One Issue Still Bucks The Trend for LGBT Equality

The civil rights movement of the 20th Century has been a good template for LGBT rights except on employment. Why? We’re still missing a key executive order of the kind that helped level the playing field for racial minorities.



The only thing as stunning as the reversal of fortune for marriage equality from 2004-2014 is the way in which workplace fairness for LGBT Americans has languished at the federal level. True, the Senate made an impressive push to pass employment protections last year, but the House of Representatives remains a sizeable hurdle to their final passage.

The juxtaposition is particularly interesting if you compare the progression of the gay rights movement to that of the civil rights movement of the 20th century—a model LGBT leaders and historians have often looked to for benchmarks and inspiration. The civil rights movement moved from integration of the armed forces (1948) to the desegregation of schools (1954) to prohibitions on discrimination in public accommodations, the workplace, and voting (1964–1965), and finally to the eradication of the anti-miscegenation laws that banned interracial marriage (1967).

President Barack Obama, a keen student of civil rights history, reminded me of this order when I interviewed him on the campaign trail in 2008.

At the time, I was pushing him on his stance on civil unions. “Is it fair for the LGBT community to ask for leadership [on marriage equality]?” I asked him at his Chicago-based campaign headquarters in April 2008. “In 1963, President Kennedy made civil rights a moral issue for the country,” I continued, referring to JFK’s historic address to the nation.

Then-Senator Obama pushed back with a strategy argument. “But he didn’t over- turn anti-miscegenation. Right?” he asked.

“I’m the product of a mixed marriage that would have been illegal in 12 states when I was born,” he explained. “That doesn’t mean that had I been an adviser to Dr. King back then, I would have told him to lead with repealing an anti-miscegenation law, because it just might not have been the best strategy in terms of moving broader equality forward.”

But six years later, the march toward marriage equality has hit the fast track, while federal employment protections— a critical advancement for the civil rights movement—have practically stalled. Indeed, at the time of this writing, the number of marriage equality states has now caught up to the number of states that prohibit discrimination against LGBT employees: 17. (This does not include pend- ing marriage cases in Utah and Oklahoma.)

Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images (Obama); Courtesy of Getequal (Banner); AFP/Getty Images (March)