By ANN MONTAGUE and ANNETTE GAGNE
On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a sweeping and historic decision that grants gay and lesbian couples the legal right to marry. The ruling invalidates discriminatory laws in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee that had been upheld by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. It requires all 50 states to allow same-sex couples to marry.
This victory for the LGBT community comes on the strength of its decades of work against homophobic stereotypes and unjust laws in the struggle for equal treatment. The Court’s 5-4 opinion holds that state marriage bans violate the “due process” and “equal protection” provisions of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“Today’s decision has been 50 years in the making and will stand with Brown v. Board of Education as one of the landmark civil rights moments of our time,” said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU Executive Director.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision sparked instant victory celebrations, as well as reminders from the LGBTQ community that the road to freedom is long and this decision is just the beginning. “The court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. No longer may this liberty be denied to them,” Justice Anthony Kennedy declared in the majority opinion.
The LGBT movement
How did our rights to the “due process” and “equal protection” guarantees of the 14th Amendment become a reality? Some will credit the lawyers, the Supreme Court justices, and the politicians. But it was the movement of the last 47 years of rebellion and picketing and marching—and most of all, committing the revolutionary act of coming out—that should be credited with this victory.
This Court decision might seem totally rational and just a long time coming to those outside the LGBT community. But for those of us who have been inside the decades of struggle and ongoing work combating the homophobic attitudes in our society, it was an amazing victory and a well-deserved celebration. It illustrated the fact that we did not need to continue a strategy of fighting state by state but that we could win victories for all 50 states.
While the ink was hardly dry on the decision, most activists were thinking, “married one day and fired from your job the next,” but it was important to savor the triumph. All the rainbow lights and flags everywhere were a catharsis and a reminder that people can take on embedded institutional injustice and win. It also propels us forward.
This decision is not just about the act of marriage itself but all the financial benefits that this capitalist society grants based on the social institution of marriage. It was always interesting in the state campaigns for marriage equality that the NGOs insisted in saying, “shouldn’t everyone be able to get married?” while the LGBT union activist’s message was, “why shouldn’t your coworker receive the same rights and benefits that you have?”
Gay liberation took a great leap at 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28 1969 at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City. It was a common police raid of a gay bar where the police routinely harassed bar patrons including physically inspecting trans and drag customers as well as lesbians wearing pants. The legend goes that a cop hit a lesbian in the head with a billy club and handcuffed her, and she turned to the crowd and screamed, “why don’t you do something?” as she was thrown in the police van.
However it started, the importance of the event was not at the beginning but in the fact that the crowds grew every night for five nights as they fought the police. The gatherings included the most marginalized members of society—large numbers of homeless youth, people of color, and drag queens—who were driven by outrage over endless police harassment, and they sparked the modern LGBT movement.
For an in-depth account of the entire five days and nights, see “Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution” by David Carter. Out of the rebellion on the East Coast sprang activist organizations across the country, including the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance.
In 1987, a new generation of activists formed, calling themselves ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), which was driven primarily by gay men and their lesbian allies with the motto, “Silence = Death.” They brought militant activism to Wall Street and the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and shut down the Food and Drug Administration. Their struggle saved lives.
The state-by-state strategy
For the last decade, struggles state by state have taken place to fight against homophobic ballot measures and in some states to pass anti-discrimination legislation to protect the LGBT community.
The national organizations participating in these campaigns were all Inside-the-Beltway lobbying organizations that had achieved nothing. There was no massive outpouring of the community until February 2004, when the mayor of San Francisco directed city-county clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. An issue that was not high on most activists’ lists took center stage and galvanized the community.
Once again, the organizations reverted to a state-by-state strategy. They ignored the clear constitutional precedent in the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Loving v. Virginia, which stated that state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional and that “the right to marry cannot be infringed by the state.” Specifically, the Court said these bans on interracial marriage violated the “due process” and “equal protection” provisions of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Still, the large national LGBT organizations opposed a national strategy that would boldly assert the constitutional right to marriage equality.
These organizations have strong ties to the Democratic Party, which wants nothing to distract from their electoral campaigns. The Human Rights Campaign appointed Democratic fundraiser and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein as its national corporate spokesman for same-sex marriage in 2012.
Just four years ago, as part of the last presidential election, Barack Obama made clear his opposition to marriage equality through his White House Communications Director, Dan Pfeiffer, who told activists at the Net Roots Nation Conference, “The president has never favored same-sex marriage. He is against it.”
The same month, Obama was asked during a White House News Conference about New York’s becoming the latest state to legalize same-sex marriage. He replied, “I think it’s important for us to work through these issues because each community is going to be different, each state is going to be different.” This was the position of all Democratic leaders: Go get it one by one until you have 50 states!
As we move forward to end all LGBT employment discrimination, the same message will be sent by the Democrats to just go state by state. There are still many battles to be fought, and the state-by-state strategy is no longer required because all 50 states are covered by the 14th amendment of the Constitution. There are still 28 states where the LGBT community has no job protection.
We need federal-level protection against workplace discrimination and housing discrimination for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Too often transgendered people have been left out of state civil rights legislation.
Transgender activists have become more visible and are raising their own demands. One example has been Jennifer Gutierrez, the brave trans Latina who interrupted the meeting of predominately white male Democratic Party partisans who were attending a meeting with President Obama. She made her point that transgender immigrants of color are routinely detained in dangerous conditions, brutalized, and sent back to their countries of origin without regard for their safety.
Ben Power, executive director and curator of Northampton’s Sexual Minorities Archive, addressed the marriage form he would like to have, “For myself, what would be ideal is if my marriage form said ‘Partner’ and ‘Partner’ where we fill in our names and that I could check a box for my gender that said ‘Transgender Man.’”
With the Supreme Court Marriage Equality victory behind us, the LGBT community should move forward with a national strategy.
The last LGBT march on Washington was in 2009, and one of the most memorable speakers was a young gay Black man from Mississippi who said simply, “As long as we use a state-by-state strategy, there will always be holes in the map of equality.”