What's next for the gay rights movement?

After today's rulings, gay activists and academics wonder whether the movement will find a new goal, or fragment

Published June 26, 2013 8:37PM (EDT)

This weekend brings the first round of Gay Pride celebrations to cities across America -- celebrations that will be unusually festive thanks to the Supreme Court's overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 this morning.

But once the confetti is swept off Christopher Street, gay men, women and advocacy organizations will be forced to face a question they haven't considered in more than a decade: What next?

After a fight for legal same-sex marriage that began with Hawaii's surprise legalization in 1993, gay advocacy groups have pursued marriage equality uber alles, eventually gaining not merely marriage rights in 13 states (as of this morning, when California rejoined the list) and an overturn of a restrictive Clinton-era policy.

And as the tide seems to have turned yet more decisively in favor of same-sex marriage across America, the question of what's next, after gay rights groups have effectively succeeded, is finally real -- as is the question of whether those groups were successful in large part because they were fighting for an issue that directly affected a vast proportion of the gay community.

"All of these probably white, probably upper-middle-class people who've been fighting for marriage because it's a good fight," said Michael Bronski, a professor in studies of women, gender, sexuality at Harvard and the author of "A Queer History of the United States," "will they be as willing to give $500 a year to Lambda [Legal] to fight trans youth harassed by police? We're dealing with how people's politics come out of their experiences. A white middle-class couple living in the suburbs of Illinois may not have much desire to think about transgender youth, possibly of color, living in New York City or San Francisco. Isn't that the job of the national organizations to convince people that this is as important as the issue of same-sex marriage?"

Nancy Polikoff, a professor of law at American University and one of the gay movement's highest-profile holdouts on same-sex marriage, told Salon that the rulings today ignore fundamental questions of inequity: "The DOMA opinion means married same-sex couples will be treated as married under federal law. But the demographics of who marries now is highly skewed by race and class. There is every reason to assume those demographics will hold for lesbians and gay men as well.  So we will have same-sex couples who don’t marry, just as we have different-sex couples who don’t marry. And we will have lots of legal consequences linked exclusively to marriage that ignore the vast number of family relationships in this country that are not based on marriage." Polikoff declined to predict whether the gay movement would turn its attention to these unmarried couples.

Other activists reached by Salon agreed that the movement would have to move beyond promising rights directly to each individual supporter and move toward goals more abstract to donors. "People shouldn't consider themselves progressive just because they support their own rights," said Democratic Party figure and gay activist Allen Roskoff. "I'm tired of people saying they're progressive because they just support their own rights more than equity for all." He was referring to his own sense that the gay movement had grown more conservative in the time since the marriage fight began, as those whose goals diverged from the vision of the 1970s utopians in all but their desire for federal recognition jumped aboard. Roskoff viewed the battle ahead as a broad, conceptual one: "We still have to change hearts and minds so that parents won't disown their children. We have to make sure religion won't force self-hatred ... We have to battle worldwide, against countries where gays are being slaughtered by their governments." (Homosexuality is, for instance, illegal in Senegal, where President Obama is presently visiting.)

David France, the journalist and filmmaker behind "How to Survive a Plague," the documentary about activism during the AIDS crisis, struck a more dispiriting note. "This is a deeply conservative victory and, yes, a too expensive one, given what our leaders have let slide in recent years," he told Salon. "Marriage won't stop the runaway HIV epidemic among our young. It won't stop religious hatred, sexual assaults, reparative therapy crimes, bullying, Mormons, Boy Scouts or popes. Although I am myself gay-married, and while I do enjoy being endorsed by a SCOTUS majority, even a slim one, I've been utterly dumbstruck watching every resource at the community's disposal channeled into this one optional and limited middle-class goal. We used to be revolutionaries. We once were outlaws. And now: betrothed? If we settle for this, we let the whole world down."

And yet settling does not necessarily have to be. Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center for gay homeless teens in New York, told Salon that though he was "thrilled" that the children in the center's care would be equal under the law, "my deepest hope now is that we can see the moral imperative to create a safety net for our most vulnerable children." He wasn't necessarily optimistic, though: "For the next couple of weeks everybody's going to be celebrating, and I don't think anything's going to galvanize the community as marriage equality -- it's such a clear symbol of how our love wasn't treated as equal. It's such a core thing. I don't think homelessness is as powerful a symbol because a lot of people can't relate to that. And we've failed to protect our kids."

Those organizations may have an uphill battle, as those invested in the fight for same-sex marriage in many if not most cases hoped to get married themselves. Of course, the marriage fight is not entirely over, as pioneering gay journalist and current Sirius XM host Michelangelo Signorile pointed out. "With DOMA and 'don't ask, don't tell' gone, we now don't have any federal laws preventing us from achieving rights, but we still don't have any federal laws protecting us and actually giving us those rights," he said, "in employment, in housing, in public accommodations, in credit. And 30 states have bans on marriage for gays.

"We'll be fighting in the courts, in Congress, in the statehouses and on the streets for a long time to come. But today is a day to take a breath and celebrate!"

After the celebration, though, is likely to come, sooner or later, a fundamental reorientation of a movement composed of a prism of all different sorts of people, all of whom hoped for equality for themselves, many of whom may rest on laurels, others of whom may each devote themselves to a pet cause. Bronski, the Harvard professor, compared the movement to the early American feminists. "The feminist movement starts in the 1830s -- they fight for suffrage for some 70 years. And then, having achieved suffrage, there's not much of a feminist movement until the 1960s. There's a lesson to be learned from that. Not that groups like Lambda Legal and Human Rights Campaign haven't been doing other things -- but in the popular imagination, it's just about marriage."

By Daniel D'Addario

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David France Doma Gay Marriage Marriage Equality Michael Bronski Supreme Court