The Most Important Civil Rights Issue of the Obama Era?

Shanelle Moffett and Tenisha Watkins at their civil union ceremony in Chicago in June
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Shanelle Moffett and Tenisha Watkins at their civil union ceremony in Chicago in June
Scott Olson/Getty Images

In what will likely be remembered as one of history’s greatest ironies, America’s first black president has led the country during a time of some of the greatest civil rights setbacks of the modern era. There was the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court ruling, which undid crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act. While the high court didn’t completely undermine affirmative action in higher education with its ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, the court will soon rule on another major affirmative action case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. Legal experts have predicted that based on oral arguments last month, there is a high probability the court may rule in favor of affirmative action opponents. But there is one group for whom the Obama era has represented a significant step forward in the quest for equality: gay Americans.


In his first term, the president invested most of his civil rights capital in issues benefiting the gay community, from ending “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military to advocating for same-sex marriage, which the Supreme Court helped advance through landmark rulings in 2013. But what was frustrating for many who care about civil rights is that same-sex marriage is an issue that benefits a relatively small number of people. There is a host of issues that benefit a much larger population, and that seem to have been sacrificed in the interest of investing political and philanthropic capital in the marriage issue.

An issue of arguably far greater importance is workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. Yet it has gotten hardly any attention in the last five years, as same-sex marriage somehow was deemed the defining LGBT rights and progressive civil rights issue. But ultimately the institution of marriage has become one dominated by the upper classes—those most likely to have the political power to dictate what issues political groups should advocate. But it is arguable that a poor, black, working-class gay man, who is making minimum wage, is probably more worried about keeping his job than having a big wedding.

There are still 29 states in America where it is legal to fire someone for being gay. But a new bill that passed the Senate Thursday would change that. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed in the Senate by a 64 to 32 margin, with 10 Republicans supporting the measure. It still faces hurdles in the House, where House Speaker John Boehner has indicated it does not have his support. But what’s frustrating is that ENDA has taken so long to regain the spotlight. As a testament to the persistance of anti-workplace discrimination measures protecting gays and lesbians, in 1996, ENDA was just one vote short of passing in the Senate. This was during a time period when same-sex marriage was widely opposed by the majority of Americans. Polling in support of a measure like ENDA has long been higher than polling in support of same-sex marriage, yet for some reason that issue leapfrogged ENDA, which had not come up for a Senate vote in the last 17 years.

The gay rights movement often has been compared to the African-American civil rights movement. By comparison, consider if interracial marriage had become the early defining issue of that movement, as opposed to, say, voting rights or public school integration. Would that have definitely benefited some members of a disenfranchised community? Sure. Would it have resulted in equality for most? Not really.

Similarly, while some gay and lesbian American families can now afford the luxury of having a wedding, others are simply worried about much more basic rights, like not getting fired for simply being who they are. Here’s hoping that those citizens will finally now get the protection they need and that an overwhelming majority of Americans have long believed they deserve.

Keli Goff is a contributing editor at The Root.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter