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After the Confetti Settles
Nina Martin | Photo: Ramin Rahimian and Noah Berger/AP | July 15, 2013
San Francisco’s marriage fighters are no longer on the defensive, but they’re no less alarmed about our civil rights future.
Kate Kendell spent Pride Weekend pretty much the way you’d expect of someone who has devoted the last quarter century to fighting for LGBT rights and marriage equality. “The whole time, I was laughing and smiling and singing and jumping up and down like I was a kid again,” she says, her euphoria already tinged with wistfulness. There were speeches to give—at a rally in the Castro on the night of the Supreme Court’s rulings overturning Proposition 8 and DOMA, as well as at City Hall, where she famously (and embarrassingly, she would later admit) blurted out “Fuck Prop. 8!” on live television—plus parties to attend, and marches to march in. The National Center for Lesbian Rights, the San Francisco–based group that Kendell heads, had its own Pride Parade contingent, though her wife, Sandy, and their 11-year-old daughter, Ariana, marched with the Girl Scouts (which right there says a lot about how the world has changed). “It felt like the first time I had taken a deep breath since the passage of Prop. 8 four and a half years ago,” Kendell says. “What an amazing time to be alive!”
And then, of course, came the hangover. In the ensuing week, while much of San Francisco was still feeling giddy—#SFPride!, #LoveIsLove!, #FUAntoninScalia!, #Bert&Ernie!—Kendell was in half a dozen meetings and conference calls, discussing a dismal reality: In the space of a few days, five men on the U.S. Supreme Court had done more damage to civil rights than anyone had in decades. The most demoralizing loss for activists was a 5–4 decision eviscerating a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. While the ruling will have the greatest impact on African-Americans and Latinos in the South, LGBT rights across the country took a direct hit as well, says Kendell—and reverberations will be felt even inside San Francisco’s hermetically sealed bubble. “Threatening the right of voters to be able to cast ballots freely and without hurdles threatens LGBT rights as much as a direct antigay law does,” she says.
In part, says Jon W. Davidson, legal director of the LGBT rights group Lambda Legal, that’s because the places that are most likely to restrict voting rights in the aftermath of the SCOTUS decision are generally “the same ones that are subject to the worst anti–LGBT laws, including marriage bans.” Indeed, the ruling had barely been announced before Texas, South Carolina, and other states were rushing to impose tougher voting rules that would be especially onerous for blacks, Latinos, and young people—among the groups, according to recent polls, that show the greatest support for gay equality. Asks Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, codirector of the LGBT rights group GetEqual, “If we put marriage on the ballot, but we and our supporters have a hard time voting, how are we going to win?”
Only slightly less concerning to LGBT leaders are two other Supreme Court decisions dealing with workers’ rights. One ruling makes it much harder to hold supervisors accountable for all kinds of on-the-job harassment; the other makes it easier for employers to get away with retaliating against workers who complain about job bias. LGBT people are much more likely to be discriminated against in the workplace, points out Sharon Lettman-Hicks, head of the National Black Justice Coalition, a D.C.–based LGBT rights group, who spent the days after the Supreme Court rulings shuttling between San Francisco and Los Angeles for strategy meetings. In the absence of a federal law protecting LGBT rights (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, has gone nowhere in Congress), the court decisions are likely to contribute to “a whole new layer of intimidation and discrimination that we fear tremendously, especially in the South,” Lettman-Hicks laments. “We have people in serious harm’s way.”
Even the victories over Prop. 8 and DOMA contain a potentially dangerous land mine. The Supreme Court’s reasoning “elevates states’ rights above individual rights, above racial justice,” says Barbara Arnwine, executive director and president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The rise of the states’ rights doctrine is a very troubling reality with long-term implications for our democracy.... It’s not good for people of color, and it’s not good for the LGBT community.”
All of which means that you can expect voting rights to rise to the top of the LGBT agenda in the coming months and years—but not just out of self-interest or political ideology, says Matt Coles, the San Francisco–based deputy national legal director for the ACLU and an unsung hero of the marriage equality movement. “I don’t think this issue is about liberals and progressives versus conservatives,” he says. “It’s about, do you really believe in self-government? Because any step that significantly reduces the ability of people to exercise their right to vote makes us less of a democracy.”
Pivoting away from marriage equality and toward voting rights for gays and straights alike is a big shift in direction for the LGBT movement, but it’s one that Kendell thinks the gay community—in San Francisco and throughout the country—is ready to make. “We’ve learned that we can’t win in isolation,” she says, pointing to the bitter lessons of their Prop. 8 defeat in 2008 and the astonishing victories since then. “We don’t want to end up in a situation where we win the battle—marriage equality—but we lose the war as a huge swath of our community find themselves less and less enfranchised.”
Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco