Opinion
June 26, 2015

After Marriage Victory, Philanthropy Still Has Work to Do

A scenario has been circulating online in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage. Actually, it’s more of a cautionary tale about a gay man or a lesbian who gets legally married on Sunday and then is fired on Monday for being gay. Like many Internet memes, it has a basis in truth.

That’s because in 13 states where marriage equality is now a reality — even in advance of the court’s decision — married same-sex couples are not protected from employment discrimination based on their sexual orientation. So in the event that employers happen to read a wedding announcement in the newspaper or overhear a conversation in the break room, they can legally fire employee for being gay or lesbian.

This is only one of many examples that leaders of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender  movement are alerting their constituents to -- and the nation as a whole -- to tell them that the struggle to ensure equality and justice is far from over.  

History is instructive here. When the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, giving women the right to vote, many who worked for decades on this issue thought that suffrage in and of itself would lead to equality among the sexes. But as we know only too well, it took another 50 years for a new generation of advocates to build a second movement that would bring us much closer to that reality. And even with all of that progress, there are still gaping disparities.

It’s the same for civil rights. The Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination based on race, and Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage, were both major victories and leaps ahead toward equality and justice. And yet our country is still far from the day when people of color will be truly on equal footing in schools, workplaces, and even neighborhoods.

So where are the next struggles for LGBT people, and what role can philanthropy play as a partner?

Many foundation leaders, even those who recognize the ongoing needs of the LGBT people, will reluctantly explain that their funding priorities are focused in other areas like youth and education or health or criminal-justice reform. They express a genuine desire to help but are unable to do so because there aren’t enough resources to earmark for LGBT grant making.

The good news is that they do not have to do so.

Here’s an example of why that’s the case. Studies have shown that as many as 40 percent of young homeless people who are often out of school and involved in the criminal-justice system are LGBT. These young people are among the most vulnerable and marginalized in a system that still needs a great deal of support. So it follows that any foundation concerned about youth, education, homelessness, or criminal justice must develop and implement strategies that understand and address these young people.

So why not just place a focus on youths or homelessness as a strategy for improving the situation for all young people?

Just as grant makers have learned in their work to support women and girls or communities of color, only specific strategies that take into account the day-to-day realities — what many call the “lived experience” — of LGBT youths will truly begin to address those realities.

In the case of homeless youths, a grant maker would want to better understand why LGBT youths run away from their homes or are kicked out of them. What support services can a family receive to provide a safe and supportive home environment for their gay or transgender child? What’s preventing that same young person from attending and succeeding in school? And what are the key differences between their encounters with law-enforcement officials versus other young people whose identity conforms to societal expectations?

Since marriage equality is now the law of the land, it’s time for philanthropy to turn the prism through which we view LGBT people. Click off the media images of happy couples celebrating their weddings to focus on the homeless kids huddled together for warmth and protection. Switch over to the more than 75 countries where homosexuality is illegal, including the five where it is punishable by death.

Turn the prism again from the media images of successful Caitlin Jenner to the reality that most transgender people — especially transgender women of color — are frequent targets of violence, are underemployed, lack adequate health care, and are overrepresented in prisons and jails, often locked up in the most unsafe environments.

Risk aversion, lack of awareness, or, sadly, in some cases apprehension and discomfort with LGBT issues may keep grant makers from supporting them. But it’s not too late. Opportunities abound to foundations that focus on health, education, young people, international human rights, communities of color, and aging, among other areas of concern, to make a difference in the lives of LGBT people without abandoning grant-making priorities. In short, LGBT issues “fit” with our giving priorities across the board.

So raise a glass with us as we celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling, and then the next day join us in the unfinished work that lies ahead.

Kevin Jennings is executive director of the Arcus Foundation.