Marriage equality has dominated the media and national conversation on LGBT rights for the past several years. But while the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and the American public was voicing its support for marriage equality, many in the LGBT community were left grappling with other national issues like immigration reform and underemployment that traditionally exclude them. And for LGBT people of color, in particular, there were even more barriers to equality.
“When you think about the LGBT community and how people of color are situated within that community compared to the people who are leading it, we are—particularly black LGBT people—we are more likely to be unemployed," said Aisha Moodie-Mills, an advisor on LGBT policy and racial justice at the Center for American Progress. "We are more likely to live in poverty. We are more likely to have families where we’re raising children and be doing that in poverty."
The media tends to perpetuate the image of the LGBT community through a white, middle-class, male framework. But experts and LGBT individuals said this fails to include the diversity—in terms of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender and geographic location—found within the LGBT community.
"There’s still this common misconception that you can’t be black and gay," Ray Mays, Jr., a senior at the University of Mississippi who is both gay and black, told Campus Progress.
Issues that affect heterosexual individuals also affect LGBT people, but oftentimes in a disproportionate manner.
Thirty-five percent of LGBT individuals reported incomes of less than $24,000 a year in a recent Gallup study, which is higher than the 24 percent the general population reported. This may be due, at least in part, to the workplace discrimination that LGBT individuals still face today. In many states, such discrimination is still legal as the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act remains to be passed and signed into law.
Mays emphasized that LGBT individuals growing up in the South or rural areas are often excluded from the national conversations about LGBT rights as well. In many of these rural areas, people refuse to even acknowledge the presence of LGBT individuals in their own communities.
"I think if we were to achieve marriage equality, I think it would be a good place for people to say, 'Hey LGBT people do exist.'," Mays said. "In large cities, people already see that. You’re actually able to say I have a neighbor that’s LGBT. But in rural areas, it’s not spoken as much."
But while marriage equality would be a step forward for the LGBT community, it would not address many issues that LGBT individuals struggle with, such as underemployment, homelessness—up to 40 percent of the homeless are LGBT youth—and school climate. Data shows that 28 percent of all gay students drop out of school, more than three times the dropout rate of their heterosexual peers. When considering any of these issues, the disparities worsen when looking at people of color within the LGBT community.
"Though I believe wholeheartedly in marriage equality, that is not where the lifting of the oppression of LGBT individuals is going to happen," Mays said. "One of the biggest things that I have had to grapple with is being religious and gay, especially in the black community. … There’s a cultural shift that needs to happen, even within the black community. Sometimes, we can be oppressive of ourselves."
Hafid Dumet, a young DREAMer from Connecticut who identifies as LGBT, also told Campus Progress that one of the biggest struggles for him was the tension between his religious background and LGBT identity.
"Being a queer," Dumet said, "it was harder because I will have to confront and challenge my family's cultural and religious background. Coming from a religious background and getting them ready to face—nobody in my family is gay so just facing them…How do I reveal it to them with knowing that I may be rejected from my family and dealing with those consequences?"
These are just a few of the issues LGBT individuals face. Especially for LGBT people of color, there seems to be a lack of data on the full scope of the barriers to achieving full equality in society. A new report released by the Center for American Progress, "Jumping the Broom: Why Black Gay and Transgender Americans Need More Than Marriage Equality," highlighted the need for more high-quality data about the challenges that LGBT people of color face.
In order for these issues to be properly addressed, Moodie-Mills, who authored the report, argued that it will take an integrated approach—one that, she said, the Millennial generation understands.
“This is something I get really excited about Millennials for: The younger generations of people get this best," she said. "But we start to really shift culture and transform policy landscape when we have LGBT people, and we think about LGBT people in the context of all of the policy issues that we’re talking about, not just a segregated off group that has a special interest."
Yet, Moodie-Mills noted that the ability to rally outside the Supreme Court—as thousands did when the court was hearing arguments on marriage equality—is a privilege that many people of color do not have.
“That type of activism is actually a luxury that you have when you have economic stability that unfortunately a lot of queer people of color, particularly queer youth of color, don’t have—to be able to be present and to drop everything that they’re doing, to be able to ditch school if they’re in college, to travel into the District of Columbia,” she told Campus Progress.
However, Mays noted that while this is a significant problem, those people who are not able to attend events like the rallies at the Supreme Court can still make a huge difference.
"Let your life be the message," Mays said. "The visibility of being in front of the Supreme Court matters, and everyday activism matters. But those personal conversations with people—that’s where you impact people the most. When you show people that you’re just like everyone else. You’re a productive human being who rights are being suppressed."