Is Marriage Equality the Right Battle for Gay Families?

Research shows that gay families are browner and poorer than expected. When will that reality -- and their needs -- catch on with the mostly white elite directing the gay-rights agenda?

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In the run-up to the State of the Union Address, LGBT leaders have called upon President Obama to include support for same-sex marriage in this year's speech. The request makes sense: Last year's SOTU included a presidential promise to repeal "Don't ask, don't tell" by the end of 2010, and -- albeit at the 11th hour -- DADT was fundamentally dismantled. A 2011 pledge to embrace marriage equality -- or at least commit to revoking the Defense of Marriage Act -- seems like a logical next step in the larger battle for LGBT civil rights.

With the marriage-equality machine now in full force, the LGBT movement has virtually become a single-issue civil rights struggle. Yet the question must be asked: Is this the right issue at the right time for the right reasons?

And for the right people?

From tax breaks to citizenship rights, hospital visits to estate planning, the lack of marriage equality leaves LGBT couples -- particularly those with children -- in a state of legal limbo.  Indeed, protecting LGBT families is perhaps the most commonly touted end goal of marriage-equality advocates.

Yet the vast chasm between those advocates and many of the folks they claim to represent suggests that the battle for same-sex marriage, no matter how noble, may not be the right battle for families who need it most. Particularly minority LGBT families.

A story in last week's New York Times revealed first-of-its-kind census data that paints a picture of LGBT families far different from the one typically promoted by major marriage-equality advocacy groups such as Freedom to Marry and the American Foundation for Equal Rights. Rather than being urban, upper class, secular and white, gay families typically live in smaller towns -- often in the South -- go to church and struggle with their finances.

They are also disproportionately black and Latino and raising biological children from earlier heterosexual relationships. And while not necessarily political, these families are the silent warriors on the front lines of the current culture wars. "They're the real foot soldiers leading the change in public opinion," observes Bob Witeck, whose firm, Witeck-Combs Communications, helped market the census. "They are bridging communities instead of segregating them, building real relationships with straight people in work, churches, schools -- their everyday lives."

Yet as they fight for everyday equality, these families -- despite their vast numbers -- are virtually absent from the mainstream marriage-equality conversation. The reasons are clear: While same-sex marriage would certainly benefit these families, so, too, would shorter-term -- perhaps interim -- initiatives such as civil unions and domestic-partnership laws. Yet in focusing its civil rights struggle solely around marriage, the mainstream LGBT political agenda has rendered poorer, darker, less-urban gay families virtually invisible.

The dichotomy between the LGBT volk and the LGBT establishment damages the entire movement by alienating the community's hardest-working change agents while excluding them from the kinds of resources that would truly help gay families prosper.

And those resources are certainly vast. Indeed, on the same day the Times reported on the struggles of actual gay families, AFER held a Beverly Hills, Calif., fundraiser to pay the lawyers fighting to overturn Proposition 8, which made same-sex marriage illegal in California. Featuring a concert by Elton John, the event, for which each attendee paid at least $1,000, and some far more, raised $3 million -- money that will help make already wealthy lawyers even wealthier at a time when many gay families have never been poorer.