There is an argument that crops up from time to time when you argue on matters of social justice on the internet. No matter the subject, at one point or another someone will say that this problem has already been solved because some specific thing has happened.
We no longer need feminism because men gave women the right to have jobs or have the vote.
We no longer need civil rights because white people gave people of colour the vote, and interracial marriage is allowed. Or because slavery is over.
We no longer need to worry about disability rights because the abled have made laws about accessibility and not discriminating.
The pattern is always the same, some arbitrary group of people in privilege were kind enough to give the minority group some rights, and this was supposed to somehow fix centuries of oppression and years of social conditioning that this group was somehow less human than another. The irony of course is that the argument itself is actually a sign of how far we have yet to come.
The reason this pattern emerges so often has to do with the way that the fight for social justice is often organized as a series of steps. We start with the right to vote, then own property, then to work, then we protect the workers, and so forth and so forth. The fight for justice is organized into tangible, and most importantly achievable steps. The hope is that with each step, there is enough of a shift in perception and understanding that the next generation will grow up socialized with just a little less bias, just a little more predisposition towards the thoughts necessary to make the next step in the process more achievable.
It is an incredibly slow process, made more difficult by the natural resistance of people to not want to ever admit that they might be wrong. That they might be complicit in an oppression. That they might be the bad guy. So as you work to change their minds, you make them believe that they are being generous by raising you up, instead of making them face the fact that they didn’t raise you up, they just pulled the boot from your neck a little at a time.
There is a popular cartoon that represents oppression and affirmative action as a white man crawling over the back of a black man and using it to boost himself up onto a higher platform. Then once the white man is on the platform, the black man asks for a hand up, to which the white man replies that he got up there all by himself and that the black man should too. In many ways the comic is a good representation of what oppression is, whether the person on the bottom be a black man, a woman, a poor person, a disabled person or so forth. A more accurate picture however might be one, where the white man never stopped standing on top of the person of colour.
It’s like that with most forms of oppression. Steps are taken, big ones even, but the ultimate goal is still not within reach: the just treatment of people who don’t fall within the social perception of normal. With each goal, with each step forward, there is a loss of privilege for some people, and that causes a build-up of resentment. That resentment, paired with the belief that they “gave” oppressed people rights, creates a push back against further progress.
We see this in the resentment surrounding university admissions for example, where people discuss how women now make up about half of all enrollments, and that fact is shared as though the admission of women reduced the number of boys who were able to attend. Or in the complaints of white students that “their” spot at university was taken by a minority student, as though the spot belonged to them and was stolen, and not that the student awarded the spot better met the admission requirements.
What does all this have to do with gay marriage?
Gay marriage is an important issue. It brings to the forefront of the public consciousness the issues of discrimination against different sexual orientations. It is an issue that captures the public’s imagination because we grew up on stories of love, and so are predisposed towards favouring what we socially see as the outcome of said love. It is however an issue that affect primarily those in a position of stability.
Those struggling the most as a result of homophobia and bigotry, have more to worry about then whether or not they can get married. There are children being bullied to death, youth being kicked out of their homes, completely homeless, as a result of bigotry. Others are experiencing torture at the hands of unlicensed counselling centers that claim to pray away the gay. Young people exposed to these therapies are more likely to suffer mental health issues, addiction, or attempt suicide.
While marriage is an important issue, by painting it as “The Gay Issue” it distracts from issues that could use more political capital. Organizations that are devoted to the pursuit of marriage legalization for example, have often silenced or outright harassed the concerns of trans women in the movement, under the guise of not wanting to distract from the issue. When one considers the rate at which trans women in general and trans women of colour in particular are murdered simply for existing, it is terrifying to think that they are being further ostracised by a community that nominally claims to speak for them. By taking on the mantel LGBT(+), gay rights organizations claim to speak for an assortment of communities including trans folk, and then as these representatives tell the world that what we in this community care about the most is: whether gays can marry. It sends a pretty powerful message that what we care about the most is the rights of those privileged enough to be in a position to get married and those struggling and dying are left to fend for themselves.
Now keep in mind, I say this as a woman who is in a position where the right to marry my girlfriend matters very much to me. I am a champion of gay marriage and it is an important issue, and we are winning the fight. But now while the movement is at its peak influence. Now when political capital attached to gay marriage is so high. Now is when that political capital should be used to generate focus on issues that are of critical importance. Queer Youth are living on the streets now. Trans women are being murdered with impunity now. It is time for gay men to sit down for a while and let other voices be heard. It is time for their voices to join with those being silenced, so that the cry for help becomes a thundering demand.
Just a percentage of the money raised for gay marriage could be used to build countless homes for homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Scholarships could be set up to help them get their own places to live and work towards self-sustainability.
With the political capital raised by the gay marriage movement, there are people with invaluable connections who could help put pressure on passing laws that recognize trans people as being a protected group. About getting rid of bathroom bills. To, with the help of their media access, put pressure on prosecutors and judges to go after those who are murdering trans women. To make sure that incarcerated trans women are not only housed with the women prisoners but also have access to their hormone treatments and help with transitioning. To get insurance companies to cover transitioning.
It is time to make sure that the right of gay marriage isn’t gained on the backs of those too beaten down to survive it. Gay rights, LGBTQ+ rights, have not been won. We have work to do yet.