LGBT civil rights activist tells students what comes next

At the beginning of her speech this Wednesday, teacher, writer, and LGBT rights activist Robyn Ochs addressed her audience: “On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the constitution of the United States guarantees all people the freedom to marry.” Of course, this fact was met with an overwhelming chorus of hoots and hollers from the audience. She followed this with the question: “So what’s next, folks? Are we done?” An overwhelming “no” resonated from the audience.

This question accentuates a key message in Ochs’ speech, titled “What do we do after ‘we do?’ ” According to Ochs, though the nation made an extreme stride with marriage equality, total equality is not yet fully realized. This is a fact not unique to the LGBT population in America; African American civil rights are in a similar place. Even after the movement in the ’60s, civil rights have never stopped being a contested issue in the United States, and LGBT issues seem to be no different. The crowd unanimously agreed on this point.

Suffice it to say, progress has come more swiftly than expected. When Ochs asked the crowd if anyone once believed that marriage equality would never occur in their lifetime, nearly half of the 40-some attendees rose their hands in agreement. Similarly, half of the audience raised their hands when asked, “how many of you identify as LGBT and plan to be closeted at work?” Ochs pointed to both of these engagements as a representation of both the success in recent years, but also existing social stigmas regarding the LGBT community that should change.

To show the audience’s agreement with these facts, Ochs engaged attendees in an open discussion about what has changed for LGBT youth in students’ lifetimes. Positive changes mentioned included the elimination of homosexuality as a mental disorder; the increasing awareness of multiple sexual identities; the first usage of the terms “bisexual” and “transgender” by a U.S. president in a State of the Union address; more open professionals in politics, sports, the armed forces, and in the media; among many other positive social shifts.

At the same time, Ochs asked attendees to express persisting issues, or new issues that have arisen, pointing to the fact that there is still action that needs to be taken. Very subtle, but very notable, is the absence of homosexual relationships in sexual education in schools nationwide. A tragedy, and a more pressing issue, is the fact that 50 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT. Attendees scoffed at the fact that blood donation requires that an individual be straight to donate blood. Ochs followed this with the joke “let’s just eliminate heteronormalcy altogether.” Heteronormativity is a big contributor to mental health issues among LGBT youth, and still stigmatizes homosexual couples. Heteronormativity also allows homophobia to pervade certain parts of U.S. society.

“In 29 states, you can be fired for being LGBT,” Ochs said. State law does not regulate the discriminatory firing of LGBT employees simply for the reason of their sexual identity. This is something that can be solved simply through legislation, and it’s actually easier for a citizen to get involved in lawmaking than one might think, Ochs said.

“U.S. citizens out of state, mail in and set up your absentee ballot now. It’s essential that you vote in the coming months,” Ochs said. This is merely the first step. Local representatives, senators, and federal congresspersons have a more influential role in lawmaking than the president does. In last year’s midterm elections, voter apathy was a main contributor to the major swing from left to right in both houses of congress.

Preventing this swing is not the only thing that allows students to involve themselves in legislation. Mailing lists keep constituents aware of what legislation comes up in state lawmakers’ offices. This is a low time commitment, but can keep activists up-to-date on what type of lawmaking decisions are facing the lawmakers from their district. “What a mailing list means is if they’re trying to get a bill passed, such as non-discrimination, legislators need to vote for that bill. Mailing lists may email blast you saying ‘we want to pass bill blah-blah-blah: Click to see who your state legislator is,’ ” Ochs said.

This brought Ochs to an important point: calling your local legislator. Most people are averse to calling their local lawmaker, but it’s not as daunting as they might assume. “I want to say something about calling a legislator.

It can sound really scary, calling to lobby for a bill, but here’s the truth about it: On a legislator’s aid desk, there is a sheet of paper for every issue, and what they do is tally the number of yes and no votes for each issue,” Ochs said.

All a constituent really needs to do is call in the office, and tell the senator or congressperson where they stand on a bill, and nothing else. Ochs noted that because so few call in to lobby for their opinion, legislators typically take these few opinions as an accurate representation of what their district wants. A question then presents itself: Why isn’t there more equality legislation passed nationwide if the LGBT community is so politically active?

It is an incorrect assumption that the LGBT community is overall proactively involved in civil rights legislation, Ochs said. Objectively, it may seem that the community is not very involved in promoting its own positions.

“One of the statistics that most analysts make is that only something under five percent of the LGBT community give any money at all to groups who support their causes,” Ochs said.

The change can happen from without, but it was clear during this whole discussion that first it must come from within the LGBT community. “I want to challenge every single person, including every single person in this room, to step up to the plate,” Ochs said.

LGBT students on Carnegie Mellon’s own campus can reach out to their community and can stop minority stress (“the concept that stigma prejudice and discrimination create a hostile and stressful social environment”) themselves, and can start pushing for more equality legislation. — it is really about getting out there and actively solving problems and less about pontificating over what problems persist.