The work yet to be done

July 9, 2013

Trish Kahle reports on the momentum that the recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings bring to the struggle for marriage equality in Illinois.

HOURS AFTER the U.S. Supreme Court announced its July 3 decisions to strike down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and stop the enforcement of California's Proposition 8, hundreds of LGBTQ activists flooded the streets of Chicago to celebrate and keep up the pressure for full equality. Onlookers threw confetti from the balconies of the Boystown district of Lakeview as more than 700 marchers cheered below.

But organizers wanted to take the march beyond Boystown--one of Chicago's gay enclaves--so that the rest of Chicago would know that while we celebrated the Supreme Court's decisions, we also demand full and immediate equality nationwide. As the march continued through the nearby neighborhood of Wrigleyville, it continued to swell in size with bar patrons rising to give us standing ovations.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling highlighted the cowardice of Illinois state legislators who failed to pass a marriage equality bill earlier this year. Even before the Supreme Court ruling, polls showed that Illinois voters as a whole support marriage equality 47 percent to 42 percent, while Black voters support the measure by an even wider margin, 60 percent to 16 percent, as do Latinos at 70 percent to 23 percent.

Chicagoans march and rally to mark the end of DOMA and to continue the fight for marriage equality in Illinois
Chicagoans march and rally to mark the end of DOMA and to continue the fight for marriage equality in Illinois (Katie Kullen)

Andy Thayer, an organizer from the Gay Liberation Network, explained how such a sea change in public opinion has happened so quickly:

Today we won a victory. It wasn't the conservative court that did this. It came from each and every one of us talking to our neighbors and co-workers, and letting it be known that we need and demand equal rights, and we won't rest until we get them. That is what changed the opinion polls in this country and helped lead to today's important gains.

Local activist Bob Schwartz echoed Thayer and drew important historical connections:

When I was young, things were a lot different. How did they change? They changed because Harry Hay got a few people together in California in the 1950s. They changed because people marched at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 in New York City. Change happened because of the AIDS epidemic, because of the militant response of ACT-UP and other groups. That's the way change happens.

But Thayer also pointed out the need for continuing the struggle:

We also have to say the court was very cowardly today, because the court took the weakest way out on Prop 8. We have to demand a far higher standard. Above the Supreme Court, it says "equal justice under law," and for Illinoisans and for people in 36 other states around the country, the court failed to do that, so we're going to do it for them, and we're going to do it through getting in the street.

Brenna, an activist who attended the rally, spoke to the new opportunity to push for equality in the state legislature at a time when the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of equal marriage rights. "We need to push equality in the states and nationally as hard as possible," she said. "We shouldn't necessarily prioritize one over the other. Both are important."

AS EXCITED as the crowd was, the shadow of the previous day's Supreme Court decision--to gut key provisions of the Voting Rights Act--highlighted the continued importance of building solidarity.

Rev. Jamie Ballel, a member of the Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Churches, pointed out that while the marriage equality movement might draw its inspiration from the civil rights movement, that doesn't mean that the fight against institutionalized racism is a thing of the past:

The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice, Dr. King said. Today's rulings bend us toward justice, but we need to struggle to get it the rest of the way. And as we go forward, we will not forget the betrayal of the horrible decision on the Voting Rights Act yesterday. We will not sacrifice the work and solidarity that needs to be built for that fight as we move forward on our own gains.

Krista Reese, a member of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, noted that only pressure from below would ensure rights for LGBTQ people and people of color. "We need to make sure everyone's rights are being respected, that our civil rights are being met," she said in an interview. "And to do that, we need to put pressure on Congress and every elected official."

And Illinois activists are organizing to keep the pressure on. The newly formed This Is Not Over Coalition, a coalition of grassroots organizations in Chicago, is organizing a citywide march for July 13, when activists will gather at Michigan and Congress Avenues at 1 p.m. for a rally and march.

And statewide, activists are building for a massive march in Springfield on October 22 to demand that the Illinois legislature vote on marriage equality. Marquel Smith, who was discharged from the Marines in 2006 for violating the military's now-overturned don't-ask, don't-tell policy, laid out the message for October. "They need to vote on this, even if it means they lose their seat," said Smith. "And I mean that, because equality matters. Equality matters for everyone. It doesn't matter what it costs you, you have to have equality for everyone. Our rights are not up for debate."

Rev. Darlene Garner and her wife were the first same-sex couple married in Washington, D.C. In town for a conference, she came to the rally to join the march and to address the crowd. Her remarks brought the threads of struggle together:

I stand before you as a woman who has been Black for 65 years. I stand before you as a woman who knows what it is to live under oppression. I also stand before you as a proud lesbian...There are some of you who have not experienced this range of oppressions in your life, and I am grateful for that. But I want you know as one who has lived it, as one who has seen it, as one who has come and is still coming through it, the victory is ours.

When God created us, it was so good that He took the next day off. But friends, you cannot take the next day off. You still have work to do here in Illinois. Every day when you wake up, wake up with freedom on your mind. When you wake up, wake up with equality on your mind. When you wake up tomorrow, wake up with justice on your mind. I swear to you that they will come, they will be yours.

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