The Supreme Court's decision today upholding the equal protection guarantees of the 14th amendment for same-sex couples - thus extending the fundamental right to marry to all Americans - was somewhat anticipated, but that anticipation itself is as historic as the decision itself.
In writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy was mindful that he wasn't merely penning a decision, he was writing history. And so he says:
Manifest. Obvious. Self-evident. In other words, the injustice perpetrated by the denial of equal access to society's most fundamental institution of family is so clear, so raw, so evident that it requires no further explanation.
But the outcome wasn't so manifest even a decade ago. A decade ago, the country was grappling with the fresh second term of a president who made writing discrimination into the Constitution a part of his platform, and LGBT people and our families and allies were reeling from the stinging rebuke from our own fellow citizens at the ballot box state after state, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized marriage equality in that state.
At that time, as conservatives felt energized and made their push for the Federal Marriage Amendment, Democrats in Congress were reduced to trying to keep the FMA from passing, taking shelter of arguments to keep the backlash to a minimum. Marriage is a state issue, they said, not federal. Most of them even claimed to support the heterosexual exclusivity of marriage, justifying their opposition to the FMA by saying that it wasn't unjust but merely, unnecessary, given the the web of federal and state laws that already limited the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples.
And at that time, a lot of activists called those Democrats cowards for their inability to declare full support for marriage equality. They were hurt and disappointed in the lack of full support, and wished that our party would just "stand up and fight".
Yet, in retrospect there can be no doubt that a decade ago, that was the right strategy on the part of the Democrats. That argument - that the FMA was unnecessary and that marriage was a state issue - may not go down in history as a clarion call to action, but it did hold back the conservative tide from writing discrimination into the US Constitution even as individual states kept writing it into theirs. The fear that open support of marriage equality at that time would have led too many people into the arms of the conservatives, and that much educating and changing of hearts and minds remained to be done, was real given the fall of marriage equality at every state ballot for years.
We are here today because the FMA failed. There would be no marriage case, there would be no same sex marriages in any state, if the Federal Marriage Amendment had passed. If the do-it-now proponents had won the day within the Democratic party, this day may never have arrived.
Even in recent years this decision hasn't always been an inevitability. It took the leadership of a very patient pragmatist and even more committed fierce advocate: President Obama, who patiently and systematically undid Don't Ask, Don't Tell, expanded federal benefits to federal employees and the military, and out of conviction refused to defend this manifest unconstitutionality and injustice of denying the society's most fundamental institution to same-sex couples.
Although patience is often difficult to maintain in the face of injustice - and while no one can disagree that justice delayed is justice denied - patience is often one key ingredient for a movement for equal rights to take root, spread, and finally take an entire country by such a storm that even the Supreme Court is left to admit that the injustice is manifest.
From women's suffrage to civil rights, from MLK to Harvey Milk, from Loving v. Virginia to Obergefell v. Hodges, the only winners are those who are patient pragmatists and fierce advocates. The two are not only not mutually exclusive, the two are in fact mutually necessary. The courage to make progress in steps and continuing to fight for more day after day requires determination of the heart and the tenacity of the mind to work together. If you lack patience, your fierceness will only result in disappointment, and if you lack fierceness of purpose, what use is patience?
The history of the LGBT rights movement is vast, multi-faceted, and inspiring. From the people in New York who decided enough was enough after being beaten and savaged by the police to those who joined them to show solidarity in Stonewall, from lesbians and gays and bisexuals and transgenders forming legal alliances to those who took the first steps to the first pride parades, to the unsung heroes in the faith community who loved their God so much that they couldn't fathom discriminating against some of that God's children, they all believed, dreamed, loved, and strategized.
But those acts of courage could not have brought us where we are today without the countless untold acts of courage that happened at dinner tables and living rooms across America. Sometimes it was a 16-year-old boy deciding to come out to his deeply conservative parents and other times it was a 50-something lesbian finally deciding to tell her sister and nieces and nephews, but each time it was an act of indomitable courage. I call it courage because these early walkers in our movement - those who did it long before "pride" became a thing - didn't simply choose to live as themselves at the toughest of times, but they refused to let the stigma perpetuate and they paved the way for the rest of us.
Those acts of courage still happen. Every single day. In our country. And in the world. Kids and adults are still coming out to their families who are deeply divided - sometimes culturally, sometimes because of religious beliefs. While coming out in general has gotten a lot easier, it hasn't gotten easier for everyone. And each community is coming to terms with the colors of the rainbow and young and old alike are still painting those rainbows in their communities. Not by being angry but by being firm and loving.
Our country is also grappling with yet another part of our movement: transpeople. While this movement isn't all about marriage, coming out as transgender remains unspeakably difficult, and going through a gender-transition is even more so. The stigma, the rejection and the struggles of these brothers and sisters of ours cannot be forgotten as we celebrate yet another milestone in the moral arc of the universe.
And so, history of the LGBT rights movement is vast, multi-faceted, and inspiring, but it is not over. It is still being written. There is no room among people who believe in equal justice under law to ever pull up the ladder once we have climbed it.
For all of us who are celebrating, I am too. I am overcome with joy and jubilation. I am proud to be an American today. As we celebrate, let's remember that our history is intertwined with every other movement for equality - across time and space. Let's recall how we got here; let's understand the role of patient pragmatism and fierce advocacy. Let us live by the immortal words of MLK: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Let us recognize its length and never stop bending it towards justice.
Celebrate with a commitment to never stop.
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