Members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, wearing blue T-shirts emblazoned with the name of a popular gay sports bar in Washington, were on a strategic street corner singing “The Impossible Dream,” the Supreme Court to their front and the Capitol to their rear.
Following that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far. If there ever were an impossible dream, marriage equality was it just a few short years ago. Even some of the most ardent crusaders for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality believed that demanding recognition for same-sex marriage was a fool’s errand.
But people in love can be the most audacious of rebels. So it was that seven same-sex couples sued the state of Massachusetts in 2001, at a time when some Democrats in the state legislature were helping to lead the anti-marriage-equality effort and much of the gay rights establishment had not yet devoted significant firepower to defend the couples. The ruling that the state Supreme Court handed down in 2003 ruling that prohibitions against same-sex marriage was unconstitutional not only shook the nation, but it challenged those of us in the LGBT rights movement to not constrain our political agitation to the limits of what was politically possible, but to agitate to change what is politically possible.
Other bold couples teamed up with legal teams around the country, with the support of LGBT rights organizations and a growing constellation of civil rights allies. Couples in Massachusetts led the way again in 2009 in challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, the legislation that President Bill Clinton now recognizes was one of the worst stains on his legacy. Their perseverance led to the Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.
That set the stage for the legal collapse of gay marriage bans around the country. By the time Justice Anthony Kennedy read his landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges this morning, marriage equality was already the law of the land in 36 states, either through judicial or legislative action. That meant that roughly 70 percent of the country was living in a state where same-sex marriages were legal – and the parade of horribles predicted by anti-marriage-equality conservatives was not happening.
What was happening instead was what Mary L. Bonauto, the lawyer representing the couples in the Massachusetts case and who argued on behalf of gay couples in this latest case before the Supreme Court, described in a column today in The Boston Globe. As Kennedy announced his ruling, “I recalled the many voices from government leaders to clergy to everyday people who moved us forward: the Catholic mother who wanted her gay son to be able to marry, the Connecticut state trooper who demanded that the government protect her family should she be injured in the line of duty, the New Hampshire Marine who wanted to be his gay brother’s best man one day.”
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A phrase that quickly comes to mind is the famous quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Sometimes, as President Obama said in his Rose Garden remarks today, change only comes through the plodding, painstaking persistence of dedicated people, their successes measured in modest increments that are too often offset by frustrating setbacks. “Then there are days like this, he said, “when that slow, steady effort is rewarded by justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
The president went on to say that the ruling is not only a victory for LGBT people but “a victory for America” and for the notion that “when all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free.”
This ruling does not put to rest the struggle for LGBT equality, no more than a series of racial equality victories before the Supreme Court and in Congress put to rest the struggle for racial equality – just ask the people of Charleston, S.C., who today are putting to rest the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel AME Church who was gunned down with eight of his parishioners by a Confederate flag-waving racist.
Pinckney, by the way, was an African-American preacher who likely would have celebrated this day were he alive. “He gave me his assurance then that he was on our side,” Jeff Ayres of South Carolina Equality told Mother Jones.
So this moment of celebration, as is so often true, comes mixed with a heavy reminder of the work that must be done – as well as a lesson in the value of the persistent pursuit of justice.
“Tragedy after tragedy remind us that people are still targeted for discrimination and even unspeakable violence because of who they are,” Bonauto wrote. “Friday’s decision should energize us for the urgent and ongoing work to achieve justice not only for all LGBT people but for all Americans. As we celebrate this landmark ruling, let us also rededicate ourselves to ensuring that all Americans — no matter who they are or where they live — have the same opportunities and freedom to live equally, safely, and securely.”