The Journey for Equality Is Far From Over
“Marriage equality is now inevitable”, “Isn’t this country’s fight for equality for LGBT Americans done?” These are phrases that have been uttered countless times over the last two months. We are at a pivotal moment in the battle for freedom, equality and acceptance of LGBT people. Huge gains in the courts and legislatures across the country have us at a tipping point, a turning point and many think the job is practically done.
But the finish line is still further off in the distance than most believe. Despite the landmark decisions by the United States Supreme Court and those enormous victories, the fight continues.
The Supreme Court did not legalize gay marriage across the country, rather the court validated the need for federal recognition of legal marriages in those 13 states and the District of Columbia where marriage was already legal for gays and lesbians. It remains illegal in 35 states for same sex couples to marry. Add to that fact that there is no federal law to protect LGBT people from employment discrimination; it remains legal in 29 states to discriminate based on sexual orientation, and in 34 states to do so based on gender identity or expression; the majority of same-sex couples are denied marriage equality and the over 1,100 federal benefits and protections that go with recognition of marriage; and gay youth are 3 times more likely to be bullied than straight teens and 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people.
Our brave gay men and women in the military don’t have equal benefits or protections, despite the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; undocumented LGBT workers have no immigration protections and US LGBT citizens can’t sponsor their foreign born partners for green cards; and parenting rights for LGBT people remain uneven and unpredictable from state to state. We quickly realize how much more there is to do.
Opponents of marriage equality have been energized by the Supreme Court victories, with their supporters working tirelessly to stop efforts to overturn state constitutional gay marriage bans, and launching efforts to pass an amendment to the United States Constitution banning gay marriage. In most states, the decision whether to legalize same sex marriage will be made by the voters who will be asked to vote on repealing their state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Importantly, national public attitudes have evolved and a majority of Americans favor full equality for LGBT Americans, including marriage equality. So why does full equality under the law remain elusive?
Within the LGBT community there are differences of opinion about how the struggle for equality should proceed.
Should we pursue an incremental strategy, chipping away in small bites at the many ways in which our community is treated unequally or should we pursue a comprehensive and aggressive strategy that fights for full legal recognition on every front?
In determining our path going forward, we should look to the past and learn from the leaders of the civil rights battles that have come before us.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963 that “I had …hoped the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom…(Some were arguing that civil rights needed to wait for a “more convenient season”) Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills… Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Important lessons come from the women’s suffrage movement as well. As Susan B. Anthony said, “Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation or social standards never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest are willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathies with despised ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences.”
As history’s most gay friendly President finishes his second term in the White House, significant questions continue to be asked. Should we proceed cautiously and carefully? Or should we boldly demand that the candidates and elected officials we support publicly commit to full equality – including marriage equality throughout the country? If we push too hard for our rights – our full rights – will we create a backlash?
Fifty years ago Dr. King dismissed the notion of “backlash” against the black civil rights movement. He stated, “There really is no white backlash, because that gives the impression that the nation had decided it was going to solve this problem and then there was a step back because of development in the civil rights movement. The fact is that America has been back lashing on the civil rights question for centuries now…The backlash is merely the surfacing of prejudices, of hostilities, of hatreds and fears that already existed and they are just now starting to open.”
The lessons of history are clear – equality cannot wait for a convenient time, society only moves toward equality when challenged to do so. Change does not come through cautious inaction, but through principled insistence. A backlash isn’t a reaction; it is the surfacing of long-standing resentments and misunderstandings that can only be addressed if brought out into the open.
And the most important lesson is this – social justice battles are never easy, and they are never short, but throughout our nation’s history, these battles have resulted in the expansion of equality to people who had previously been denied equal treatment under the law.
Yes, we can rejoice in the extraordinary accomplishments achieved in the last several decades in the battle for LGBT civil rights. We have achieved things that once seemed like an impossible dream.
However many challenges remain. As we witnessed in California – victory can be snatched away in a moment by those who insist on denying us full equality under the law, 29 states still have discrimination enshrined in their constitutions with bans on same-sex marriage. Thousands of children continue to languish in institutions because there is no federal law prohibiting states from banning gay couples from adopting or fostering children. We continue to have a plethora of elected leaders in this country, including those who seek the oval office, who have placed themselves on the wrong side of history by actively campaigning against equality.
So the question is — what do those who seek justice do today, tomorrow, for the next 6 months and the next 60 months to advance the cause of equality?
First – we must recognize that with the public discourse over gay civil rights comes an enormous opportunity to educate and enlighten our fellow Americans. The more the American voter learns about the aspirations we hold for ourselves and our families, the more they will realize that those aspirations are the same as theirs. As the voting public’s opinion continues to shift in favor of equality, so too will the position of the political candidates running for office at every level of government. As polls continue to reflect an increasing willingness by voters to accept our families and to repudiate the hateful politics of division, even the most conservative of politicians will shy away from a platform that attacks our families for political gain.
We must also continue the conversation with corporate America. Thousands of lives are changed for the better every time a major corporation decides to offer fair workplace policies and benefits. Many major corporations are leading the way on the benefits of equal treatment, putting pressure on our elected leaders to follow. We must engage corporate leaders across America in the fight for equality.
And we must remain diligent in expanding the conversation to include religious leaders across America. Religious leaders have always played an important role in the battle for civil rights, because equality is an issue of importance to people of faith. We must continue to engage fair-minded religious leaders in this effort, and ensure that people understand that no one is seeking to force a religious organization to marry same-sex couples, but that we seek only to ensure equal access to the civil, legal institution of marriage.
We must also strengthen our efforts to involve straight allies and progressive movement partners in this campaign. For advocates of equality, that means reaching out to your family and friends on a very personal basis. Polls tell us that 51% of gay people don’t talk to their families, friends and colleagues about being gay; we don’t engage them or explain the impact of discrimination on our lives. Consequently, they often don’t realize the importance of standing with us, or voting with us. Coming out is about more than a personal journey, it is about joining a civil rights movement and making people feel passion about the role they can play as a partner in these efforts.
The road to equality will be rocky, with days where much progress will be realized, mixed with days of setback and new obstacles. We have planted the flag of full equality solidly in the ground, and we must never lose sight of it. We must work tirelessly each and every day to get closer to it, until we can gather around that flag as a community, as full and equal citizens of the United States of America.
I do a great deal of speaking about gay civil rights around the country. If I can be helpful to your business, college or organization, please contact me by email at
Posted by Cheryl Jacques