NEW YORK — Even as it celebrates victories in the push for same-sex marriage, America’s gay-rights movement is experiencing self-criticism and internal divisions over its approach to other thorny issues.
Some activists say the nationwide marriage campaign, while worthwhile, has diverted energy and resources from causes that may be harder to market – such as rights for transgender people and advocacy to combat HIV and AIDS.
“I wish we were spending a little more time working on these other issues and not just making marriage the centerpiece,” said Terry Stone of CenterLink, a nationwide coalition of more than 200 community centers that serve LGBT people.
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Stone said the latest survey of the community centers’ patrons found that their top concerns were anti-gay bullying at schools, transgender rights, HIV and AIDS issues, and the need for more laws against anti-gay discrimination in employment, housing and health care. Legal recognition for same-sex couples was fifth on the list, Stone said.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, voiced similar concerns.
“I am big fan of the work of the LGBT movement, but I’m really cynical about the prioritization within it,” she said. “I worry about a movement that has so disproportionately prioritized marriage. … It’s been a good tool for educating the rest of the public, but that’s the problem – it’s educating everyone else that marriage is all we care about.”
Same-sex marriage has indeed dominated the gay-rights agenda in the past few years, generating intensive news coverage, gaining steadily in public support, and proving to be a catalyst for successful fundraising drives.
Within a span of a few weeks in May and June, the number of states with legal same-sex marriage grew from nine to 13, and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law that barred the federal governm ent from recognizing such marriages. Yet during the same period, leaders of many LGBT advocacy groups were conferring candidly on the need to re-energize the fight against AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes it.
A joint open letter issued in June, signed by 35 of the leaders, said that gay and bisexual men, while comprising only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for more than 63 percent of new HIV infections in 2010. It said the rate is particularly high for young black gay men.
“Despite these alarming statistics, which have galvanized our community in the past, the HIV epidemic has seemed to fall by the wayside,” the letter said. “Many in our community have simply stopped talking about the issue. This must change.”
Among the groups signing the letter was Lambda Legal, which pursues litigation on a wide range of LGBT issues. The director of Lambda’s HIV Project, Scott Schoettes, said AIDS at one point had been a unifying issue for the gay co mmunity and now was a source of division – between those with good access to health care and those without it, and between those who are HIV-positive and those who aren’t.
“People don’t want to talk about disease, about death, about racial or socio-economic inequalities,” Schoettes said. “HIV is sometimes an inconvenient reminder of all those things. We need to press to make sure it continues to be a part of the agenda.”
Peter Staley, an activist in New York City, suggested in a June 28 column for the Washington Post that the gay-rights movement had become “so caught up in the giddiness of the marriage-equality movement that we’ve abandoned the collective fight against HIV and AIDS.”
He suggested that major gay-rights organizations should reallocate their budgets so that 10 percent went to combating HIV and AIDS.
“No one is asking to give up the fight for marriage equality,” Staley said in an interview. “We are a strong community. We are capable of doing more than one thing at a time.”
Among grass-roots activists, a periodic target for criticism is the Human Rights Campaign – the largest and best-funded national gay-rights group, with an agenda that attempts to tackle a wide range of issues. Marriage is the HRC’s foremost priority at moment, as made clear in a new memo titled “What’s Next for the LGBT Civil Rights Movement,” and the group’s leaders are aware that this focus is not welcomed by some activists.
“No one thinks we spend enough time on their issues,” said Fred Sainz, an HRC vice president. “Oftentimes there will be constituencies that don’t feel satisfied, and that’s completely legitimate. We can and should do better for them.”
Regarding HIV and AIDS, he said the advocacy on this issue had lost some effectiveness in recent years and suggested there was a need to develop new, positive messages about the cause. As for transgender rights, he said the HRC was committed to incorporating this into all of its programs and initiatives.
In one sign of that commitment, the HRC was quick to issue a public apology in March after a transgender activist was asked to remove a transgender-rights flag from behind the podium at a gay-marriage rally at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Maya Rupert, policy director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, noted that many transgender people in the past felt that major gay-rights groups were reluctant to fully embrace them as constituents.
“It would be unrealistic to say all of the problems that marginalized transgender issues have just disappeared,” Rupert said. “But there’s been a conscious effort to make sure the movement is really focusing on the needs of transgender people.”
In one example of this, Lambda Legal recently announced the creation of a Transgender Rights Project.
Also, the organization formerly known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation officially changed its name to GLAAD, saying it did not want a name that suggested any exclusion of transgender people. The change was accompanied by pledges to work harder on behalf of transgender people, particularly in trying to raise public awareness about their lives.
Wilson Cruz, a GLAAD spokesman, said the organization also was ready to expand work on HIV and AIDS initiatives.
“We are very aware there seems to be a lack of focus on the issue,” he said.
Beyond HIV/AIDS, transgender rights and the continuing fight for same-sex marriage, several other challenging issues are on the gay-rights agenda.
Some activists are monitoring congressional debate on immigration reform, hoping that any changes will be fair to the many LGBT people who are in the U.S. illegally.
There also is keen interest in the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, a proposed federal bill which would prohibit employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The bill passed the 22-member Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee earlier this month with support from all the Democrats and three Republicans. However, it’s not clear whether GOP leaders in the House would allow the bill to come to a vote there.
Jon Davidson, legal director of Lambda Legal, said the fact that this bill remains in limbo illustrates the need for gay-rights groups to engage in broad-based advocacy that goes beyond same-sex marriage.
“It doesn’t help you so much if you can get married and then get fired because of that,” he said.
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