President Joe Biden signed legislation to protect LGBTQ people if the Supreme Court overrules past precedent. Yet, in the all-too-typical behavior of politicians, the law doesn’t protect marriage rights, it only protects the rights of the currently married. By intentionally leaving the unmarried out, this legislation isn’t about LGBTQ rights, but about protecting wealthier older Queers while leaving the rest of us out in the cold.
On December 13, President Biden Joe signed into law the Respect for Marriage Act. Advocacy groups that assert they represent LGBTQ peoples applauded the law: The Human Rights Campaign called it a “huge victory.” The National LGBTQ Task Force posted photos on their social media of attending the signing ceremony at the White House. The National Center for Lesbian Rights called it “historic” and claimed the law “enshrined marriage equality into a federal statute.” The national LGBTQ news outlet, The Washington Blade, reported that it was top national story of 2022 and stated that the law was “widely considered the greatest legislative victory for LGBTQ rights since the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in 2011.”
In a time when hate crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community has grown rapidly, extremists protest Drag Story Time, and less than a month after the attack that left five dead at an LGBTQ bar in Colorado Springs, federal officials took what they see as a significant step in showing their support and allyship for the Queer community. Rather than offering real safety, the Respect for Marriage Act allows politicians and advocacy groups to pat themselves on the back – even though the law does little to advance the fight for Queer liberation.
It is important to understand what the Respect for Marriage Act does and doesn’t do. The Respect for Marriage Act is a contingency plan should the Supreme Court overturn its previous ruling establishing marriage rights in Obergefell v. Hodges. Should the Obergefell decision get overturned, this law would ensure marriages will not become invalid in states that ultimately make same-sex marriage illegal. Additionally, should a married couple move to a state where same-sex marriage becomes illegal, the state would still have to recognize the union.
Li Zhou at Vox explained this doesn’t protect the rights of those that may want to get married in the future. If the Supreme Court overturns same-sex marriage rights, the currently married may be protected by this law, while those that may want to marry in the future will lose that right. By intentionally leaving out making marriage a national right, politicians decided to protect wealthy older Gays and Lesbians while the rest of the LGBTQ community is left out.
The Respect for Marriage Act does not require that states issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. While the currently married may be fine, every generation that comes after a potential overturning will be locked out of those protections. Yes, they might be able to travel to another state, but over 30 states already have same-sex marriage bans on the books that would go back into effect if Obergefell were overturned. Limiting potential access and travel would be a new barrier to entry for a right that older, wealthier, whiter LGBTQ people have had nationwide for nearly a decade.
Discarding the rights of poor, nonwhite, and young Queer people isn’t new and is even a major part of the history of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ advocacy. In fact, the Blade’s words calling this law the most important victory since the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell unintentionally highlights the hollowness of the LGBTQ movement.
National LGBTQ advocacy groups and the politicians they ally with have done little to protect LGBTQ people’s rights in the workplace, health care, or housing, and even when we get state-level victories to end discrimination, these nondiscrimination laws are meaningless for Queer people at a non-union workshop, priced out of housing, or don’t have access to health insurance. The Respect for Marriage Act is yet another victory for the comfortable, while the rest of us are left to our fates.
This victory for the comfortable is part of a marriage rights movement that has been slowly building since the 1970s, often in opposition to the radical Queer liberation movements of the times. It has been driven by white middle-class cis people and often leaves out low-income and nonwhite people.
In the 1970s, while the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) saw itself as part of a broader movement and members debated how to support the Black Panthers and their efforts for liberation, the traditionalists were busy having the first gay couple apply for a marriage license in Minnesota. The traditionalists advocated for civil liberties for Gays and Lesbians without regard for the economic realities Queer people faced. In fact, the differences between the liberation movement and the traditionalists led to a breakaway faction from GLF to form the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA).
Ever since that breakaway faction abandoned true liberation and focused on protecting the already comfortable, we have seen the movement become a fight for hollow victories. The right to die in unjust wars, the right to still be fired for no reason at all, just as long as they don’t say it is because we are Queer, and now the right to be married – if you already are.
The Respect for Marriage Act is yet another example that the LGBTQ advocacy world and the politicians they work with are not looking to create tangible, meaningful, and lasting improvements to the lives of LGBTQ persons, their work is instead about ensuring wealthy Gay and Lesbian donors don’t have to think about the rights of working-class, non-white, or struggling Queers.