Reproductive justice, marriage equality, and undocumented youth: The racial politics of movement success

As a queer, immigrant Latina and a woman of reproductive age, last week caused me to have basically all the feelings. Between Supreme Court decisions that heavily undercut the rights of communities of color and those that expand marriage rights for queer folks; between Texans rising up against a package of anti-choice measures and the Senate passing an immigration reform that includes millions for the militarization of the border while creating a path to citizenship for undocumented folks – it’s been a lot to process. But one of the upsides of living at these intersections is that the connections between everything become pretty clear, and I can’t help but see many lessons for our movements for justice in the events of last week and all the work that has led up to them.  One of the most important lessons I see here is around how social justice movements are looking at political success and wins – who we look to as models, how we define success and who the winners are – and I think we’re too often doing it wrong.

In the past few years I have heard over and over – usually from straight women – that the reproductive health movement should look to the marriage equality movement as a model for success. With the recent Supreme Court decisions around marriage equality, I expect to hear this now more than ever.  And yet every time I hear this, I shudder. Not just because the marriage equality movement – one that has largely been led by wealthy, white gays – has been so problematic, but because it is being said in the face of an extremely successful movement led by undocumented youth, the overwhelming majority of whom are people of color, many of whom are also women, and many of whom are also queer.

Now, I understand exactly where this is coming from. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’re likely aware that access to reproductive health care is under heavy attack both at the state level and federally. In the last five years we’ve seen an unprecedented number of state abortion restrictions, the murder of Dr. Tiller, and even further rollbacks to the public and private insurance coverage of abortion in health care reform. And it’s not limited to abortion access – contraceptive coverage in health care reform remains a controversial issue, and the Obama Administration was, up until very recently, putting up a fight against allowing emergency contraception over the counter without age restrictions despite ample scientific evidence of its safety.

In short, the reproductive health, rights, and justice movements have been playing a largely defensive game, and it’s tempting to want to model after a movement that has seen such a rapid shift in public opinion and so many policy wins in a short amount of time. What seems lost in this argument, however, is not only that marriage is ultimately a very conservative ask, but that its success as a demand is inherently connected to this fact.


Brilliant and extensive critiques of marriage – and alternative solutions – exist already, but it’s important to re-emphasize here some key ways in which marriage equality leaves the dominant power structure untouched. Marriage allows for the sharing of private benefits and assets within the context of a state-sanctioned relationship. While this may greatly benefit folks who have assets or benefits to share (e.g. health care, citizenship, etc.), it presents less of a material gain for those who don’t – i.e., immigrants and low-income queer folks, disproportionately people of color. Instead of focusing on strategies that would improve the material conditions of all (universal health care, comprehensive immigration reform), marriage equality advocacy implies that rights such as access to health care are ones that we must gain through our private access to resources. This is not to say that the repeal of DOMA does not make a huge difference in the lives of many people – clearly it does, and we are better for having repealed it. But for a couple who are both working food services jobs with no benefits, health care will not materialize once they are able to marry; neither will work permits or visas for an undocumented couple.

This fact – that marriage equality does not present any real shift in power or resources toward the folks who most need it – has been absolutely key to its success. Not convinced? Take a look at some of the folks who’ve been shelling out the big bucks for this work: hedge fund managers, drone manufacturers – groups otherwise unrecognizable as progressive, and in fact deeply right wing. Moreover, the marriage ideal plays into a politics of gay respectability that is very raced and classed. Convincing the general public that gays are “just like you” – affluent, well-educated couples that just want to buy homes and do their taxes more easily and love each other – has been a large part of the movement’s strategy, and makes pretty clear who the “you” is that we’re talking about in that “just like you” (hint: not poor brown folks).

Compare this to the movement of undocumented youth who have been demanding a series of reforms to the U.S. immigration system – most notably the DREAM Act. Through a series of direct actions over the last few years, undocumented young people have taken remarkable risks to demand an end to deportations and a comprehensive reform to our inhumane immigration policy. They have staged sit-ins, infiltrated detention centers, made connections between movements, resisted the narratives that demonize their parents for bringing them when they themselves “had no choice,” and spoken up for undocumented youth whose past may include run-ins with a criminal (in)justice system that targets them.  Their grassroots organizing, their strong agenda, and their direct action tactics are directly responsible for the fact that we are engaging in a national conversation around immigration reform today – no small feat given that immigration has not traditionally a been a big winner of an issue in the past decade for either Democrats or Republicans. And though the undocumented young folks who can be credited with this work are far from achieving their larger vision of justice – the bill that cleared the Senate on Friday is definitely not it – they have begun a conversation around demands that require an actual shift in power, access, and resources.

So why is it that I haven’t heard a ton of folks in the reproductive health and rights world talk about the success of undocumented youth?  To all those who have ever thought about why we don’t model ourselves after marriage equality without ever thinking of the success of undocumented young people putting everything on the line to have their voices heard, I challenge you to ask yourself why that is. What I see is a movement largely led by wealthy white people getting social and political recognition, while an extremely effective movement led by young people of color – many of whom are women, many of whom are queer – is being largely ignored as a model for successful organizing around a once unpopular cause.

It’s time that we paid attention to the forces behind movements’ political successes, and what that says about whom they are ultimately serving. It says a lot about the ways that racism plays out in progressive communities when a movement that has been led largely by wealthy white folks gets consistently named as the one to model – even when the demand is conservative, even when queer and trans folks of color consistently call out its racism, even when a successful movement led by those who are some of the most distinct targets of injustice in our society is under way. In mainstream reproductive health and rights circles, undocumented youth might get a few kudos, maybe some “they’re so brave.” But from there it moves on quickly, without further analysis, as though there were nothing there from which we could possibly learn. This has incredibly deep implications that go beyond just perceptions of success, but cut into reputability, access to funding and resources, and ultimately movements’ progress, sustainability, and survival.

We have a lot of work ahead of us in the reproductive health, rights, and justice movements, and it would indeed serve us well to take time to look at the successes and failures of other social justice movements. Let’s just make sure we’re looking at the full picture, and that we are doing so with a critical race analysis. Those who don’t study history, they say, are doomed to repeat it – let’s at least not make that mistake.

New York, NY

Verónica Bayetti Flores has spent the last years of her life living and breathing reproductive justice. She has led national policy and movement building work on the intersections of immigrants' rights, health care access, young parenthood, and LGBTQ liberation, and has worked to increase access to contraception and abortion, fought for paid sick leave, and demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color. In 2008 Verónica obtained her Master’s degree in the Sexuality and Health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She loves cooking, making art, listening to music, and thinking about the ways art forms traditionally seen as feminine are valued and devalued. In addition to writing for Feministing, she is currently spending most of her time doing policy work to reduce the harms of LGBTQ youth of color's interactions with the police and making sure abortion care is accessible to all regardless of their income.

Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and rabble-rouser.

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