When I took to the stage at the Oscars in 2009 and promised that LGBT people of this country would soon know full federal equality, I was chastised by more than a few politicians and most movement leaders for pushing too hard too soon. So, for half a decade, I put my film work on the back burner and joined with others to help ensure that this promise became a reality.
Today, with a 5-4 decision at the U.S. Supreme Court, a monumental piece of this promise was realized. And it is clear this victory was won because LGBT citizens and our allies made ourselves visible, sharing our personal stories on stage and screen, and in courtrooms and living rooms. It’s much harder to look your own sister, son or neighbor in the eye and tell them their love isn’t the same as yours, or that their family deserves less. Now, it is this kind of personal storytelling that must continue if we are to defeat the mixed messages our rapid success has brought with it, both at home and abroad.
In the darkness that hung over my community after Prop. 8 stole back marriage equality in California, individuals took to the streets and grassroots organizations sprang up across the nation leapfrogging traditional LGBT leadership to name a bold new dream: full federal equality within our lifetimes. It was time for the LGBT movement to abandon incrementalism. The furor over Prop. 8 ensured marriage was the first step, but the end goal has always been equality in all matters.
With federal marriage equality the law of the land, there are now 29 states where gay couples can legally wed on Sunday and be fired on Monday simply for placing a picture of their wedding on their work desk. And in 32 states, people can be fired simply for being trans or open about their gender identity.
So for the children of LGBT parents in Mississippi or Alabama, the Supreme Court has declared that their parents’ love is equal, but that their family has no right to survive. Many are now forced to choose between living openly and having the means to live at all. It’s a heartbreaking mixed message in states where LGBT people still list their top concern as “personal safety.”
But there is a solution. The Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would provide the basic workplace protections needed for LGBT people in all 50 states. It is supported by two-thirds of voters, including a majority of Republicans, but has been introduced almost every year since 1994 and blocked each time by Congress.
A solution exists, but due to a generation of cowardly elected officials, the political will to make it a reality does not. And to be clear, the destructive effect of having no protections doesn’t stop at being fired; it creates an atmosphere of fear that prevents LGBT people from sharing their lives openly and dispelling the myths and fears that have harmed us for so long.
And the mixed messages created by our success are not just domestic. Our victory against American anti-equality groups has been so convincing that many American anti-gay leaders have turned their focus abroad. At one time, the so-called National Organization for Marriage (NOM) was the driving force behind Prop. 8, but having lost their foothold in America, NOM recently turned to Ireland, becoming one of the largest funders of the “No” campaign in the recent (successful) marriage equality referendum.
Their activity is not limited to the Emerald Isle. Uganda’s “Kill the Gays Bill” was the work of Scott Lively, a pastor from Massachusetts. Defeated at home, these Americans have become missionaries of misinformation abroad. From Uganda to Belize, Ukraine and Russia, anti-gay Americans posing as Christian ministers are pulling in funding for their organizations by making life more difficult and dangerous for LGBT people around the globe.
Domestically, LGBT citizens have been told their love is equal, but that they can also legally be fired for it. Abroad, LGBT people have heard America is protecting the rights of same-sex couples, while they themselves are subjected to persecution inspired by American hate groups. So we must not let complacency keep us from finishing the push for full equality for those in these less-fortunate areas. If history has taught us anything, it is that equality is not a finite resource, something that weakens the wider it’s spread — instead, it flowers wherever it’s sown, builds upon those who enjoy it, and gathers strength as it swells.
Our rapid progress may have created mixed messages, but it has also taught us not to wait for “leaders” or politicians. The responsibility lies with us, the storytellers — artists on the screen and stage, plaintiffs in courtrooms, and thousands of brave individuals in their homes and hometowns bravely sharing the truth of who LGBT people are, and humanizing the struggles of those still living in fear today.
Dr. Frank Mugisha Ugandan LGBT Rights Activist: