Author: Kathryne Cui, Johns Hopkins
On Friday, October 17, a federal judge ruled Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. This decision followed those made only 10 days earlier in the same Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down similar laws in Nevada and Idaho; earlier in the month, the Supreme Court declined to hear appeals on rulings which ultimately cleared the way for same-sex marriages to proceed in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. As of October 17, same-sex marriage is legal in 31 states and in Washington, D.C. What does this mean for a generation of American LGBTQ youth coming of age? Forty-five years after Stonewall, a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. How do young, college-aged LGBTQ people view the current and future state of their community and movement?
Studies show that today’s generation “comes out” at younger ages than ever before. The existence of this trend suggests that more young Americans, encouraged by what they perceive as a climate increasingly accepting of LGBTQ people, feel safe and confident enough to come out. And many, including Chelsey, a freshman at Johns Hopkins University, feel that the simple visibility of LGBTQ issues in mainstream politics and media can in some cases create more accepting, less hostile environments for young people.
Same-sex marriage is not only a symbolic issue: it has important concrete, material effects. And, while its successive legalization by an increasing number of states may be depicted or referred offhand to as an abstract measure of public opinion, as a superficial symbol of progress, symbolic meaning is not empty meaning for many young people who grow up feeling alone or abnormal in a heteronormative world.
Chelsey, who describes her ethnic background as Dominican/African-American and identifies as bisexual, says that the visibility of LGBTQ issues like marriage “makes LGBT young people feel more normalized and more accepted.” Having grown up in an LGBTQ-unfriendly environment in North Carolina, Chelsey empathizes with, in particular, LGBTQ youth who grow up not knowing anyone “like them.” This is a common situation, especially in conservative areas like her community in her home state. Chelsey says that the elimination of same-sex marriage laws in places like North Carolina, where on October 10 a federal court ruled the state’s ban unconstitutional, will lead to more mainstream social and cultural acceptance of LGBTQ people and “is really important for kids who live there.”
Still, many young LGBTQ people believe that there is immeasurable room for improvement, both in terms of what the community aims to accomplish outside itself, and in terms of its own constitution as a community and a legitimate movement of collective action.
Angel, who describes himself as gay and Latino, starts college in January. He says that same-sex marriage is “slow progress, but progress nonetheless.” When asked about what LGBTQ issues, aside from marriage equality, should be making headlines, he lists several: “access to healthcare, access to public housing and the increasing amount of violence towards the queer community.”
Why don’t these issues make headlines? Because American politics has packaged LGBTQ issues for easy consumption. NPR recently reported that same-sex marriage is “no longer the political wedge it once was.” For many Americans, LGBTQ issues may never enter their minds in any form beyond same-sex marriage – a factor to consider at the polls at a particular time of the year, a bullet point on a list of a candidate’s viewpoints: a “political wedge.”
But, as Angel points out, problems persist (and will continue to persist) in the community; he singles out black and Latino LGBTQ youth and trans women of color as particularly vulnerable to violence. Official data on the gender identities and sexual orientations of the several million youth without stable housing in the United States is not systematically collected, but “estimates of homeless youth using interviews or surveys of homeless populations at the state and local level suggest that between 9 percent and 45 percent of these youth are LGBT.” This percentage is significantly higher than the small percentage of the overall population who identify as LGBTQ.
And why isn’t proportionate attention paid to issues that disproportionately harm these people, according to Angel? For him, the answer is simply that critically addressing certain problems that affect the LGBTQ community beyond marriage equality would require “a blatant attack on the pillar of America… capitalism.”
Then there is the question of community itself – what does community as a concept mean to LGBTQ youth? The term “community” in this context should not necessarily be taken to reflect any inherent affinities that, theoretically, might broadly exist between the incredibly diverse segments of the American population that identifies as LGBTQ. This population is as defined by divisions of race, gender, and class as the country at large. Many historical gay liberation movements in the U.S. sought solidarity with other leftist organizations – anti-racism movements, anti-imperialist movements, socialist organizations, feminists. Leaders of these movements did not believe they could address their issues in isolation.
As Angel pointed out, many of the community’s most vulnerable segments are people who were historically excluded (or erased post factum) from LGBTQ movements, i.e. trans people. And there are those whose experiences as LGBTQ Americans are inextricably tied to their experiences as nonwhite Americans, as poor Americans: for example, a black lesbian whose blackness may to her be of equal or greater personal significance than her LGBTQ identity; who in all likelihood may experience more solidarity with heterosexual black Americans than with white LGBTQ Americans. These distinctions are not easily incorporated into partisan platform politics.
Milo, a student who identifies as a bisexual trans boy, says that “people’s prejudices keep them from being good allies” to other segments of the community. He cites as examples “white people who come in racist, so they aren’t as supportive to LGBT people of color… gay men who hate lesbians, which is usually rooted in sexism,” and rampant ableism throughout the community.
Ben, a white student at Syracuse University who identifies as pansexual and bigender, cites inclusivity as a problem, due to the fact that “white, middle-class, male voices are still dominating the movement.” Ben’s statements may mean a shaky future for a community whose cohesiveness is fragile or, from some perspectives, non-existent. Ben fears that marriage equality cast as the exclusive LGBTQ political issue, and exclusively an electoral issue, may mean that people will “think they’ve achieved real equality… so they don’t feel the need to be political.”
With marriage equality seemingly secured and with it, the apparent social equality of LGBTQ Americans, the future face of the movement may look like Carl DeMaio, a gay Republican House candidate who de-emphasizes his sexual orientation to voters because he doesn’t believe “either political party ought to be talking about social issues.” For so many, LGBTQ issues are so intertwined with issues of race, with sexism, class, poverty, issues which necessarily oppose segments of the community against others.
Chelsey, Johns Hopkins freshman, acknowledges that “a big place where the community falls short” is trans issues, which she says are “commonly overlooked. At the same time, she indicates the importance that just the idea of community, even one that doesn’t necessarily always cohere, plays in the lives of many young people: “the second you realize you’re part of a community… you feel like you’re not alone in a heteronormative world where most people aren’t LGBT. I think just the word community [and] the acronym can help connect you with a lot of people, and that’s important.”