Op-Ed: Can it be? Our laws regarding LGBT people are more tolerant than we are

The tall young man, the head of a major LGBT civil rights organization, looked out at his audience and asked what seemed, in 2011, like a preposterous question. “Is it possible,” he wanted to know, “that in the years to come we will be able to declare the movement over? That we will have reached, at long last, a time in which our goals will have been achieved?”

Many in the audience, which largely consisted of LGBT activists, scratched our heads and smirked. The movement over? It seemed impossible to imagine that a day might come when the work of the civil rights movement for LGBT people could ever be considered complete.

And yet, the last few years have left many Americans dizzy at the speed of progress, whether gay, straight, transgender or cisgender (an antonym of “trans” that applies to those comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth). At times it’s been hard even to keep track of the string of marriage-equality victories. Marriage equality is now the law in 37 states; in six others, courts have overturned the ban on same-sex marriage, but those rulings are being appealed. And the Supreme Court is expected to resolve the legal battle over marriage equality by June.

As I travel the country speaking about LGBT rights, I’ve begun to hear, with some earnestness, the question that seemed so preposterous to me just four years ago. Are we all done, then? Is it time to furl the rainbow flags and head home?


The answer, alas, is no, and not only because marriage equality is far from the only issue, or even the most important issue, affecting our community. Across the country, a gap has emerged between progress on the legislative front and progress that still needs to be made in Americans’ hearts. Marriage equality and anti-discrimination laws have achieved remarkable victories in statehouses, electoral referendums and the courts. But full acceptance is as elusive as ever.

In some ways, the terrain is reminiscent of the divide that opened, culturally, in the aftermath of the ruling in Loving vs. Virginia, invalidating laws against interracial marriage. The Supreme Court issued its ruling in 1967. But a majority of Americans still disapproved of interracial marriage nearly three decades later, in 1995. And although the number of Americans who approve of interracial marriage now stands at 87%, a cursory inspection of the national conversation concerning recent events in Ferguson, Mo., reminds us that racism is alive and well.

In an effort to measure the emerging cultural gap on LGBT issues, GLAAD — where I serve on the board of directors — commissioned a Harris poll last summer to measure the level of self-reported comfort with various aspects of LGBT life among straight, cisgender Americans. The results, to say the least, are sobering.

About 1 in 3 Americans reported feeling uncomfortable attending a same-sex wedding. A total of 43% said they would feel some discomfort bringing a child to a same-sex wedding. And 27% said they’d feel uncomfortable simply looking at a gay co-worker’s wedding picture. These numbers remain fairly close whether the state has marriage equality laws on its books or not.

The statistics are just as disheartening when it comes to perceptions of LGBT people as parents. About 1 in 3 Americans, according to the Harris poll, believes that a household with two married same-sex individuals, regardless of gender, is somewhat or very harmful to children. Americans are four times more uncomfortable with a gay woman supervising children than a straight one.

The numbers, unsurprisingly, are even more discouraging when it comes to perceptions of transgender individuals. About 40% of Americans show levels of discomfort with a transgender person supervising children — more than 10 percentage points higher than if the adult were a gay mom or dad. More than a third say they’d feel discomfort playing on a sports team that included a transgender athlete.

No one should be shocked that trans rights remain significantly behind the acceptance of gay, lesbian and bisexual people, if only because, until recently, there were so few positive examples of trans people in the public eye. The days in which trans men and women were considered easy, hilarious fodder for tabloid talk shows or tragic victims on crime dramas seem to be waning, even as new and better stories emerge — like those of the character played by Laverne Cox in “Orange Is the New Black,” or Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent.” But the struggle for equal rights for the T remains well behind the one for the L and G and B.

The Harris poll shows even higher discomfort in the South with nearly every LGBT issue. Surely the movement faces an extra level of resistance below the Mason-Dixon line. But this is a national issue, not a Southern one.

Several years ago, I was asked by a well-regarded private school to address the student body and talk about my life as a transgender woman. In response, a number of parents had their children excused from school that day, worried that their sons and daughters might have been harmed simply by hearing me speak. Alabama, you ask? Mississippi? No. Massachusetts.

It’s been said many times that you can’t legislate morality, and that’s true. But it’s just as true that you can’t legislate openheartedness. We have reached a moment in our history when our laws, as far as LGBT citizens are concerned, may have become more tolerant than we are. And that should give everyone pause.

There is plenty more legal work ahead, in the courts and in the statehouses. But in some ways, the more difficult challenge has barely been addressed — reducing the level of discomfort among straight and cisgender people so that the men and women who increasingly enjoy legal protections in this country can also be accepted, respected and loved.

The battle to change the laws is nearing its end. The battle to open people’s hearts is just beginning.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, co-chair of GLAAD’s board of directors, is a professor of English at Barnard College of Columbia University.

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