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.
I hear people talk about the ‘sanctity of marriage’. I hear it so often I wonder if those using it actually know what they’re saying. Has it become synonymous with marriage between one man and one woman? Is it a rally cry? A mobilizing technique to defend against evil-doers who wish to destroy the sanctity of… what?
We live in a great country. It’s far from perfect, but it’s our willingness to wrestle with our shortcomings through the process of open democracy that makes America a truly unique and fascinating place to live in. But something has happened to our discourse. Not only in the tone, but in the quality and depth. I don’t believe that our country is as divided as some in the media would like you to believe. They’re not in the business to breed unity. But it is in this 24-hour news cycle we live in that promotes the kind of shallow debate made up of talking points and harmfully loaded go-to buzz words.
New York State Senator Diane Savino alluded to this culture when she took the floor to defend marriage equality in front of the state Senate. That measure to legalize civil unions was defeated, but not before Savino struck a powerful note that should stop all of us in our tracks and lead us to question what this whole ‘sanctity of marriage’ stuff really means. She took it a step further than many others are willing to go, and that sort of gusto should be applauded. But pay attention to what she has to say, really pay attention.
Again I ask, what is the ‘sanctity of marriage’, and why is it that those who wish to protect this ‘sanctity’ are the very ones destroying it?
Our media landscape has prevented many meaningful conversations from taking place, instead opting for the theatrical and practice of winning points over your opponent. But what does it say when we watch a TV show about twenty single women competing for a man’s hand in marriage? Is that protecting the ‘sanctity of marriage’? When that relationship crumbles under the false premise it was founded on, is that protecting the ‘sanctity of marriage’?
When the percentage of marriages that fail threaten to overwhelm those that succeed, is that protecting the ‘sanctity of marriage’? When families are torn apart by divorce and other marital sins, is that protecting the ‘sanctity of marriage’?
When Glenn Beck has been married twice and Rush Limbaugh has been married three times, is that protecting the ‘sanctity of marriage’?
These are loaded terms designed simply to redirect the conversation down a path we should have seen coming but fall for time and time again. If we refuse to rise above these intellectually-challenged arguments, those who stand up for justice and reason will have done so in vein.
We do great things in this country. Every day. America is no mistake and it is not lost. But it is time we rise to the challenge and carry the burden that so many of our predecessors have asked of us.
The next time you hear someone talk about how we must, as a country, defend and protect the ‘sanctity of marriage’, ask them if their own actions reflect their rhetoric. And then ask them how the love that exists between two men or two women is any different than the love they share with their spouse.
We’re not out to destroy the ‘sanctity of marriage’. We’re out to fulfill a promise our government made to us 235 years ago that “all men are created equal.”
Baseball is just around the corner, don’t expect the references to stop now.
The struggle for marriage equality continues today as Maryland, Rhode Island, New York, and Hawaii are all on the verge of passing bills in the legislature that would grant either marriage or civil unions to same-sex couples. Maryland in particular is on the verge of becoming only the fifth state in the Union to allow gay marriage (marriage is legal in Washington DC, as well as in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampsire, and Vermont).
The issue that has been unfolding over the last several weeks is now evolving and changing daily. Governor O’Malley has already voiced his support for the bill and is prepared to sign it into law if passed. Democratic State Senator James Brochin, who previously opposed the bill, has just changed positions after what he said was “appalling” testimony from marriage opponents. “Witness after witness demonized homosexuals, vilified the gay community, and described gays and lesbians as pedophiles.”
One Republican Senator, Allan Kittleman, has been brave enough to stand in tow with 20 other senators who support the bill (18 of whom are Democrats). Kittleman, who had served as the Minority Whip of his party, stepped down from his position as a result of his support.
The bill is expected to pass through committee and make it to the floor next week where it will need 24 votes to make it to O’Malley’s desk. Six senators remain undecided, all of whom are Democrats who come from districts with high African-American populations.
Maryland is a particularly interesting state to follow in this debate, as seven legislators are openly gay. Many have credited their advocacy as a large part in this bill’s continued success so far.
“I would probably think that having members of the General Assembly who are very well-respected people that you work with every day, that you have relationships with, I think it makes it difficult to say to them that you don’t deserve the same rights that I do. I think that might have something to do with it,” says Delegate Eric M. Bromwell, who is sponsoring the bill.
On Tuesday, Maryland’s legislature held public hearings to discuss the bill. Hundreds of supporters and opponents alike flooded the hearing room to give their testimony. Included was 14-year-old Maya Polyak, who spoke in defense of her two mothers.
The public forum has changed drastically over the years. New media and technology has revolutionized the way ordinary citizens can communicate and discuss topics of concern. This blog, for instance, is one of those new ways that up until a few years ago would not have been possible. The public sphere is no longer limited in scope or location. It’s everywhere, all the time. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped engaged citizens from participating in these public hearings that allow for the type of discourse that democracy intended.
We mustn’t be afraid of those whose aim is take away rights. The marketplace of ideas, despite frustration over the pace of progress, works. And it will work here. It has already changed the hearts and minds of many, including Senator Brochin. Those who support marriage equality are on the right side of history. Love is like light. You can’t put it out.