Marriage and Rights in Modern America

In case you somehow missed the rainbow explosion that consumed social media and the internet at large yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5–4 decision, that same-sex couples have a right to marriage under the 14th amendment to the Constitution. It is a stunning end to a campaign that not so long ago seemed beyond futile. Even just a few years ago, when the federal lawsuits first began, it was said that this was the wrong time, that this was the wrong court. The margin was thin, but the reasoning was sound and eloquent. Justice Kennedy will forever be remembered as a defining voice in the gay rights movement.

Yesterday I experienced a range of emotions when the announcement was made. This is a complicated country to live in. You can feel the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in the span of a 10 minute news briefing. We value independence, we value freedom, we value human rights. But in practice, our application of these ideas is imperfect, sometime obscenely so. And it is very easy to fall into cynicism and anger, to give up on any belief that things will ever get better.

And then, sometimes, hope glimmers.

Celebrations at the Stonewall Inn following the ruling.
Celebrations at the Stonewall Inn following the ruling.

I was born in 1983. That was one year after the CDC stopped referring to AIDS with the acronym GRID. GRID stood for Gay Related Immune Deficiency. But this change in terminology, as well as the discovery of the actual virus in 83 did not go very far in changing the public perception of gay people. Far from horror, AIDS was welcomed by a large population of the country with at best indifference, and at worst outright glee. Religious and political leaders, as well as ordinary citizens, view AIDS as a just punishment. Gay relationships had only recently become legal in the majority of the country, and were still – and would remain until 2003 – illegal in numerous states. This was codified by the court in Bowers v Hardwick in 1986. It took 17 years to correct that wrong.

Just to demonstrate the pure hatred that gay people were subjected to in recent memory, here is a video from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City. Note the unbridled joy among those screaming downward at the gay people who dared attempt to merely step out in public. AIDS, far from a terrible disease, is openly celebrated. And this was 1991. Do you remember 1991? I sure do. This is our recent past.

But then things started to change. A lot had changed in the decade that followed that video until the time I came out. I feel that my coming out happened during a strange in-between period. It was no longer so acceptable to hold that kind of vicious hatred in public, at least in polite company, but marriage was still not legal anywhere in the country, and only in two countries in the world. Gay sex was still illegal in 13 states. It was a time of transition. But for me, personally, I never had to feel that level of hatred directed at myself. I knew about it, I had even seen it as a younger child. But by the point in my life where it would have affected me directly, it was going out of fashion.

But this is not to say that the 2000s were a joy for gay people. Far from it, it was a decade often filled with viscerally painful reminders of how far we had yet to go. Every single time gay marriage was up for a vote in that decade, and it happened a lot, it failed. Every, single, time. With each election cycle came the same message from the American public, “We do not accept you.” “You are not welcome here.” The 2004 presidential election, the first in which I could vote, is likely to be looked back upon as the worst, most cynical campaign in the history of the country. It was the election where a man who had served his country was slandered daily in television ads, and it was an election where gay people, and our relationships, were used as a scare tactic to win a few extra votes so that one man could keep his job.

Four years later, I was overcome with joy when the country finally took a step forward and elected a black man to the highest office in the country. It was something that I will remember for the rest of my life as a moment that defines the era in which I lived. But that joy turned to sorrow hours later when the state of California sent the same message to gay people that so may states before had sent. “We do not accept you.” “You are not welcome here.” That president whose election was so inspiring still, cynically, for political reasons, could not bring himself – at the time – to state his support for our cause.

And then, in what felt like the blink of an eye, it all started to change. When I purchased an engagement ring for Will in 2011, we could not marry in New York. By the time I proposed, we could. Unlike most gay people up until that point, we married right when we were ready to. We did not need to wait for the laws to catch up. But our marriage was legal in only a handful of states. Had we moved a mile westward on our wedding day, it would have been invalid. The state in which I proposed marriage in the first place was the one that lost in court yesterday.

I am an incredibly lucky person. I was born at the right time. I was born to a family that loved and accepted me for who I am. And, despite being a minority in the technical sense, I am a white male, and there are privileges that brings that the rest does not cancel out.

