After Some Celebrating, LGBT Organizations Talk Voting Rights

'Equality has to exist for all,' says one leading activist

Same-sex couple Wanda Lawson and Lauryne Braithwaite celebrate after being married.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Same-sex couple Wanda Lawson and Lauryne Braithwaite celebrate after being married.
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The U.S. Supreme Court's recent rulings have left many social justice advocates with mixed feelings. In the same week last month, America witnessed the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California's Proposition 8 – huge victories for the same-sex marriage fight – and a complete rollback of vital parts of the Voting Rights Act.

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Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as a way of confronting rampant discrimination at the polls in certain voting districts, especially against African-American voters in the South. The Supreme Court's recent ruling invalidated Section 4 of the act, the part specifying which districts come under Department of Justice supervision – what Rev. Al Sharpton has called the "heart" of the act.  "A lot of people didn't believe that Chief Justice Roberts would have the audacity to overturn such an important civil rights bill," says Brentin Mock, Colorlines.com reporting fellow on voting rights. "People thought that perhaps he wouldn't be so cold as to actually pull the trigger. And guess what? He pulled the trigger."

In the wake of the rulings, many LGBT advocates are now turning their energy toward protecting voting rights. "I do think there is an ethos and an understanding in the community that because we're in every demographic, any attack on civil rights protections is not about someone else or 'those people,'" says Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "It's about us, and it's a fundamental attack on the kind of country we want to live in."

For years, the larger LGBT movement has received criticism for focusing on marriage equality over issues seen as more relevant to working-class people and minorities. "If you're a waitress in Jackson, Mississippi and you're working at a job with no healthcare and your girlfriend is working at the local Target or Wal-Mart," asks New Orleans writer and activist Kenyon Farrow, "how is marriage going to protect you from poverty?"

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force – which has launched a campaign called Queer the Vote to target a wide range of progressive issues – argues that marriage equality is itself an economic justice issue, citing the newly recognized federal benefits for married same-sex couples. "When we talk about these over 1,100 benefits, a lot of those benefits actually have to do with economic security," says Carey. "The ability to get your partner's Social Security when he or she dies is the difference between being able to stay in your home or becoming homeless."

Yet Farrow and others believe there is still a real need for the LGBT community to focus more directly on bread-and-butter issues. The group Queers for Economic Justice is already doing this in New York City by fighting for rights like paid sick leave and a living wage. Working to secure the right to vote – the most basic of democratic rights – would seem clearly to fit into this category.

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Immediately following the Supreme Court's decision on the Voting Rights Act, NAACP president Ben Jealous headed a town hall-style conference call. The call, an outgrowth of the Democracy Initiative, offered responses to the Voting Rights Act ruling from leaders of LGBT, environmental, immigration and labor rights groups and drew more than 17,000 callers. Two of the main initiatives discussed were voter mobilization and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the March On Washington. During the call, Rev. Al Sharpton said he hopes to see a huge showing at this year's march on August 28th. At the original march in 1963, he noted, "We weren't talking about gays and lesbians. We are talking about them front and center this march."

J. Bob Alotta, executive director of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, sees the LGBT movement at an interesting point of legal integration with other social justice movements following the DOMA ruling. "If we are going to protect our own equality, it isn't an equality that belongs to one," she says. "Equality is a notion that either exists or doesn't exist – and it has to exist for all." She adds that the LGBT community should send a clear message to the Supreme Court: "You ruled against us when you ruled against the Voting Rights Act."

Many others agree: With the Voting Rights Act gutted, it's never been more important for the LGBT community to form long-lasting and broad-based coalitions. "If the LGBT movement doesn't care about the swath of LGBT folks who are going to be living in states where their ability to vote is going to be compromised," asks Farrow, "then what kind of movement do we have?"

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