Thursday, June 27, 2013

DOMA, the VRA, and the Supreme Court

Image Courtesy of Salon

Recently, the Supreme Court has passed down a number of extremely important rulings, two of which are quite close to me. Just yesterday they struck down DOMA as unconstitutional, thus allowing for same-sex couples to have the same federal benefits as heterosexuals and also ruled Prop 8 as unconstitutional, thus paving the way for same-sex marriage in California.[1] Yet, two days ago they also gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, specifically that part which reads that certain states must consult the federal government prior to changing their voting laws, as to not disenfranchise people.[2] While I am happy that DOMA and Prop 8 were shot down, I honestly don’t know how to feel about the entire situation when you couple the DOMA/Prop 8 rulings with the VRA ruling since I am affected by both as a gay black man
I don’t know how to feel as when I look at the entire situation in terms of the LGBT community, the main focus is on same-sex marriage, which, while needed, is arguably ignoring other important facets of life such as work-place discrimination of LGBT individuals, which is all the more problematic given another Supreme Court ruling which stated that harassment from someone on the job was completely fine as long as that person was not a supervisor. A supervisor defined as “someone whose authority primarily consists of the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee,”[3] thus allowing for situations where an LGBT persons (or anyone for that matter) could have slurs hurled at them and if that person wasn’t someone who couldn’t directly fire them, there would be no accountability whatsoever.

The striking down of the key part of the VRA has already had immediately negative effects as Texas, North Carolina, and Mississippi are all starting to plan ways hurt people of color as well as other groups that usually vote Democrat, by enacting strict voter ID laws.[4] Yet, these voter ID laws would hurt transgender people the most as well as LGBT people of color more generally. Last election it was reported that thousands of transgender people would be disenfranchised due to voter ID laws.[5] However, this is where the problems of race and gender within the LGBT community become quite apparent.

When examining the LGBT community, one sees that there is a serious problem of racism and transphobia. One example is in LGBT media, where the main focus is on white middle class men as that media is “Traditionally founded and run by white, middle class men, these outlets often featured images that reflected these gay men or their tastes” and even when these outlets moved to include people of color, they “would generally look as though they'd been raised in a white, middle class, suburban neighborhood.”[6]

Yet, this ignoring of LGBT people of color is more than just in the LGBT media. Patrick S. Cheng wrote on Huffington Post in 2011

Recently, the queer Asian community in New York City was outraged by plans for a new gay party to be called "Mr. Wong's Dong Emporium." The event, conceived by Joey Izrael and the gay rapper Cazwell, was advertised using highly offensive language and stereotypes about Asian Americans, including a "Sum Hung Boys erotic dance troupe" and a "Happy Ending massage den." 
To add insult to injury, when members of the queer Asian community spoke up and objected to this party, many non-Asian gay men dismissed these concerns by saying that it was just campy fun and that we needed to "lighten up." 
Fortunately, the Gay Asian and Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY) refused to be silent. GAPIMNY published an open letter to the party promoters explaining why this party was so offensive to the queer Asian community. 
To their credit, the promoters apologized and changed the name and theme of the party. Whether or not this becomes a teaching moment for the broader LGBT community remains to be seen, however.[7]

Consistently, whenever gay people are bought up, what is seen in the national media is middle and upper-class gay white men who conform to gender norms.

On a personal level, while I think that we are one step closer to same-sex marriage, I also become more and more worried with each step that occurs. Specifically, I am worried that the larger American society, once same-sex marriage has been legalized nationwide, will pat themselves on the backs and think that the problems in the LGBT community are over, while ignoring others within the community such as transgender, asexual, and bisexual people.

In regards to transphobia within parts of the LGBT community, it needs to be realized that transphobia on the part of lesbians and gays is “a response to power relations specifically defined by US historical conditions. This type of GL vs. T transphobic response is not seen in many other nations, and it is variable within regions of the US itself.”[8] Yet while this may be a reaction to historical US power relations, the political effects for members of the LGBT community are quite real, specifically with the separation of the GL portion, which came with ignoring other members of the community.
Over time, the “GL” portion of the platform became increasingly acceptable to the population at large, both through increased education and desensitization of the public and by disavowing the more unacceptable elements of the movement. At the same time, this political success fueled a separatist culture, which bisexuals and transgenders threatened to dilute and homogenize.[9]
Thus, the racial, sex and gender-based, as well as class-based oppressive systems that exist within the overall society are in many ways reflected within the LGBT community and we need to realize that it is time that the community sit down and have a long, truthful discussion about these systematic reflections.


1: Abby D. Phillip, “Supreme Court Bolsters Gay Marriage Advocates in DOMA, Prop 8 Rulings,” ABC News, June 26, 2013 (

2: Erin McClam, Pete Williams, “Supreme Court Strikes Down Part of Voting Rights Act,” NBC News, June 25, 2013 (

3: Ian Millhiser, The Scariest Pending Supreme Court Case That You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, Think Progress, (June 24, 2013)

4: Aviva Shen, Two Hours After The Supreme Court Gutted The Voting Rights Act, Texas AG Suppresses Minority Voters, Think Progress, (June 25, 2013)

5: Jody L. Herman, The Potential Impact of Voter Identification Laws on Transgender Voters, The Williams Institute, (April 2012)

6: Colby Scott, Skin Deep: Gay Racism Comes Out,, (February 16, 2012)

7: Patrick S. Cheng, “'Mr. Wong's Dong Emporium': Racism and the Gay Community,” Huffington Post, September 28, 2011 (

8: Jillian T. Weiss, Transphobia In the Gay Community, The Bilerco Project, (December 9, 2009)

9: Jillian T. Weiss, “GL vs. BT: The Archaeology of Biphobia and Transphobia Within the U.S. Gay and Lesbian Community,” Journal of Bisexuality 3:3 (2004), pg 40

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