Liberal equality is inevitable, so what now?

This post originally appeared on Oklahomans for Reproductive Justice.

At this point, it seems like liberal equality for GLBTQ individuals is virtually inevitable. The long-run Gallup polling on public opinion towards gay marriage has shown a gradual — and more recently punctuated — increase in support. Support for gay marriage is up in all demographic categories, and has recently pushed above the 50 percent mark. More importantly for the inevitability thesis, younger people support gay marriage as massively higher margins than older people. In 2011, 70 percent of those aged 18-34 supported gay marriage, while only 39 percent of those over the age of 55 did. As more young people come of age and more old people die, the already majoritarian support for gay marriage will continue to grow.

The gay marriage polling mirrors similar polling about workplace discrimination, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and presumably tracks the support levels for so-called liberal reforms. Here, I use “liberal reforms” to refer to reforms which do not challenge underlying institutions or systems, but simply try to modify those institutions so as to include GLBTQ people. So for instance, instead of challenging the justness of a system that denies certain social benefits to unmarried people, the liberal reformer simply tries to ensure that GLBTQ people can get married too.

While well-funded GLBTQ institutions have almost exclusively focused on liberal equality, and that seems to be the sort of equality that has captured the popular imagination, queer groups have critiqued that emphasis. In its place, queer groups have — at least nominally — emphasized a more systematic analysis that includes the intersection of GLBTQ oppression with oppression rooted in race, class, imperialism, and so on. The argument is that including GLBTQ people in the present slate of institutions wont generate justice if those institutions are themselves unjust.

With liberal inequality appearing more and more inevitable, the question on my mind is: what now? How many GLBTQ people and their allies have actually adopted the more radical queer position in this movement? Is it enough to have any impact after liberal equality? And if so, how best can that impact be realized? According to a 2011 survey, 3.5 percent of those aged 18-44 identified as GLBT, 8.2 percent claimed to have had a same-sex sexual encounter, and 11 percent admitted to at least some same-sex sexual attraction. In total numbers, the estimated number of people identifying as GLBT in the US is around 9 million, with 700,000 of those identifying as transgender.

Reliable information about general GLBT political opinions is hard to come by. We know that in the 2010 mid-term elections, 31 percent of self-identified GLBT voters went Republican. Although that number by itself gives only a very partial picture of things, it does at least establish a hard floor on the number of GLBT-identified people who almost certainly do not accept the queer critique. What percentage of Democratic voters and non-voters accept it is hard to determine. Whatever the number, there is clearly a significant slice of GLBTQ people who do not pursue the deeper queer critique, and that poses trouble for the future of the movement beyond liberal equality.

More than that, despite its efforts at differentiation from a feminist past that focused on the issues of upper-class white people, it is not clear how successful the queer-driven feminism has been at avoiding an upper-class white focus. The women of color feminist critiques brought against the movement today are not all that dissimilar from the womanist critiques from the 1980s. The campus orientation of many of these groups also likely tilt them towards the whiter and richer side of things given what populations attend universities in the US. If these critiques are legitimate — and as an outside observer they seem to be — then, going forward, this reality also poses difficulties for the possibility of a successful queer movement aimed at deeper social justice issues.

I cannot predict the future, but I can say that certain trends and persistent problems point to possible issues in the near future for the efficacy of the queer slice of the GLBT movement. The non-queer slices may jump ship once liberal equality is achieved, and I am sure allies will also check out in droves. With that being a possibility, there should be some thought going into what the best way to handle that will be, if indeed it does happen.