This is a paper I wrote back in grad school which is the inspiration for my career. I really want to reframe the LGBT movement which has been successful in mobilizing and raising resources to begin using those skill sets to work on important issues around poverty within the community.
Reframing: Shifting the Paradigm of the LGBT Movement
The media describes the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement as a modern day civil rights movement; making numerous strides in advocating for “equality.” Establishing itself as a legitimate voting block and having resources to mobilize, the LGBT community has been successful in creating policy change. However, the issues being advocated for do not reflect the needs of the community as a whole. Advocacy around marriage and anti-bullying has turned a movement that addressed systemic oppression and lack of resources to a movement promoting heteronormativity and individual rights that disproportionately benefits the more privileged. Because of its ability to fundraise and mobilize, the LGBT community has a unique opportunity to position itself as a movement that advocates for all equality, including economic and social justice.
Marriage equality is perceived as a common issue that affects everyone in the LGBT community. Therefore marriage advocates have spoken on the community’s behalf. The organizations that were considered to be leaders in the LGBT movement began to create an organizational culture of donors, pushing a grassroots approach to the side (Dettmer & Botkin-Levy, 2010). Consequently, gays and lesbians who were able to provide financial support to these organizations also set the policy agenda. For them, marriage became the final hurdle to truly reach equality (Dettmer & Botkin-Levy, 2010). The framing of a marriage movement was established despite the fact that over 50% of the LGBT population is single and not everyone in the community wants to define their relationships and families through marriage. (Dettmer & Botkin-Levy, 2010). Once a community defines its families through marriage, questions of family legitimacy arise. As opposed to advocating and validating current queer family structures, organizations chose to assimilate into the system and take on an individual rights framework (Dettmer, 2010). Additionally, by framing the issue around pension and property rights transfers, those who are unable to access these assets are subsequently excluded (Dettmer & Botkin-Levy, 2010). This framework is contrary to what the movement attempted to achieve in its earlier years of dismantling homophobic systems and proves to be harmful to members of the community who do not adhere to the norms set forth. This exclusion also negatively impacts work that is being done around economic justice.
Funding for LGBT organizations that do not focus on marriage is extremely sparse. The Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues’ LGBTQ Grantmakers 2008 Report Card on Racial Equity found that organizations focusing on affordable housing, anti-violence and poverty issues, received only nine percent of funding from the LGBT community (Espinoza, 2008). These issues, which affect a larger percentage of people in the LGBT community, are not viewed as a priority. In addition, former priority issues such as HIV/AIDS, which effects low-income people, have taken a backseat to marriage.
In 2008, conversations about marriage equality permeated the California political discourse with the introduction of the Proposition 8 referendum. Mainstream LGBT organizations mobilized and spent $43 million dollars on the failed No on 8 campaigns (Dettmer, 2010). However, simultaneously, the California state government made $85 million in budget cuts to AIDS funding. Although perceptions of solidarity in the LGBT community appeared in the No on 8 Campaign, there was virtually no response from the community about the AIDS funding budget cuts (Dettmer & Botkin-Levy, 2010). Programs that effected predominately low-income communities inflicted with the disease, such as services and housing assistance, were cut. Additionally, marriage advocates also failed to examine the impact marriage may have on low-income couples living with HIV/AIDS. Couples living on disability benefits adhere to strict poverty requirements. If a couple on disability were to combine their households through marriage, they could lose their benefits. According to Brian Bassinger from the AIDS Housing Coalition, the majority of people living with HIV/AIDS in San Francisco live in poverty, so loss of benefits is common (Dettmer, 2010). Negative impacts of advocating for marriage are apparent, as this issue may not be a priority for the community as a whole and because funding amongst the organizations are not evenly dispersed. What issues should the community support and how will the community develop this support?
Funders have identified marriage as a priority issue for the LGBT community. However, poverty, housing and access to appropriate healthcare are mainstay issues that have received little attention recently. According to the Arcus Foundation, the issue of poverty not only affects communities of color, but LGBT people with intersectional identities are disproportionately affected by negative policies that disadvantage marginalized people (Sen, Wessler, & Apollon, 2010).
The Center for American Progress reports that 24% of bisexual and lesbian women and 9.4% of lesbian families with children live in poverty (Quintana, 2009). According to the report, lesbian couples were significantly more likely and gay men slightly more likely to live in poverty than their heterosexual counterparts. Looking to the transgender community, a segment of the movement that has virtually been left out of agenda setting, the prevalence of poverty is higher. Transpeople are twice as likely to live under the federal poverty line than the general population and twenty percent reported being homeless once they came out. Additionally, high unemployment and reports of low earnings for this group, with 22-64 percent earning less than $25,0000 a year support these claims (Quintana, 2009). LGBT youth, show higher levels of poverty and homelessness than their heterosexual counterparts. In a report done by the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, an estimated 115,000 to 640,000 homeless youth (20% to 40% of the total homeless youth population) identify as LGBT in the United States (Ray, 2006). Without an education, marketable skills or stable living environments, many youth turn to survival sex to find shelter and food. This high-risk behavior increases their chances of contracting STI’s/HIV and further effects their mental well-being (Ray, 2006). Some youth, attempting to find a safe space to live, purposefully attempt to contract HIV to qualify for housing assistance (Berger, 2010).
