On June 26, we will mark the fifth anniversary of marriage equality becoming the law of the land. This date is not only a historic milestone for the LGBTQ community; it is also a landmark moment in our nation’s shared struggle for equal justice. During this moment of national protests over racism and police brutality, it is especially important to remember that the modern LGBTQ+ civil rights movement was sparked not by a demand for marriage equality, but rather from resistance against police brutality and the basic and primal need to live free. The oppression we fought against decades ago must not only serve as a historical reference point, but must inform our struggle to achieve true liberation.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Black and Brown transgender activists fought back and protested police harassment and violence at places like Compton’s Cafeteria, Cooper Do-nuts, the Black Cat and Stonewall. They protested clear and persistent government sanctioned efforts to suppress who they were, to deny their very existence. They fought back not once, not twice, but multiple times for their dignity and for the freedom that our Constitution professes to provide — liberty and justice for all. Those protests, in effect, changed the political and social landscape and helped spur pro-LGBTQ+ legislation and inform litigation all over the country to provide dignity to the lives of LGBTQ+ people. These efforts ultimately led to a push for legal recognition of same-sex relationships and the right to marry — an effort that I was intimately involved in.
In 2005, as a young attorney, I helped litigate New York’s first marriage equality case. I knew that the law and the Constitution had been repeatedly interpreted to further disenfranchise marginalized communities and, in fact, could be manipulated in this case by anti-equality forces to deny same-sex couples that most basic and fundamental of rights — the right to marry. And I had sufficient evidence to support that theory. At a certain point in our nation’s history, as a Black man, I was not considered a person in the eyes of the law. Only a few decades ago, separate was still considered equal. And when I was 16, the United States Supreme Court decided in Bowers v. Hardwick that consensual same-sex intimate conduct could be criminalized under our Constitution.
But I also knew that while the court had not always lived up to the founding principles of our nation, we had to fight for and believe in its impartial, equitable and consistent application. And so I fought. We argued that, as the court made clear years earlier in Loving v. Virginia, the case that legalized interracial relationships, “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man’, fundamental to our very existence and survival.” And there was no compelling state interest or even rational basis for the state to deny same-sex couples that fundamental right. In February of that year, the New York Supreme Court, which is the trial court, issued a historic ruling agreeing with us. But our victory was short lived. In July 2006, this victory was ultimately struck down by New York’s highest court. I then left the world of not-for-profit litigation advocacy and joined government, where I had another opportunity to fight for change. And three-and-a-half years later, I had the privilege of drafting the marriage equality law in New York, which provides that most basic of fundamental rights the court had denied us. The experience also reinforced a basic lesson our history had instilled in our movement: keep on fighting.
Thousands of protesters walk in a peaceful protest across the Brooklyn Bridge on June 19, 2020.
Ira L. Black – CorbisGetty Images
This principle has never been more clear to me than during this Pride month, which we are celebrating at a unique moment in our history. We have seen our nation’s highest court recognize LGBTQ+ people’s right to employment protection under Title VII and overturn the Trump administration’s attack on DREAMers. We have seen a rash of horrific violence against the Black and transgender communities. And we have seen, amidst a pandemic, righteous protesters take to the streets to make their voices heard. To uphold the legacy of Compton’s Cafeteria, Cooper Do-nuts, the Black Cat, and Stonewall, and the legacies of Obergefell v. Hodges — the case that eventually led to marriage equality — and Loving v. Virginia, we need to commit to joining these protesters and all those fighting alongside them to defeat discrimination, racism, white supremacy and the broken systems that allow injustice to flourish. Because civil rights protections like marriage equality do not mean anything if we do not have the freedom to enjoy them.
That is why, this Pride, we celebrate the anniversary of marriage equality by demanding justice for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Tony McDade, for Ahmaud Arbery, and for all the innocent Black and Brown people whose stories we don’t know because their deaths weren’t caught on camera. We demand justice for the Black trans women and trans women of color who have lost their lives to an epidemic of violence that is all too often ignored by the media, law enforcement, elected officials and our nation. And we commit ourselves to using every tool available to achieve justice — including continuing our fight in the courts, protesting in the streets, and by showing up at the ballot box.
This November, we face a choice. We can allow four more years of a president and a Senate that will undermine our rights at every turn and will embolden white supremacists and appoint extreme, anti-equality judges who will undermine our rights for generations to come. Or we can begin the next chapter in our story, where we have leadership who understands the necessity of change and who we can hold accountable to help us rebuild our systems and institutions so that they serve all of us.
To me, the choice is clear. In 2020, let us rededicate ourselves to that fight for equal justice — which requires the defeat of white supremacy, and the building of a more just world for all. In our journey toward full equality, marriage equality was never our final stop. During Pride Month and beyond, the best way to commemorate the anniversary of marriage equality is by taking action to move equality forward, for everyone.
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