window of we are orlando Photo by Michael Smith

After Orlando

The next steps for LGBT equality

While marriage equality was a huge win for gay and lesbian rights, discrimination remains an enormous and deeply pervasive problem throughout the country.

From the
Perspective Series

As we mourn the victims of the Orlando shooting—shown above in window images on the Haas, Jr. Fund offices in San Francisco—let’s pledge to continue the work of making our country live up to its highest values and ideals.

A year ago, we celebrated as the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic decision that made marriage equality the law of the land. But the horrific events this month in Orlando are a reminder that hatred, prejudice and discrimination continue to pose real-life dangers to LGBT people and their families everywhere. As we continue to mourn the victims of this tragedy, let’s also commit ourselves to the unfinished work of dismantling discrimination and advancing civil rights for all people.

There is no doubt about it: Marriage equality was a huge win for gay and lesbian people across the country. But in the aftermath of that victory, a narrative emerged that this critical advance for LGBT rights was inevitable. Society had changed, people said; acceptance was now the norm.

Of course, those of us who were part of the marriage equality movement would beg to differ with the characterization that this was in any way an “easy” victory. From 2000 to 2009, voters in 28 states adopted constitutional amendments banning legal recognition of same-sex unions.

No, marriage equality was not inevitable. It took years of hard work for the movement to change hearts and minds and to wage the state-by-state legal campaign that ultimately led to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling last year. Similarly, it was never a foregone conclusion that winning marriage equality would automatically reduce discrimination against LGBT people. Far from it, the Court’s ruling fairly quickly sparked a fierce backlash from those who sought to limit the scope of the decision.

The fact is, anti-LGBT discrimination remains an enormous and deeply pervasive problem throughout the country. A 2013 Pew survey found that one in five LGBT people (21 percent) said they had been treated unfairly by an employer in hiring, pay or promotions. This isn’t just a workplace issue. In a 2013 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), one-third of LGBT students reported being physically harassed in school because of their sexual orientation, and 23 percent because of their gender identity. 

This kind of discrimination and mistreatment has a profound effect on people’s lives. It’s no coincidence that LGBT people consistently report lower incomes, more food insecurity and higher rates of poverty than non-LGBT people in this country.

This is why it’s so important to view the Orlando tragedy not as an isolated incident but as further evidence of the distance we still need to travel on the road to true equality and acceptance.

More than two dozen U.S. states still do not have laws securing basic nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people. In these states, it is perfectly legal to refuse service to a person, to deny that person a job or housing, or to fire that person simply because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

At the national level, legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity has been introduced in every Congress but one since 1994. And every time, it has failed to attract the necessary support to go forward.

Society expresses its values through its laws. And at the moment, even despite same-sex marriage being legal from coast to coast, U.S. law still does not adequately protect LGBT people from the discrimination that is a real, ever-present factor in so many of their lives.

If our nation’s leaders want to take a stand in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, then why not pass laws that show once and for all that we value equality for all people? Why not make it absolutely clear to the Omar Mateens of the world that their brand of hatred and intolerance has no place here?

At the same time that we were all shocked by the events in Orlando, we were also inspired by the national response. The vigils and the tributes to the victims have shown America at our best. We feel deeply for the victims’ families, we show solidarity and support in the face of evil, and we come together in our shock and our grief. 

Before those feelings dissipate, let’s pledge to each other to continue the work of making our country live up to its highest values and ideals.  We need to protect last year’s marriage win — no carve-outs, no exceptions. And we need to work for change at all levels to ensure that everyone can find safety, dignity and opportunities to thrive, no matter who they are or whom they love.  

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