Following the victory parties of May and the Pride parties of June, in Minnesota the wedding parties begin this week on August 1. Jaxon and I won’t be doing ours for at least a few years, but the sight of so many people celebrating, many who have been in relationships for decades, was incredibly moving. For me it was especially worthwhile to see the work started by activists in decades past—Jack Baker here in Minnesota, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon even before that—come to some fruition. Amid all the celebrations though, reflecting on this historic achievement has me fearing that for some, the achievement of marriage equality (both here and across the nation) represents the high point or ultimate goal of all those years of work. I fear that other important issues brought to light by GLBT organizers and advocates may be overshadowed, when history tells us something very different about the “homosexual agenda” in total.
A year ago, I did some historical research on the efforts of gay and lesbian activists to establish their own community centers and social services between Stonewall and the AIDS crisis. I looked at news articles between 1969, when Stonewall occurred, and 1976, by which point it’s presumed that HIV had entered the U.S. and was spreading rapidly among gay men. Almost everyone who advised me on the project said, “I don’t think you’ll find much information.” Their assumption was that in the era of militant activism, bathhouses, and bars, far less attention was paid to the community’s health and social service needs. The article is due out in a journal this fall, so I won’t say much more about what I found. But—needless to say, I came across plenty of material. Almost from the moment Stonewall occurred, the impulse to build community spread across the nation, fueled in part by coverage in The Advocate and a small handful of other national publications as the time. The focus on human rights undoubtedly led the way, but it felt essential for many gay men and lesbians at the time to build space—community centers, gay-identified treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, sexual health clinics, and more.
What does that history tell us about today? I think it signifies that gaining acceptance in mainstream society is not enough. Queer communities still need spaces imagined, built, and opened for queer-identified people across a spectrum of ages, identities, and experiences. I had a respectful disagreement earlier this winter with a gay service provider, about ten years older than me, who said that among today’s youth, “It just won’t matter, everyone will be accepted. They don’t care if their friends are gay!” The limited information I’ve seen from queer youth studies—especially transgender youth—says something very different. School-based supports were helpful, but in at least one study, Asakura (2010) found a persistent desire among youth to have their own, dedicated queer-identified youth spaces. A recent report on the experiences of older LGBT adults in long-term care facilities details some of the difficulties our elders face as they experience declining health combined with the struggle to be “out” in the world of senior care services. There are still numerous unmet needs out there, and plenty of people who don’t have the support of a middle-class income, an affirming community, or family who welcome their GLBT identities. Marriage equality without a doubt helps many, but not all of us.
The campaign to gain marriage equality (and in Minnesota the preceding fight to oppose constitutional discrimination) served a valuable purpose in educating the larger public about the all-too-human challenges of living a queer-identified life in a heteronormative society. I think, however, there is more to learn. GLBT-identified support services gained their reputations in the community by emphasizing nonjudgmental, empathetic care delivered by people who could relate to the challenges their clients faced. Even in the age of Obamacare, reform of the health care system doesn’t guarantee that someone will find medical or social service support that is knowledgeable and affirming of a GLBT identity. If stigma and discriminatory attitudes among providers already play a role in determining whether queer people utilize the health care system (they do), then reforming the market system alone is not likely to diminish the numerous health disparities queer people still face. For me, the health and human service sector is the realm with the most immediate examples, but I know there must be others as well—social discrimination in the workplace, for example. But, I’ll save that for someone who is more knowledgeable in that arena.
So, beyond same-sex marriage, what is there for GLBT communities to do? Keep building, for starters. Despite the advances of social media, there is still a need for physical spaces, where our more vulnerable members can find safety and acceptance. There are organizations tackling a plethora of issues (HIV, sexual health, substance abuse, homelessness, etc.) that need volunteers, cold hard cash, and energy and imagination. Marriage equality has altered the course of history, in Minnesota and 11 other states at least. People of all ages have the opportunity to learn about the real ways we struggle and triumph in the context of non-traditional relationships. But, I humbly suggest we consider this to be a moment to celebrate before getting back to the long list of challenges still ahead.