Today is the day to celebrate the civil rights and think about the state of social injustice. As such, it is, for me, a day to think once again about legal equality for the LGBT community. While most American news outlets will draw the obvious distinctions between Dr. King’s “dream” and the ascendancy of Barack Obama as President of the United States, I can’t help but think of the irony as, now one year into the President’s first term, he continues to sit on his hands while our fellow citizens, neighbors, friends and family in the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered community have not been granted equal protection under the law in this country. It’s interesting to me to see so many movements attach themselves to King’s mission–environmentalism, animal rights– without speaking about the only direct correlation in modern American society between the legal conditions that created the Civil Rights movement and the bigotry of the majority in establishing those conditions. The denial of equal rights for the LGBT community is the only social condition where ballot initiatives and civic law is structured to deny basic civil rights to our citizens, and yet here we are again, another Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and people still draw literal correlations between the color of King’s skin and his mission without thinking about the way in which Civil Rights and the denial of those rights operate today.
I wrote a long essay on this topic back in November of 2008, as voters in another american state lined yo to deny equal marriage rights to their fellow citizens, and since then, things have only gotten worse. My position at the time remains unchanged today; without either the Congress and President passing and signing an equivalent of the Civil Rights Act for LGBT Americans or the country having this case brought before the Supreme Court, where a precedent against legal discrimination can be won, the movement’s broken strategy of fighting for rights state-by-state remains doomed to fail under the weight of popular bigotry. This idea, one that has made sense to me for years, is the subject of a recent New Yorker article by Margaret Talbot, who worries it may be “too soon” to address the Supreme Court because of the conservative bent of so many of the justices. In that article, Ted Olson, the ultra conservative lawyer who is hoping to petition the court in favor of same-sex marriage, evokes Dr. King directly in his defense of his position:
“I have spent a fair amount of time reading Dr. King’s response to people who said, ‘People aren’t ready for this,’ ” he said. “His ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ one of the more moving documents in history, addresses this. If people are suffering and being hurt by discrimination, and their children and their families are . . . then who are we as lawyers to say, ‘Wait ten years’? ” — Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker, January 16, 2010.
That is, I am afraid (and despite the shared nervousness with having Ted Olson working on the issue), exactly right. Talbot lays out the case thusly:
“On January 11th, a remarkable legal case opens in a San Francisco courtroom—on its way, it seems almost certain, to the Supreme Court. Perry v. Schwarzenegger challenges the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the California referendum that, in November, 2008, overturned a state Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex couples to marry. Its lead lawyers are unlikely allies: Theodore B. Olson, the former solicitor general under President George W. Bush, and a prominent conservative; and David Boies, the Democratic trial lawyer who was his opposing counsel in Bush v. Gore. The two are mounting an ambitious case that pointedly circumvents the incremental, narrowly crafted legal gambits and the careful state-by-state strategy that leading gay-rights organizations have championed in the fight for marriage equality. The Olson-Boies team hopes for a ruling that will transform the legal and social landscape nationwide, something on the order of Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, or Loving v. Virginia, the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage.”— Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker, January 16, 2010.
For me, leaving social equality up to a popular vote has been a great mistake that has cost the LGBT community civil rights for years now. It is time for the nation to take a stand for equality and, if the Supreme Court cannot properly apply the Constitution to defend the civil rights of LGBT Americans, time for all of us to take to the streets and force the Federal government to do its job and uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I hope you will join me in thinking of and acting for true civil rights in 21st century America. The parallels could not be more clear, and the need for change could not be more urgent.