Op-ed: The Gay Rights Movement Can't Drop the Mike

By Andre Banks

Originally published on Advocate.com June 27 2013 6:00 AM ET

In many ways the movement for marriage has managed to get to the heart of what the gay rights movement is all about. The stories of love and commitment have moved people to think differently about gays and lesbians. In many ways this work has reasserted our humanity: We are people hoping to have the happiness that every person wants, to share in the experience of love, and to live authentically and openly without fear.

This is an enormous victory for lesbian, gay, bi, and trans people resulting in a seismic shift in public opinion in a relatively short period of time. The Supreme Court's decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 are proof of that.

But right now there are also millions of people being touched by one of the most quiet-kept human rights crises in the world — the denial of the most essential freedoms to people whose sexual orientation or gender identity do not conform to cultural norms or political whims. LGBT people are being arrested, tortured and murdered throughout the world. While the United States has made great strides toward equality, our work is not done. The gay rights movement is not yet finished.

In 2010 a university student named Roger sent a text message to another man. It was the simplest expression in a romance he believed was blossoming, tapped out with painful anticipation on his mobile phone. Not unlike a billion sentiments that pass through our collective fingertips each day, this action was simple, transient, but full of meaning. What is unusual about his story is that it resulted first in his arrest, then a year spent in one of the world's most miserable prisons. Now Roger Jean-Claude Mbédé is in a life-defining struggle to regain his freedom — all because he sent the words "I'm very much in love w/u" to another man in Cameroon, a country that makes it a crime for a gay man to live openly and dare even the most banal expression of affection.

But what can the movement that has fought for marriage in this country do to change the situation in Cameroon or the 75 other countries that make it a crime to be gay? 

It turns out, quite a bit. But first we have to see the continued fight for marriage equality as one frontier in a rapidly expanding global movement for equality in which we all have a serious stake.

Marriage for gays and lesbians, and more specifically, the decade-long struggle to assert the equality of LGBT families and win over a majority of our fellow Americans, is extremely important. While studies show that only a small minority will immediately benefit from the actual policy changes, the cultural shift that has come along with the court cases, recent success of statewide referenda, and critical support from the president and his party have been decisive. Only the most cynical analyst would deny that the rising tide of marriage equality could, in theory, lift all boats. 

But from the growing crisis around LGBT youth homelessness and the troubling prospects for federal laws protecting people from discrimination, there is much in this state and the nation that demands our attention, action and perhaps most importantly, resources. And looking outward to a world where 76 countries still have laws that make same-sex consensual relationships a crime, those of us who assert the moral imperative for us each to have the ability to live openly without having to sacrifice our families, our dignity or our safety, we have an obligation to look toward our brothers and sisters around the world and embrace the fact that we have more work to do.

After Roger's friend shared his message with Cameroonian authorities, he was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison under the country's law outlawing "homosexual behavior." In too many places, the price for being yourself, or for being in love, is impossibly high.

As we dig in to finish the job on marriage and continue to shift perceptions and open up opportunities along the way, the question we should be asking can't possibly be "Qre we there yet?" Rather, emboldened by our ability to change policy and history we should ask, "What's next?" There is a global movement building, and Americans have a critical role to play. If we decide to go forward and refuse to rest on our victories, we could change the course of history and the lives of millions of families around the world. Momentum is a horrible thing to waste.

 

ANDRE BANKS is the cofounder and executive director of All Out, an organization actively engaged in the fight for equality in countries around the world through social networks to build a powerful global movement for love and equality.