How important are LGBT rights?


Last night, Princeton hosted an outstanding panel on same-sex marriage, and I had the opportunity to ask a question about the upcoming Supreme Court nomination.  Most observers agree that within the next decade, the issue of same-sex marriage will be taken up by the Court, probably in the context of a constitutional challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act or Proposition 8.  As such, it is important for LGBT rights advocates to demand that any potential nominee not only express support for favorable precedents such as Lawrence v. Texas, but also to have authored academic or judicial opinions that make clear that he or she rejects some of the more spurious and contradictory religious justifications for discrimination.

The first answer I received was a caricature of an argument I've heard dozens of times: while we should certainly ask these types of questions, the lack of track record on LGBT issues should not be disqualifying -- because there are other issues at stake in the upcoming nomination battle that are "more important" than LGBT rights.

Well, so what?

First, I believe that the role of LGBT rights advocates is to push for their position unconditionally and without apology.  When was the last time you saw leadership of the National Rifle Association issuing a statement to the effect of, "the nominee's views on the 2nd amendment are important, but must be placed in the context of a lot of other, more important issues that will come before the Court, such as eminent domain and the commerce clause"?  It's a horrifyingly incompetent political strategy, and after the losses in progressive states such as California and Maine, clearly something must change.

But aside from the politics, it also disturbs me on a much more basic level.  Do LGBT rights advocates actually think LGBT rights are important?  How can someone dedicate his or her career to this type of advocacy, and then when this type of critical moment arises, argue that a singular focus on LGBT issues is somehow inappropriate -- or, worse -- even selfish?

LGBT rights are not just about the safety of gay/trans teens or the economic security of loving couples -- though to me, that would be enough.  This debate is about who we are as a nation -- whether we will tolerate blatant discrimination, whether we truly live up to our ideals of freedom and equality, and whether it's possible to overcome the cynics and make positive changes to our body politic.

Are "more important" issues of executive power or the constitutionality of the welfare state going to impact larger numbers of people, most of whom are not LGBT?  Of course.  But LGBT rights touch everyone as well, because they go to the core of what it means to be American. 

It's time for gay rights activists to stop apologizing for fighting for their own rights.  And if they feel uncomfortable being full-throated and uncompromising advocates, our opponents have won.  If these issues aren't really that important when placed in their proper context, then why don't we all just shut up until the recession and wars are over?


great post Ryan!

Another very interesting post. I actually remember your question, and thus its answer, a bit differently: I thought the issue was more like, Should I prefer a Supreme Court justice who is an out lesbian to one who is in the closet? It didn't sound to me like it had as much to do with which decisions would result, but I also don't have any familiarity with any of the specific people you named, so maybe I just missed that piece of it.

In any case, I do agree with Melissa Harris-Lacewell that closeted public figures pose all kinds of problems for LGBT and coalitional work, and I agree with the sentiment you yourself express elsewhere that one certainly should not feel sorry for such figures when their double lives become public knowledge. (It may even be worth facilitating this process, depending on the situation.) However, the idea that executive privilege or the welfare state is a more consequential issue than a justice's public identity or even, perhaps, than marriage itself does not seem unreasonable to me.

When I hear "executive privilege," I think of the power to use military force unilaterally, usually (in my opinion) unjustly and with disastrous consequences for people, many of whom are inevitably LGBT, who have no representation within the American political system at all. (I similarly think of Guantanamo, etc.) When I hear "welfare state" I think of people, many of whom are inevitably LGBT, who are without health care. To me, prioritizing marriage over these issues is not so much prioritizing LGBT rights in general as prioritizing the rights of some (relatively more politically powerful) LGBT people over others.

Why should we have to choose? I agree that marriage is an important litmus test for a future justice. But I am not sure that LGBT people, perhaps unlike NRA members, have the luxury (or privilege) of elevating this single issue to the highest importance. Perhaps an LGBT advocacy group must focus on "LGBT issues," but perhaps this is also one of the limitations of an LGBT advocacy group. This may sound like another critique of American identity politics or whatever, but I do think progressive people in general have to embrace a broader range of concerns, not by giving up "LGBT issues," but by articulating a much wider range of human rights concerns as fundamentally relevant to LGBT people.

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