Halfway to victory: The diminishing returns of activism (guess post on Zinnia Jones)

The other day as she was reading something online, Zinnia asked me my opinion on the question of why people seem to be more supportive of LGBT activism than feminism. At first I gave the simplest answer I could think of: A cis, straight person can support the rights of LGBT people and then never, or very rarely, be personally affected by that support. They may never knowingly encounter a trans person or be invited to a same-sex wedding ceremony. If they work for a smaller company, they may never encounter an LGBT person at work. They may have none in their family.

It’s not so simple to avoid women. To support equal treatment of women is to admit that you’re a part of a system that disadvantages your mothers, sisters, daughters, and possibly significant others. If you’re a woman, it’s to admit that your fathers, brothers, sons, and possibly significant others are benefiting from a system that gives to them at your expense, and that most of them are either willfully ignoring this fact or actively maintaining the status quo. Feminism means acknowledging harsh realities about people you love. LGBT activism may or may not do the same.

Naturally, Zinnia thought this would be an excellent topic for me to discuss on my monthly contribution to her channel as her videos about LGBT activism, however abrasive, are significantly more liked than anything either she or I can say about feminism, so I spent a lot more time thinking about it. I realized my original thoughts were correct, but incomplete. While the current incarnations of feminism are regarded as either angry fringe movements, or overplayed songs of the past, it certainly had its day in the sun.

The Nineteenth Amendment, passed in 1919 guaranteeing women the right to vote, was the beginning of a century of notable advancement for women. In 1969, president Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11375 banning discrimination based on sex in federal workforce hiring decisions. 1972 brought us Title IX which entitled women to equal educational opportunities and finally ended the tyranny of enforced sex discrimination in education, and 1973 brought us the infamous Roe v. Wade, which entitled women to medical and reproductive privacy. These things did not happen with the support of only a few. These things happened with the support of a majority. Yes, at one point, the majority of the United States was identifying and voting feminist.

Currently, LGBT activism is in its heyday. Friends, we just eliminated Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Countries all over the world are legalizing gay marriage. States all over the union are… they’re… trying. President Obama is the first president of the United States to endorse gay marriage. For the first time in history, polls are showing overwhelming support for LGBT rights. The standard of care for trans people is improving with many countries in the world providing full and free access to medical transition, and even in the United States it is getting easier. Progress is being made, but we’re nowhere near done.

Employment nondiscrimination for all gender and sexual minorities needs to be enforced on the federal level. DOMA – the Defense of Marriage Act which makes it so that same-sex marriages, even in states where they are legal, are considered invalid outside of the state and are ineligible for federal benefits – is probably next on the chopping block, but it’s still there. Access to medical transition needs to be as guaranteed as access to any other valid and necessary treatment guaranteed by American health insurance companies. Laws governing the ability to change one’s legal gender status are being liberalized in many states but have fallen backwards in others. Our battle for legal equality is in full force and we’re on the winning team. Of course it’s easy to support it.

Since the civil rights movements in the 1960s, it would seem that, at least for the United States, legal equality is nearly a solved problem. Precedence has been set in the Supreme Court time and again. All we need are the right lawyers, and time. For Americans, this is a point of pride, and the majority, however slim, is happy to join us.

But what happens to equal rights movements when their battles are won? When the privileged majority declares the problem sorted and moves on to another cause du jour? When, instead of cookies and claps on the back, cis straight white men still have to hear about how people of color are overwhelmingly impoverished and imprisoned, women still can’t make a buck in spite of eager and overwhelming academic achievement, are getting raped left and right, and are slowly losing their reproductive rights, or that gender and sexual minorities are still forced into conversion therapy or homelessness?

It’s an inevitable aspect of the human condition that we cheer for the winning teams, donate to the popular charities, save the cuter animals. Legal equality is a popular fight and a solved problem, but social equality is what Americans do worst. In time, like feminism, black power, and any number of fights for real equality, LGBT activism will peter out. The work will be left to those of us affected the most, and ignored by those affected the least. We’ll scowl over statistics that show our disadvantages while the majority ignores us and wonder when it ever got to be so uncool to be LGBT.

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