A common complaint about the marriage movement being the de facto gay rights movement for the last decade is that it is an inherently classist, and possibly even racist movement. Gay culture has been seen as one of white men, for those already in power. I heard these same arguments brought yesterday in the aftermath of the ruling. Sadly, there is some truth in this. Gay popular culture, like the wider American culture, skews toward those who are white, and those who are male. Look at any gay film, at gay people portrayed in the media, even at pornography. You will see a parade of attractive white faces, at times to the exclusion of all others. But gay culture is not unique in this regard. This is an American problem. One that will be much, much more difficult to rectify than the legal right to marry. But the popular culture is not a reflection of gay culture on the ground.

After the ruling yesterday Will and I went to the village to celebrate in front of the Stonewall Inn. This was the site of a riot in 1969 that brought gay rights into the national conversation. Something that should serve as a reminder that riots, while messy and painful, are often needed to bring change to a society too stubborn to allow it. At the gathering last night were men and women. Gay and straight. Black, white, brown, and every other conceivable color. Old and young. Masculine, feminine, and everything in between. The faces of this movement were not uniform. The success at the Supreme Court yesterday will benefit everyone. The stereotype is that gay people are all well off, high powered, privileged people. The reality is so far from this. The dignity and legal protection that comes with being accepted into marriage will have a positive impact to all who choose to take it.

It was perhaps the cruelest of ironies that Barack Obama made two speeches on June 26, 2015. The first was a celebration of a civil rights battle won. The second was a somber eulogy for an event that reminds us of another civil rights war that is still so far from being won. The speech following the court’s ruling, and the one at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, were perhaps the most real and honest depiction of life in modern America. We move forward, we right old wrongs, and we extend rights to those who had none. But we also allow, and at times encourage, a dark and disturbing undercurrent of fear, hatred, and pain. The rights we grant in law do not always extend into everyday life.

Electing a black president did not end racism. Racism is still there. It is real, it is omnipresent, and as we are all too often reminded, it is deadly. Wining the right to marry will not end homophobia. Gay people will still be killed because of who they are. They will lose their jobs. They will suffer indignities in public life that their straight counterparts will never have to even contemplate. In the majority of the country you can still be fired for being gay. Trans people still lack many of the basic protections that the rest of us take for granted. LGBT teenagers are still disproportionately likely to be abused, and to end up homeless. For them, simply coming out could be a death sentence. This is to say nothing of other places in the world where even being perceived as gay could result in a literal death sentence.

All Americans must come together now to right these wrongs, as well as all the countless others. That we imprison people of color at deplorably high rates for minor crimes that are overlooked when committed by others. That here in New York City we still have a quiet segregation in housing and in education. Segregation that would be unacceptable if it were enforced by law, but that we easily accept when it is enforced by economics and personal distrust.

The National Organization for Marriage, the leading voice against the marriage equality movement, tried to exploit the divisions in American society. They sought to force a wedge between those who strive for racial equality and those who strive for gay equality, as though the two were mutually exclusive. This narrative has at times ensnared those on both sides, but it is a false one. Any injustice, whether rooted in sexuality orientation, race, gender, religion, economic standing, or any other ultimately superfluous characteristic cannot stand.

There is not yet equality in America. The legalization of marriage equality nationwide does not change this. The lowering of a confederate flag does not change this. These are positive steps. These are necessary steps. But we are not done. We have yet to vanquish the Dylan Roofs, the Brian Browns, the Gamergates, the Pamela Gellers. The same Supreme Court that legalized same sex marriage also gutted the voting rights act, declaring racism to be a thing of the past. They took power away from women to determine their own medical care and gave it to corporate overlords. They allowed people with fantastically high wealth to drown out any and all other voices in the political process.

We are not done. We are far from done. The victory in marriage equality is important. The lowering of a confederate flag is important. The accountability of law enforcement is important. But we cannot stop. We cannot rest. We cannot forget the others who face challenges we do not. And we cannot accept our victories as “good enough”. We must look at this victory as one of a million more yet to be won.

WillAndMike WeddingPride

Marriage and Rights in Modern America was last updated June 27th, 2015 by Michael Truskowski