One week ago, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Westboro Baptist’s funeral protests. It was a landmark ruling in defense of the First Amendment, and it was also the right decision. “The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like,” Justice Kennedy wrote in a concurring opinion for 1989’s Texas v. Johnson flag-burning case. “We make them because they are right.”
With signs that read “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, you’d be hard pressed to find even the coldest of hearts who would defend the utterly deplorable cesspool that is Fred Phelps and his Westboro thugs. But as much as we hate to admit it to ourselves, there remains a fundamental right to free speech that must be protected even in the most distasteful of occurrences. “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment,” Justice Brennan wrote in Texas v. Johnson’s majority opinion, “it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Brennan goes on to write that to “punish those who feel differently about these matters” is not right. “It is to persuade them that they are wrong.”
Today, 86 openly gay state legislators are doing just that. These brave and courageous men and women have stepped out of the closet and into the public spotlight to give voice to an underrepresented and sometimes invisible population. They do not seek to attack those whose beliefs differ from their own, their battle wages on day-to-day as they work to change the hearts and minds of their co-workers and constituents.
Fortunately, these legislators are not alone in their struggle as countless other LGBT-friendly lawmakers work tirelessly in this war over civil rights. But the existence of openly gay legislators impacts the lawmaking process in profound ways, as evidenced in Illinois and Hawaii where LGBT representatives led the way in making civil unions a reality. Similar efforts are taking place in Maryland, Rhode Island, and New York to legalize same-sex marriage. “For my colleagues, knowing that I am not allowed to marry the person that I love and want to marry, that’s very powerful,” said Tom Duane, a senator from New York who will soon sponsor a marriage equality bill. “It’s more difficult for them to take for granted the right they have to marry when I don’t have it.”
A mere five African American representatives served in Congress to see the passage of 1964’s transformational Civil Rights Act. A total of 131 African Americans have served in Congressional history, 71% of those coming after 1970. The increased presence of African Americans in elected office helped further the momentum of the civil rights era, and in 1977 Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. Speaking in regards to gay youth across the country, Milk said, “the only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.”
In this transitionary period of gay rights that we live in, it is vital that we elect more openly gay or LGBT friendly leaders into office. It’s time to be honest with our legislators: If you wish to stand in the way of progress, so be it. But our voices will be heard resoundingly through the ballot box, and those who impede change will soon be replaced with voices of reason and understanding.
“If a bullet should enter my brain,” Milk once said in the event of his assassination, “let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country.” More than three decades after Milk uttered these tragically fateful words, it’s time we live up to his legacy. This country needs another Harvey Milk. Many more.
It’s time we send a message to businesses who don’t think twice before donating to anti-gay candidates: enough is enough.
It’s time to persuade them that they are wrong.
The ruling in favor of Westboro Baptist may be a discouraging development. Sometimes, the right decision isn’t always the morally justifiable decision. Detours that threaten to derail progress will come and go, but we mustn’t lose sight as to what this battle is really and truly all about: Love.