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?
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.
"Of course full marriage equality remains the gold standard, but not every state is Massachusetts," says Lanae Erickson, deputy director at the Third Way, a centrist Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "There are many places in America that are just not ready for marriage equality," she adds. "In the meantime, LGBT families actually living there could strongly benefit from other kinds of relationship recognition."
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.
But this is clearly of little matter to AFER -- how could it be? Its leadership includes no black or Latin LGBTs but, rather, the same mostly white, mostly male faces that dominate every mainstream LGBT advocacy group in America. Even AFER's promotional material is disturbingly whitewashed: A video clip highlighting the Beverly Hills gala included no faces of color -- not one! AFER may claim to advocate on behalf of all LGBTs, but its efforts to represent them are woefully Tea Party-esque.
As LGBT leaders continue to demand that President Obama support the same-sex marriage battle, the question remains -- at what price victory? Can the movement succeed by solely promoting a narrow, elitist -- though deep-pocketed -- version of itself? Or will the exclusion of the poorer, darker, smaller-town LGBT masses ultimately doom it to failure? Can a progressive movement thrive when its leadership fails to live up to the very ideals of true progressivism? Can the "gaystream" focus so strongly on marriage when there are far more immediate needs -- and potential solutions -- facing far more LGBT families?
The answer may lie somewhere in between.
"If we are going to move forward as a movement, then we must engage this vast LGBT middle," Erickson says. "Because in many ways, these folks are far more important to the movement than people chaining themselves to the White House gates."
Nonetheless, journalist Kerry Eleveld insists that marriage must remain a movement priority -- precisely because it best protects the most vulnerable LGBTs and their families. "Marriage creates a safety net for people raising children," says Eleveld, editor of Equality Matters, a new LGBT-focused media group. "Take away that safety net and children, parents -- the entire society -- is placed at risk." Still, Eleveld herself failed to invoke this populist, progressive reasoning in her own Washington Post opinion piece last week, opting instead to make Obama the key protagonist of LGBT liberation rather than LGBTs themselves.
It would be foolish to expect groups like AFER to truly embrace LGBTs of color. After all, when asked about AFER's focus on the types of LGBT families profiled in the Times, Deputy Communications Director Brandon Hersh noted that these kinds of issues "don't fall directly into our scope of work." Eleveld, however, insists that Equality Matters will indeed reflect the entire LGBT community. "We will definitely ensure there's a wide range of voices," she says. "We're certain to develop a diversity advisory board."
Sounds good to us, Ms. Eleveld. Even better would be making that board actually happen.
David Kaufman is a New York-based writer who regularly contributes to the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Time and Monocle.