Opinion: Marriage isn't the top issue for LGBT community
While many fight for LGBT marriage rights, workplace fairness is a greater issue, Georgia Equality's Jeff Graham says.
December 14th, 2011
12:53 PM ET

Opinion: Marriage isn't the top issue for LGBT community

Editor’s Note: Jeff Graham is the executive director of Georgia Equality, an organization that works to advance fairness, safety and opportunity for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities in Georgia.  On December 14, he participates in CNN Dialogues, a panel discussion in Atlanta that will address the question, "Has wider exposure of LGBT issues made the American public more accepting of gay rights?"

By Jeff Graham, Special to CNN

In a few short weeks, I will celebrate 23 years of being blessed with a loving and supportive partner.  To us, the issue of marriage equality is of great personal and political importance. However, as a couple who calls Georgia home, the promise of applying for a civil marriage license remains a distant dream. In 1996, the Georgia Legislature voted overwhelmingly to outlaw same-sex marriage. In 2004, 76%  of our neighbors, family and coworkers voted to change the state constitution to forbid the passage of any future laws allowing for gay and lesbian couples to enter into marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Over the past few years, we have donated money to the fight for marriage equality in other states.  We shed tears of sorrow as we watched 28 other states, including California, pass constitutional amendments similar to Georgia’s.  We shed tears of joy at the victories allowing gay and lesbian families to seek various levels of legal recognition in 18 states and the District of Columbia, including the recent win to secure gay marriage in New York.  Next year, we will do the same as we wait to see how voters in Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina will decide the fate of tens of thousands of loving couples when they vote on amendments of their own.

However, as the director of a gay and transgender rights organization, every day I am faced with a more immediate challenge – ensuring that all people are protected against discrimination in the workplace.  Although the right to work is a cherished American value, every few weeks, I receive a call from someone who has been fired from their job or denied a promotion because the are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. They call seeking advice or a referral to file a complaint. I’m the one who has to break the news to them that they have few options. Their employer may have acted unethically but they acted legally.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not recognized as protected classes under federal law. Since 1982, 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation that guarantees workplace fairness for employees who are known or perceived to be gay.  Sixteen of those states and the District of Columbia have extended those protections to transgender individuals. In fact, many people already assume such protections exist. A recent poll from the Center for American Progress shows about three-quarters of those surveyed support the passage of laws that would offer this basic protection.

Organizations throughout the country are currently working to ensure that their own states and municipalities pass legislation and enact policies that will assure that all employees will be treated fairly. This is the issue that many of us working to advance lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender rights see as our top priority.

Here in Georgia, polling done for my organization shows 76% of voters surveyed feel that legislation should be passed to protect state employees from such discrimination.  When the legislature convenes next month, they will debate a bill to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s nondiscrimination policy.  The bill has already gathered the support of 70 representatives with support from Democrats, Republicans and Independents. With enough momentum, this is a victory for equality that can be won.

Our challenge as advocates is to create and sustain that momentum.  Marriage equality is the issue that dominates the headlines and generates discussion at political debates and news programs. Celebrities have taken up the cause and slogans like “NO H8” have been embraced by popular culture.  According to an analysis of census data by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles there are at more than 900,000 same-sex couples in America today. They deserve the right to marry.

Yet there is little attention paid to the fact that the vast majority of the estimated 9 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans could lose their jobs tomorrow if someone doesn’t like who they love or who they are.  The Employment Nondiscrimination Act has been introduced in Congress, however there is little political will to see its passage.

While it is important that we continue to change hearts and minds by pursuing marriage equality, let us not lose sight of the necessity of passing legislation that protects our right to fairness in the workplace.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Graham.

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Michael


    January 12, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |
  2. teddy

    I'm Catholic and realize that in the USA, the country is made up of different poeple. HOWEVER, calling gays that want a partnership with their significant other a MARRIAGE goes against my rights and the right of religious order.

    Marriage is a sacrament of the church. Marriage is between a man & woman. Marriage is by the laws of God & nature.

    Having gays be allowed to make a mockery, tarnish or being able to disrespect other's religious terminologies is just as bad as discriminating against gays.

    If gays want certain rights for their partnership, then call it a CIVIL UNION–end of issue.

    This debate is getting old.....

    January 10, 2012 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
    • geekgirl42

      Marriage is NOT a just a sacrament of the church. It is a contract that is sanctioned and validated by state and federal government that confers upon the entrants a large number of rights and tax provisions that are not accessible in any other contract except a marriage. Matters such as inheritance, health care decisions, social security benefits are all tied up in a neat package that is called "marriage", whether you get it done in a drive-in chapel in Vegas by an Elvis impersonator, or in a Catholic church. By refusing marriage to same-gender couples, you're creating a 2nd class of people-those who are not allowed to enter into the contract of marriage with the person they love and want to commit to.

      January 10, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Bonnie UK

    Can't believe the US is so far behind the UK on these issues. We have civil union, you are not allowed by law to discriminate against a person for their orientation or gender. I am proud to be British, our society has not fallen apart because we honour people as people first then value their diversity. Take a look at our system, maybe it will travel well.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
    • HWB

      You advanced nothing Bonnie, absolutely nothing. Allow people to behave in a veil and weird fashion does nothing to advance humanity. It merely advances the decline of civilization. For that we owe you many thanks.

      January 10, 2012 at 12:28 am | Report abuse |
  4. lacey

    all f@ggots should be deported, we dont need any more QU33RS here. it is not normal or natural to be fur traders or fudge packers, it is sick and disgusting. aids exists for a reason, and it hasnt gone away, if anything the f@gs have gotten worse.

    December 19, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Garvin

      You perpetuate hate, bigotry, prejudice – and the LGBT community is the one who should be deported? You're of the mindset that made it difficult for people with a different skin tone to have a normal life – hate shrouded by some God complex that implies that loving someone else, whoever that may be, is unnatural. It's too bad someone like you has the capacity to spread this hate to other people, especially young people. I'm thankful, that just like racism, people like you slowly fade away into nothing...and are marked in history as the hateful, jaundiced person that you are.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
      • HWB

        You are the sick one. Please enter the gate of Hell and disolve.

        January 10, 2012 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
    • OregonTom

      If you are living in the US lease leave. We don't need people like you.

      December 21, 2011 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Guest

      Its not normal or natural to act like such a cu'nt either

      December 26, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  5. liz

    Thank you for this article. As the founder and executive director of an LGBT health organization, I too worry about the disproportionate emphasis on marriage in our community. It takes too much of our time, media attention and money when our people are dying of health disparities and fired from their jobs. I worry that marriage is more palatable to the masses and therefore easier to swallow than the other pressing issues that limit the lives of LGBT people

    December 17, 2011 at 9:27 am | Report abuse |
  6. NGN

    I want to see legislation banning discrimination against the overqualified in hiring.

    December 14, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mel

    What kind of lawmaker wouldn't support these much needed protections for gay and transgender workers? This is about people being able to take care of themselves and their family. Self-reliance and individual liberty....we've been led to believe these are "conservative values." If that's true, this should be a no-brainer, especially in states like Georgia.

    December 14, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. frank

    Why go through all the drama and expense of a marriage and divorce? Just find someone that hates you and BUY THEM A HOUSE!!!!

    December 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |