Friday, May 11, 2012

On Marriage and the Difference Between Equity and Justice

There is a much excitement in the LGBT and ally community about President Obama unequivocally supporting marriage equality on Wednesday, May 9th. He explained:
"[O]ver the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together; when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that 'don't ask, don't tell' is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married," 
There is no doubt that this is a watershed moment. Obama has not locked down his second term and any expression of respect towards LGBT people is eagerly used as fodder by his opponents. Yet Obama sees marriage equality as so important that he was willing to take a big risk and do right by LGBTQ and ally citizens anyway.

I agree that marriage is an important civic right that should be available to all citizens. I know that LGBTQ people are denied over 1,000 benefits and rights that their heterosexual married counterparts receive. I agree that marriage equality is a very visible way to affirm the existence and value of LGBTQ families. However, we cannot fight for marriage equality without distinguishing between equality and justice.

It is perfectly legal that people of color disproportionately live in poverty. It is perfectly legal that LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups are at greater risk of a variety of negative health outcomes. The list goes on. These things are legal, but are they just?

Urvashi Vaid
The incredible activist (and Vassar grad!) Urvashi Vaid very deftly describes why we cannot be satisfied with equality under the law and need to shift to a social justice frame. She explains in "Still Ain't Satisfied: The Limits of Equality,"
"To transform into a social-justice movement, LGBT organizations would have to broaden the definition of what they see as a “gay” issue. Marriage activists, for instance, would continue to fight fiercely for the freedom to marry but also for the right of all people to have health insurance, regardless of marital status. The movement would support a family-policy agenda that recognized and strengthened social supports for single-parent or grandparent-led families, instead of seeking protections only for gay versions of the nuclear family. It would challenge the racism, sexism, and transphobia of criminal-justice systems, along with the over-policing of communities of color and harassment of sexual and gender non-conforming people. It would address violence against women. It would work to combat sexual assault and trafficking."
I highly recommend checking out the rest of Vaid's article because she does a fantastic job of showing that marriage equality is an important box to check in the LGBTQ rights movement, but it is not enough. Equality is an essential but insufficient step towards justice.

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