While driving home from work today I heard the news about the passage of the non-inclusive, certain-veto ENDA in the house. I couldn't help thinking "Is this really as far as we've come? All around us we hear daily shouts about the possibility of gay marriage, and yet I can still be fired for being queer?"
A couple months ago I asked why we focus so damn much on marriage equality when people can still be fired for being queer. Sure, we just had a month of drama over ENDA, but in the mainstream, whenever you hear about queer rights, all you hear about is marriage. Right-wingers ranting on about the sanctity of marriage. Brad Pitt saying that he wouldn't marry Angelina until everyone who wanted to could get married. Constant articles about this or that state that legalizing civil unions or outlawing marriage (Type "gay rights articles" into Google, and 6 of the first 10 results are about gay marriage. None mention employment). But we can still be legally fired for being queer! Why isn't there more attention focused on this, by the mainstream media certainly, but from our advocacy groups especially? I hope that I have not just realized what the answer is.
Are we pursing marriage equality more vehemently because it is an issue that is very important to upper class queers, while employment discrimination is more likely to affect poorer LGBTQ folk? The HRC's Corporate Equality Index rates companies on their "policies and practices pertinent to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees, consumers and investors." Their 2008 report shows that 98% of the companies rated provide employment protection on the basis of sexual orientation (only 58% on the basis of gender identity).
Well, super. Sounds like employment discrimination (at least for GLB folk) is on the way out the door, right? Think again. The companies rated are the largest 200 privately owned firms, the top 200 law firms, and Fortune Magazine's list of the largest 1000 publicly-traded businesses. In other words, the most successful, corporate conglomerates who can afford to pay their laywers, investment-bankers CEOs, CFOs, etc plenty of money. No mention of how employment discrimination affects the queer people who work lower-paid jobs.
So what have we got here? A whole bunch of upper-class queer folk for whom employment discrimination isn't much of an issue, and who have money to contribute where they see fit. The queer folk who work at such corporations most likely have more money to donate to advocacy groups like the HRC, than those who work at smaller independently owned businesses and get paid minimum wage.
Understandably, these upper-class folk might not see employment discrimination as being a big issue, and thus might encourage our advocacy groups to focus less on employment, and more on marriage equality. Marriage, besides being something that these people might want because of commitment reasons, is an especially important issue to upper-class queers because of it's relation to money. Marriage rights include taxes, retirement accounts, social-security benefits, pensions, and home protection--issues vital to the upper-class, but less important to poorer queers that the more immediate prospect of being fired.
Are our advocacy groups bowing to the well-funded interests of upper-class queers, and thus emphasizing the need for marriage equality over the more basic need for employment rights? I would like to think not; however, let's not forget that a non-profit must always be thinking about how it's going to get the money to fund it's next initiative. If their wealthy donors are putting pressure on them to lobby for marriage equality, then it is very much in the interest of the advocacy groups to do so, despite more pressing and basic problems.
So please, if you happen to be one of those wealthy queers, be sure to emphasize to the groups you fund how important it is that they stick up for the poorest and most discriminated against in our community. Just as our GLB folk must speak out for the protection of our trans folk, our upper-class people MUST fight for the protection of those less well-off than they. As they say, money is power. And it is absolutely incumbent upon those with power to be responsible for the way they use it.