The current framing of the issues affecting the LGBT community have been heavily influenced by the gay affluent stereotype. Although it is not denied that low-income couples may benefit from marriage, the resources put towards this issue further disadvantages groups within the community who are unable or unwilling assimilate to the established norms. Marriage is not the silver bullet to solve the multiple social issues in the LGBT community but understanding the aforementioned issues in the community, advocates can develop strategies to work on these issues without compromising their resources.
The setting of marriage as the mainstay of the LGBT agenda was a result of donor influence, pushing litigation and the ability of mainstream LGBT organizations to lobby and influence policy makers. The LGBT community is uniquely positioned to have a positive impact on economic and social justice work, as some members of the community have the monetary and political resources to support advocacy efforts towards dismantling systems that perpetuate poverty and inequality. However, how do you influence those who prioritize marriage to begin focusing on issues that may not directly affect them?
Coalition building across the LGBT community and among other social justice organizations is important when attempting to successfully reframe the LGBT movement. Current shifts in mainstream LGBT organizations that advocate for marriage, have attempted to involve people of color (Dettmer & Botkin-Levy, 2010). These movements understand the importance of building strong broad base coalitions to gain support, however, they fail in developing meaningful connections(Sen, et al., 2010). Two barriers appear, the lack of knowledge in racial justice organizations about LGBT issues and the lack of knowledge in LGBT organizations about racial justice issues.
Many racial justice organizations see LGBT issues as effecting predominately white communities. Conversely, LGBT organizations feel that including racial justice and poverty issues may drive a wedge within their movement and cause them to lose focus (Sen, et al., 2010). According to a report funded by the Arcus Foundation, there are numerous factors that increase the chances of collaboration between these groups. It is important for these groups to recognize and redefine systems of oppression and liberation as a connected and overlapping issue that, although similar, are not the same (Sen, et al., 2010). Additionally, these organizations can take on an intersectional analysis, encourage leadership from LGBT people of color, share power and resources inter-organizationally, and have a long-term approach on community education (Sen, et al., 2010). Building a robust coalition can be met with some barriers that need to be addressed such as a lack of strategic clarity, fear of community conflict and the lack of funding and resources for collaborations (Sen, et al., 2010). However, the goal to overcoming these barriers and facilitating coalition building must be done through education in both racial/social justice organizations and LGBT organizations.
The education of racial/social justice organizations should include the understanding that LGBT people of color are affected by the issues that LGBT organizations are advocating. Additionally, showing racial and social justice organizations that white LGBT people suffer from similar forms of oppression that prevent many from coming out of poverty is important as well. In order to accomplish this, the mainstream LGBT movement must begin educating their donors and constituencies that this is true as well. The framing method used by many organizations in the past few decades to gain political power has created a stereotype of affluence within the community. If donors do not recognize poverty as being an issue, then the development of a coalition that seeks to combat these problems can be difficult. Additionally, leadership, who tend to be upper and middle class white people, need to be educated in the issues that are relevant to communities of color and low-income communities (Sen, et al., 2010). The current collaborations with racial/social justice organizations have been collaborations with LGBT Organizations of Color. Very seldom have mainstream LGBT groups made those connections. This comes from the underlying assumption that people of color automatically support LGBT efforts, a fatal assumption made in the No on 8 campaign in 2008 (Sen, et al., 2010). Finally, LGBT groups need to begin advocating for issues that are important to racial/social justice organizations. Developing these coalitions and educating organizations on both sides can have a positive outcome on creating impact on the disadvantaged LGBT community.
The LGBT movement has evolved since the 1969 Stonewall Riots. From looking at social justice issues by addressing systemic forms of oppression, such as police brutality, to reframing what oppression means and looking at marriage as a way to obtain equality for the community. The mainstream LGBT movement has had numerous political shifts throughout the decades that occurred because of stakeholder involvement and resource availability. Originally, the movement relied on grassroots strategies and organizing around the people, today the agenda of the movement has been decided by those who have the resources. This creates a hierarchy within a movement that originally sought to make people equal. With numerous victories, the movement has potential of being successful in achieving higher levels of equality for its community. However, what happens after marriage equality is achieved? Will donors continue to support efforts of these organizations unconditionally? The mainstream LGBT movement must go through another political shift and that focuses on addressing economic justice issues. By re-educating its donors, constituents and organizations outside of the community in addition to developing meaningful coalitions, the LGBT movement can truly be a movement that advocates for equality.