The Value of a Little History: The Myth of a Big Federal Fix

(Originally posted at Pam's House Blend)

It's all over the blogs, the LGBT press, at LGBT gatherings: the way to get equality for LGBT people is with one sweeping federal law. There are two main arguments: 1) history — this is the way most minorities in America got equality; and 2) political — this is quickest way to get full protection for LGBT people. The problem is that the history is dead wrong and the political prediction ignores some fundamental truths about politics in America today, and how change gets made.

As I explain in an essay in this year’s ACLU report on LGBT rights, there are eight great federal civil rights laws on race, not one. The five modern laws came not all at once, but over 15 years (you can read the whole essay here).

The movement for legal equality didn’t start at the federal level, and didn’t end there either. Twenty-four states had laws banning race discrimination on the job before the 1964 civil rights act. On some issues — like discrimination in public accommodations and housing — states have stronger laws.

Change has typically started in progressive states, and while continuing to more moderate states, moved forward in pieces at the federal level. That doesn’t mean this is the only way to do it. But the political climate in America today, the nature of the issues and our ultimate goal all tell us that a tandem state/federal strategy is the way to go.

While strong majorities of Americans support some civil rights for LGBT people, that doesn’t translate into support in Congress or the federal courts. That’s partly a reflection of conservative dominance of federal politics for 20 of the last 28 years and partly an illustration of a political truth: a motivated minority will beat an apathetic majority every time. We may have more supporters than our opponents, but they have far more who are willing to vote and give money on the issue.

Given where Congress and the federal courts are, we aren’t going to get everything we can get from Washington right away. But there is no reason to wait on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) until we get the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) repealed. On the contrary, passing ENDA and getting members on record will help us get DOMA repealed.

But even if Congress reflected majority sentiments on LGBT people, the federal government would likely not be the sole engine of change. Most of the top issues for the LGBT community — relationships, parenting, schools — are areas in which most of the law is made by states (the work described in that ACLU report gives a pretty good idea of how much of the overall effort on LGBT rights goes into those issues). That’s partly tradition, but it is also a reflection of the federal government’s limited power.

For complete equality, we are going to have to keep making change in the states as well as in Washington.

Finally, LGBT people need to think local because change in America depends on changed attitudes. While we may have majority support for nondiscrimination laws, we don’t have it for marriage, and the public’s views on gay parents are complex to say the least. Moreover, no matter how many laws or great court decisions we have, we won’t have equality until the American people become convinced that all forms of sexual orientation discrimination are just plain wrong, morally wrong.

That kind of attitude change happens most powerfully when LGBT people talk to friends, neighbors and coworkers about being gay, about what our ordinary lives are like, and about how inequality makes an ordinary life challenging. Passing local nondiscrimination laws, getting employers to recognize domestic partners, retail work for social change, these may be the best way to make those conversations happen.

Do we need a big push in D.C.? Sure. But we need to keep pushing in the states as well. Maybe most important, we need to be talking to our friends, family and neighbors, to make sure changes in the laws mean real change in people’s lives.

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Steve

You folks need to have a talk with the militant gay rights group "Bash Back". An organization that advocates going into churches and disrupting the services by shouting, pulling the fire alarm, calling the Lord Jesus a "homo", ect. These people speak for those on the left who are opposed to state laws banning gay marriage, not for those who are for it. Everytime these militants invade churches, it will strenghten my support for those who want to keep marriage between a man and a woman.

James Norden

Any reason the ACLU isn't immediately condemning the Obama administration's 'turn in your fellow citizens' program (you know, spying) as stated at www.whitehouse.gov with the e-mail "flag@whitehouse.gov"?

Paen

Maybe we should remind folks that the wing nuts are attempting to dictate to everyone who we may fall in love with.
Personaly I think that such folks should mind their own buisness and get lives.

anon nurse

The "wing nuts" would like "to dictate", period. I agree that these folks need to leave others alone to live their lives.

Maggie

#4 I believe that statement is backwards. It seems to me that the left is trying very hard "to dictate" lives. If everyone does not do what you believe is right then you are a "wing nut". I would like to know who died and left the liberals boss?

I happen to belong to the party that is considered liberal. We all have our beliefs and are entitled to have them. Sometimes you just don't get what you want. We all need to accept that fact.

Bill

The ACLU is nothing more than a anti God , anti American , Anti Norm , Organization. The only thing they do is cause minority upheaval. Anything goes with these nuts. 100 years ago they all would be drove out of town on a rail. In todays terms the ACLU SUCKS. I love our nativity scene at City Hall every Christmas.

SIMON SAYS

GET RID OF ALL SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS
GET RID OF ALL POLITICAL PARTIES
GET RID OF THE REPUBLIC
GET RID OF THE IDIOTIC CONSTITUTION
GET RID OF THE IDIOTS THAT BELIEVE THEY CAN RULE OVER A SOCIETY
PUT THE PHILOSOPHERS IN POWER
PUT THE MOST INTELLIGENT PEOPLE IN POWER
PUT THE MOST CAPABLE PEOPLE IN POWER
THEN PREY GOD HELPS THEM WHEN THEY NEED IT
IT'S TOO LATE FOR ANYTHING ELSE

roald

Maggie, if trying to prevent people from dictating how other people must behave is dictating, then you are correct. Of course, your right to swing your first ends at the tip of my nose, so please do not counter with laws against bank robbery. I reserve the term wingnut for those whose beliefs are so far from the norm - left or right, they might be a danger to themselves and others. This includes birthers and radical environmentalists.

Bill, you make a good point, 150 years the ACLU would have been run out of town on a rail as Abolitionists for supporting slavery. The upheaval the ACLU supports among minorities is an attempt by those minorities to recover their rights, taken away by the State.

Do you love your courthouse nativity scene more than the one at your Church? Can you picture yourself in a Muslim country taking in the Mawlid an-Nabī scene at the courthouse and not feeling threatened?

Ken M

Great post, roald. I agree 100%.

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