove the legal protections granted to schools and hospitals run by religious organizations to discriminate against employees who are LGBT, atheists, single parents, and others from minority faiths on the basis of the ‘ethos’ of the organization. Further, the massive social changes represented by the vote for marriage equality offer an historic opportunity to repeal the 8th amendment to the constitution which prohibits abortion, a demand which has growing support.
Both in Ireland and the US the legalization of marriage equality is part of a broader shift to the left among big sections of the population. However, we should not be under any illusions that the right will not continue to push other parts of its reactionary agenda. For example, women’s reproductive rights are under systematic assault in a whole series of states, particularly in the South.
The Road Ahead
There also should be no complacency on how far we have to go before LGBTQ liberation is achieved. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) – originally introduced in the House of Representatives by Democratic Senator Charles Schumer and signed into Federal Law by President Clinton in 1993 – still allows for legal discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in 19 states, with several more states pending. Under RFRA, anyone who appears homosexual or gender non-conforming can be denied housing, proper restroom access, and medical care, among many other basic services.
LGBTQ people comprise approximately 40% of homeless youth (Center for American Progress in February 2015), and transgender people are four times more likely to live in poverty than the general population (National Center for Discrimination). For those trans people who do find work, 44%, are under-employed, and 17% maintain a household income under $10,000 a year (compared to 4% of the general population in that age bracket). Additionally, transgender people are unemployed at twice the rate of the general population.
What the women’s movement gained, and then lost, in terms of access to abortion, demonstrates that victories aren’t etched in stone. A mass movement that is able to mobilize broad layers of the LGBTQ and queer working class holds the best potential to build on the momentum coming out of the Supreme Court decision. But, to achieve larger and lasting victories for queer and trans people we must direct our struggle against the very system that exploits all working people and uses gender and sexual norms to keep us divided.