Harvey Milk once famously said, "Rights are won only by those who make their voices heard." Milk’s statement is particularly pertinent given this week’s landmark Supreme Court ruling that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This is a huge victory, but it comes with a sobering realization: without the general support of the American public — not to mention the officials they elect — these advancements would not be possible, no matter how loudly activists and protestors demand change. Many of these Americans have supported minority populations without ever experiencing or truly knowing their struggles. This gap between support and understanding is the key to planning a path forward through the new age of activism.
The American public’s strong support of specific civil rights provisions often precedes and even drives legal, legislative, or regulatory progress. For example, in the case of same-sex marriage, public support more than doubled from 27 percent to 60 percent in the 10 years leading up to the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling. But there’s an inherent paradox in the polling here. Many “traditional” Americans (i.e. cisgender, straight, white, middle-class) simply don’t understand the realities faced by minority populations, by the “others.” Every marginalized group faces these gaps between expectations and reality. I can no better imagine being homeless than my 24-year-old female colleague can understand being a gay man growing up amidst the AIDS epidemic. You have to listen to others’ struggles, do your best to understand where they are coming from, and accept that not everything will translate to your experience.
Americans often assume minority groups are better off than they actually are. Take, for example, Black communities’ struggles at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an Ipsos poll, Black Americans are being furloughed and laid off at higher rates and are 15 percent more likely to die of the disease. And yet, according to Ipsos, only 39 percent of Americans believe the pandemic is doing greater damage to people of color. Despite rising calls for racial equality from Americans throughout all 50 states, we aren’t seeing any meaningful change in how we approach COVID-19.
If the last few months have left you feeling dejected about the current state of racial inequality in America, there is some hope to be found in the history of LGBTQ+ rights. Over the last 40 years, we have seen the acceptance of LGBTQ+ protections advance from cities, to entire states, to the federal level. I truly believe that the same march toward equality and widespread acceptance that we have seen for LGTBQ+ Americans, despite sometimes vicious and hateful opposition from fringe groups and even members of the federal government, will be shared by every minority group.
But just as the history of LGBTQ+ rights can inspire hope, it should also continue to spur action. This week’s Supreme Court decision on equality in the workplace came as somewhat of a surprise. Many assumed the war for LGTBQ+ equality was won and no further action was necessary. Last year, a poll found that 45 percent of Americans believed that federal anti-discrimination protections already existed for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, including 40 percent of those aged 18-34. Only 23 percent of Americans understood that those protections did not exist at the time.
“The public might be getting the sense that we’re fully integrated in society and that we live a trouble-free life, and that is a challenge for my organization,” Stacey Long Simmons, director of advocacy and action at the National LGBTQ Task Force, told Reuters.
Every minority group still has to deal with widespread ignorance about the worst discriminations and prejudices. These differences aren’t as overt as the state prohibiting same-sex or interracial marriages, or state-sanctioned racial segregation, but on the ground level, hate crimes remain as prevalent today as they were 15 years ago.
So what does this perceptual gap mean for us and how can we solve this problem? I have two areas for consideration. The first seems simple: education is everything. Most Americans do not inherently stand against ever stronger protections of civil rights; quite the contrary as the data above shows. The more they are educated on the realities of the intolerance, injustice, and prejudice minority groups experience, the more likely they are to demand concrete change. The second takeaway is more of a plea: that civil rights campaigners show more compassion for those whose minds they are trying to change. The data makes clear those minds may already be primed for persuasion. Don’t blow it by assuming the worst of their hearts. America is divided enough already.
Alex Slater is a board member of the Victory Fund, a national organization dedicated to helping LGBTQ+ candidates win elections at all levels of office. Mr. Slater is also the CEO of Clyde Group, a PR firm based in D.C., and a former advisor and fundraiser for Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign.