We’re not finished making history

July 8, 2013

Keegan O’Brien reflects on the Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality and the struggles to come. An expanded version of this article appeared at the Rainbow Times.

JUNE 26, 2013 will be a day that's remembered in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer history, and our community's long and turbulent struggle for full equality. On that day, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in United States v. Windsor that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denies federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples by only recognizing marriages between a man and woman, was unconstitutional due to its violation of the equal protection clause under the 5th amendment.

On the same day, the Court prevented an effort to enforce Proposition 8 in California, the 2008 voter referendum that revoked same-sex marriage rights and sparked a national uproar. As a result, same-sex couples in California, the most populace state in the country, will once again be able to marry, and couples in states that have already legalized gay marriage will now have full access to federal marriage benefits.

The justices didn't go further and rule that same-sex couples nationwide had a right to full marriage equality. So this is only a partial victory. But to have the most powerful court in the country declare--even if it's only partially--that we are human beings deserving of equal treatment under the law is a pretty profound experience.

New York City's Pride march celebrates the overturning of DOMA
New York City's Pride march celebrates the overturning of DOMA (Dave Bledsoe)

Victories like this not only provide very real and important material improvements to our lives, especially for working class queer couples, while also taking us a step close toward equality and liberation, they also restore in oppressed people a basic sense of human dignity, self-worth and confidence that oppression, discrimination and violence continuously rip away from us. In doing so, they imbue us with the sense of confidence and pride required to hold our heads up high and keep fighting for more.

WHILE I'M ecstatic about our community's victory and how it will improve the lives of so many same-sex couples, I am also well aware that our dream of full equality is far from achieved. We cannot consider ourselves free and equal as long as 37 states maintain constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, 29 states lack any employment protection for sexual orientation, and 37 states lack such protections for gender identity and expression.

There persists a shameful and obscene epidemic of queer youth homelessness and suicide; queer youth lack access to safe schools and relevant curriculum; and LGBTQ people lack access to safe, accepting and accessible health care and housing. Too many queer people of color remain locked inside prisons and detention centers because they've been victimized by our country's racially discriminatory and unfair criminal justice and immigration systems. While full LGBTQ equality and social justice includes marriage equality, it also extends far beyond on it, and our vision of freedom must encompass the struggles of LGBTQ people everywhere.

What makes last week's victory bittersweet is knowing that the Supreme Court simultaneously made other rulings that stripped away civil rights for people of color. The first was the decision to rule against the legitimacy of affirmative action; the second was the ruling to roll back Native peoples' sovereignty and self-determination; and the third was to strike down important sections of the 1965 Voter Rights Act, an important gain won by the Civil Rights Movement.

While we should celebrate the defeat of DOMA and Prop 8, we need to be filled with outrage over the Supreme Court's other shameful attacks on civil rights. Our community isn't just lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer; we are also women, people of color, immigrants. While we fight for full LGBTQ equality, we must also build a movement that is based on the politics of solidarity and addresses the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and class.

We should think critically before we jump forward with praise for the Supreme Court's ruling, considering that these are the same justices who stripped away the civil rights of our sisters and brothers of color. Even when we like the Supreme Court's rulings, can we not also recognize how profoundly undemocratic it is that nine unelected judges, totally disconnected from the lives of ordinary people and the rulings they make, can make such sweeping decisions that have such a profound impact on people's lives? Why should the basic civil rights of oppressed and marginalized groups be put up to a vote of nine judges, anyway? Shouldn't these be recognized as basic human rights, guaranteed to all people?

IN THE aftermath of these important victories, many from the mainstream gay political establishment, such as the Human Rights Campaign and MassEquality, have been quick to praise the efforts of politicians, judges and lawyers, and credit them with these accomplishments.

This isn't surprising, considering that the strategy perused by Gay Inc. for the past 20 years has been to take our movement out of the streets and into the folds of the Democratic Party, the halls of Congress, and executive boardrooms. While Gay Inc. raises millions of dollars every year, it continues to pour these resources into a political strategy that has given us slow progress at best, and a painfully narrowed agenda that pushes too much of our community to the sidelines at worst.

The mainstream gay political establishment has forgotten an important lesson from history; that it's the power of ordinary people and their capacity to build fighting grassroots movements--not politicians, CEOs and judges--who are the motor force of progressive social change. The historic defeat of DOMA and Prop 8, and all the progress we have made as a community since the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, is the result of tireless, uncompromising activism on behalf of ordinary LGBTQ people and our allies.

It's because we stormed the streets after the passage of Prop 8, because 200,000 people mobilized for the National Equality March in Washington D.C in 2009, because countless activist have spoken out, sat in, signed petitions and demonstrated in cities and towns across the country, and because millions of us have come out to our friends, family and community, that we have transformed the national political climate around LGBTQ rights and pressured those in positions of power to act.

Today, we celebrate the power of our community to come together and struggle collectively, and the advances we have made in our long effort for full equality. But we need to remember that we have a long way to go until we achieve the dream of full federal equality, and live in a society that is affirming of people all across the sexual and gender spectrum. If there's anything to be learned from our recent victories, it is the power of a good, old-fashioned people's movement, grassroots activism and protest.

An expanded version of this article was first published at the Rainbow Times.

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