Are gay marriage advocates ignoring some LGBT people’s fight to survive?

Some critics and international gay rights advocates say focus on marriage in US in shortsighted

Supporters of same-sex marriage celebrate after the Illinois General Assembly passed a gay marriage bill on Nov. 7.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Moses Kimbugwe is seeing another man, but their prospects for marriage — or even romance — aren’t great. While a growing number of American states, and other nations in Europe and elsewhere, now recognize gay marriage, Kimbugwe does not live in one of those places. He is a gay rights activist living in Uganda, where parliament passed a law in December that calls for a life prison sentence for certain acts of what it calls “aggravated homosexuality.”

“I am dating someone, and I know many friends of mine who have boyfriends, however they are short-lived,” he said. “Gay life is challenging, scarily … to the extent that at the moment, even close friends, family members … have abandoned gay people for fear of their lives too, with the notion that the law might also catch them.”

At a time when many people are lauding the progress gay rights activists have made in predominantly Western nations — and especially on the issue of gay marriage — some believe the positive headlines are overlooking the still forbidding global picture. But, perhaps more troubling, Americans and Europeans need not look so far as Uganda — or the more than one-third of the world where being gay is illegal — to find LGBT people living in fear.

Two men got married on a float for the first time on New Year's Day at the 2014 Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., in what gay rights advocates called a major coup for gays in American society. Marriage isn’t only about marriage existentially, they say, but about equalizing gay relationships in the minds of straight counterparts.

But just before New York City's Gay Pride Parade last year, Mark Carson, 32, was shot dead for his sexual orientation in the West Village, a historical center of gay culture and the movement for rights. His death in a neighborhood that has represented strength and resilience in the LGBT community dealt a deep psychological blow to many in the area.

“It’s hard to place (Carson’s) death in the national conversation on the progress we are making” with marriage rights, said Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, an LGBT rights organization. “What we know from (our data) is that this violence is not uncommon — across the country and New York City. It’s not uncommon for people to be killed for who they are.”

Victory for ‘privileged’

With all the praise heaped by social liberals in the West on the gay rights movement for advances in marriage equality, Stapel said it is easy for what many call the more privileged members of the gay community to lose sight of traditionally marginalized elements of the community in the United States and abroad.

“The other thing that’s important to talk about when we are juxtaposing LGBT civil rights against a construct of marriage is who is most vulnerable to violence in this country — people of color (like Carson) are more likely to face hate-based violence, and gender-nonconforming people are much more likely to experience violence," Stapel said.

While Stapel said marriage rights are important, she acknowledged that there are quarters of the LGBT community, in the U.S. and abroad, where survival is a more pressing concern.

“Indeed, given that Americans who marry and stay married are far more likely to be white, educated and wealthier, it is clear that marriage benefits those members of the LGBT community who already have the most privileges,” said Laurie Essig, a leading voice on LGBT social issues and professor in women’s and gender studies at Middlebury College.

Essig has contended in various articles on the topic that group-think on the issue of gay marriage prevents some in the LGBT community from observing that, globally, incarcerations, hate crimes, the death penalty and social justice issues are very clear and present dangers.

Noor Sultan, a Cairo-based Egyptian-Sudanese gay rights advocate, told Al Jazeera that according to her organization, Bedayaa, nearly 55 percent of 187 randomly surveyed LGBT people in 2013 reported they had been attacked in an anti-gay hate crime. The number was down from nearly 80 percent the previous year, under the administration of the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated former President Mohamed Morsi.

But, said Stapel of the Anti-Violence Project, it is difficult to gauge whether fluctuations in violence statistics represent shifts in violence or victims’ willingness to report instances of violence.

For people like Sultan, the Western-led discourse on marriage rights is irrelevant, as happy as she is for Western LGBT people.

“We are still fighting to live safely and securely and not get arrested or killed, so gay marriage is not our priority at the moment,” she said.

Missing the point?

Although Sultan said there are a variety of legal and social factors in Egypt and Sudan that result in the perils faced by the LGBT communities there, she added that she feels Western gays don’t really care what happens in those parts of the world.

“Solidarity is important to help those who face persecution every day,” she said. But if Western gays take on Middle Eastern and African gay rights as their new cause celebre after gay marriage, she added, they “should be aware when it is the right time to help,” since anti-gay voices in the region typically dismiss homosexuality as a Western phenomenon.

Africa is not without its own gay rights advocates — even if advocacy means simply existing in places where homosexuality is illegal. The renowned Kenyan writer and pan-Africanist Binyavanga Wainaina told the U.K. newspaper The Guardian on Tuesday that he is gay, and that he will continue to travel to Nigeria, where recently passed legislation means up to 14 years in jail for LGBT people, and to Uganda.

Gloating over progress on marriage has distracted from more pressing socioeconomic issues in the U.S., some say.

Essig, who lived in Russia — where President Vladimir Putin told reporters Sunday that the country needed to “cleanse” itself of gays to increase its birth rate — said the LGBT community there is not concerned with marriage. And it’s not only the fact that they face anti-gay legislation that some say has emboldened perpetrators of hate crimes. She said a marriage-based discourse on rights is distinctly Western.

“Queer Russians most definitely do not speak about marriage rights as much as American gays and lesbians, but then again straight Russians don’t either,” Essig said. “The U.S. obsession with marriage is rather specific — not just to American culture, but to particular sorts of Americans.

“Straight or gay, if you’re white and you have wealth and property, marriage is probably an important issue to you. Straight or gay, if you’re poor and struggling to survive, you need a lot more than a white wedding and dreams of happily ever after.”

While some believe marriage equality serves to equalize perceptions of gays among the straight population, Stapel said there is no evidence to show that violence against LGBT people has subsided in her city or state since marriage was legalized there nearly three years ago — her organization still receives 400 to 500 reports of hate-based violence a year. And discussion about benefits through marriage appears to have stymied a larger, individual-based discussion on socioeconomic justice, Essig said.

“What would be good for most people — regardless of marital status — is a more equitable distribution of wealth in this country, access to health care, education, and livable-wage jobs,” Essig said. “Marriage is, once these things are achieved, a personal choice. But until everyone has access to these things, marriage is a sign of privileging a minority of Americans.”

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