Last month, Washington voters made a historic choice: 54 percent of them voted to pass Referendum 74 (R-74), securing equal marriage rights for same-sex couples in Washington. Marriage equality seems secure in the state, with Jay Inslee as governor for the next four years and Democrats holding the state legislature.
For the past five years, groups such as Equal Rights Washington have poured their dollars and volunteers into marriage equality with singular focus. In the past year, R-74 received millions of dollars in support from high-profile donors such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and actor Brad Pitt.
With that victory, organizations supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) causes are trying to determine the next course of action. Some believe it’s time to focus on legislation protecting LGBTQ seniors and immigrants. Others are calling for more direct support for homeless teens and victims of domestic violence.
Same-sex marriage is just a step.
“The freedom to marry is an essential ingredient to equality, but it is in no way the goal of LGBT activism,” said Josh Friedes, director of Equal Rights Washington (ERW).
Equal marriage laws are the political topic du jour in many states, taking up financial resources and volunteer time. When — or if — equal marriage becomes legal in these states, advocates there can tackle the dozens of other issues to support the LGBTQ community.
That started in Massachusetts in 2007, after a four-year battle to secure equal marriage, said Mass Equality Deputy Director Carly Burton.
“What winning marriage really provides is the opportunity to go deeper on other issues that impact the lesbian, gay and transgendered community,” she said, adding that marriage equality activism built a lot of power, increased resources and strengthened the reputation of pro-gay marriage organizations.
A big divide and a little ICE
Washington LGBTQ activists are prepared to hit the ground running with a number of issues in January when the Washington state Legislature begins its next session, Friedes said.
Washington advocates still need to help LGBTQ seniors avoid discrimination in nursing homes, protect LGBTQ students from bullying and violence in schools and reach the estimated
40 percent of homeless teens who are LGBTQ.
Advocates also need to work on the social climate in general for LGBTQ people in Washington state. Most of the 54 percent of voters who voted “yes” on R-74 lived in the Puget Sound region. Only one county east of the Cascade Mountains had a majority in support of R-74.
“A huge amount of work has to be done to improve the climate, particularly in rural areas,” Friedes said.
There are also a number of federal issues to address, such as an employment non-discrimination act and immigration reform.
A U.S. citizen and a same-sex immigrant can get married in Washington, but their relationship does not protect the immigrant partner from deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Friedes said, because federal laws still recognize marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
There are lots of LGBTQ immigrants, but they’re hard to find, Friedes said: “We don’t hear about it so much because people are unwilling to share their stories because they’re afraid of ICE.”
Ready to move on
Radical LGBTQ activists are glad to see equal marriage settled, said Ian Finkenbinder, a member of the Grand Legion of Incendiary and Tenacious Unicorn Revolutionaries (GLITUR, pronounced “glitter”), an Occupy-inspired LGBTQ activism group that exists to combine fun and political militancy for a number of causes.
A group of four GLITUR members met at the Black Coffee Co-Op on East Pine on Nov. 29.
They described equal marriage as an issue for middle- and upper-class advocates that does not truly address the violence and discrimination LGBTQ people face.
Two members said they did not vote at all this year, refusing to participate in a political process they see as broken. The other two voted in favor of marriage equality to support friends who wanted to get married or just to end the debate.
“I just wanted it to be over with,” Finkenbinder said. “I want everyone to move on to something else.”
The group dismissed any advocacy focused on legislation. Laws don’t prevent violence against LGBTQ people, they said.
GLITUR is organizing self-defense classes for women and discussing how to reach out to homeless LGBTQ teens. It’s the kind of work that requires much more than donating money to a political action committee, group members said.
“You can’t just be on the sidelines, you have to be right there with [homeless teens],” Finkenbinder said. “We have to take action directly in these communities now, instead of waiting for anti-bullying legislation.”
Members of GLITUR said equal marriage is a photogenic cause. It’s easy to sell the idea of a same-sex couple. Teen homelessness and domestic violence are not as attractive to political donors.
“These are things that rich, white donors don’t want to think about,” Finkenbinder said. “It might force them to pay more taxes.”
Proponents of equal marriage recognized that it is a more popular topic.
“I think marriage is kind of a huge, sexy issue,” said Carly Burton, deputy director of Mass Equality.
And no other cause LGBTQ activists want to pursue gains the same amount of media attention or financial support as statewide initiatives, Friedes said.
“Campaigns by their very nature raise a great deal of money,” Friedes said. “We cannot expect to see that kind of money spent in Washington state on LGBTQ civil rights next year.”
Instead, advocates hope to build on the relationships forged and the stories collected over the past five years of campaigning.
“I think we used storytelling very, very effectively,” Friedes said. “We need to make sure that this strategy is extended to other issues.”
Advocates are talking about where to go next, but Friedes said there is still work to ensure the marriage equality law is preserved. The law is in place, but government policies have to adjust accordingly.
Additionally, the federal Defense of Marriage Act still stands. Even though Washington and eight other states allow same-sex marriage, the federal government does not yet recognize it.
“Until the Defense of Marriage Act is undone,” Friedes said, “LGBTQ families will not be able to enjoy the full protections that their heterosexual couples who are married enjoy.”