Today, the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges. It’s the moment so many have worked towards for so long. Eleven years ago, when Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, it was radical, and the state faced real fallout. But the nation is not the same as it was in 2004, and it certainly isn’t what it was in 1972, when the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal against Minnesota’s same-sex marriage ban for “want of a substantial federal question.” Now, same-sex couples are getting married in 37 states—red states and blue, northern and southern—and in a few months, I am confident that the Supreme Court will establish this as a fundamental right to every family, gay or straight.
On this momentous day, it’s important to look back at how we’ve moved the needle so far. Heeding the lessons of the past, we may find a way forward on the many other issues facing the LGBT community, as well as those struggles of our brothers and sisters denied the full rewards of citizenship because of their gender or skin color.
Yes, we’ve arrived here thanks to decades of hard work and bravery, but the difference in the past decade is this: the LGBT community refused to settle any longer for the crumbs of equality we’d been seeking for decades. We arrived at this moment because a select few heeded the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from his Birmingham Jail: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’… This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
In 2008, following Prop 8, a small group of us demanded Federal action on the issue of marriage equality so that our fight might reach the Supreme Court and our gains might apply to all Americans. Those calls were met with criticism by many of the social justice organizations and mentors I respect. I don’t tell this story to complain. It’s their shoulders we stand on. I tell this story because there is a lesson in it: sometimes criticism from those you admire is a sign you’re forging ahead, a sign that you’ve found a new way forward. But the truth at that time was that only 39% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. So where did this faith come from?
First, I’m a student of Harvey Milk. When Milk first ran for public office, he too was told it was too soon and to quiet down. He responded with: “Masturbation can be fun, but it does not take the place of the real thing. It is about time that the gay community stopped playing with itself and get down to the real thing. There are people who are satisfied with crumbs because that is all they think they can get when, in reality, if they demand the real thing, they will find that they indeed can get it.”
Second, I grew up in Texas. There, I learned at an early age that the way to earn respect was to treat myself with respect, to stand up for myself in a fight. I was taught that asking for crumbs sends the message that crumbs are all you think you’re worth, just as strategies of “incrementalism” often reveal themselves to be built on a foundation of self-doubt.
And third, fueled by the ugly reality of Prop 8, I saw the energy and anger of a new generation marching hand in hand with many of my heroes returning to the fight, and as I wrote in an op-ed with Cleve Jones in 2008, this gave me faith that “now” was the time for full federal equality in all matters for LGBT people.
So we did our homework. And then against the warnings of so many I otherwise admire, we hired a skilled team and filed a federal case against Proposition 8. In doing so, we helped start a national dialogue in which people from every state in the country were invited to participate—and they did. In some of the least expected corners of our country—Utah, Texas, Virginia—LGBT people began to take to the streets, come out in mass and demand our fundamental rights be recognized by the Federal courts. And as more people came out and more plaintiffs filed suit in every state, our plight gained the personal touch needed to inspire acceptance. As a community we were no longer asking for partial equality, we were demanding the whole thing nationwide. We were demonstrating self-respect, and that’s how we won respect. Today, over 60% of Americans support same-sex marriage.
A victory at the Supreme Court this summer will be a testament to the bravery of plaintiffs like Obergefell, and like Perry in Prop 8, and Windsor in DOMA, and the scores of others across the nation who refused to accept the crumbs of incrementalism, who stood up in the face of criticism to fight for full equality in the Federal courts. But when the cheers and wedding bells subside, let us not forget the lesson of what brought us here, as we work toward full equality for LGBT people in all matters. And let us share the lessons of big goals and bold action with our brothers and sisters still struggling for gender equality, for the rights of racial minorities, for working people, and for all those striving for an equal shot in this country. No more crumbs.