Defeating DOMA & Prop 8: We’ve Made History, but We’re Far From Finished

Keegan O’Brien  Photo: Paul Weiskel

Keegan O’Brien
Photo: Paul Weiskel

By: Keegan O’Brien*/Special to TRT—

Wednesday June 26th 2013 will be a day that’s remembered in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer history, and our community’s long and turbulent struggle for full equality. On June 26th the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in U.S. vs. Windsor that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA, which denies federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples by only recognizing marriages between a man and woman, was unconstitutional due to its violation of the equal protection clause under the 5th amendment. On the same day, the Court overturned Proposition 8 in California, a 2008 voter referendum that revoked same-sex marriage rights and sparked a national uproar, claiming that its defenders had “no legal standing.” As a result, same-sex couples in California, the most populace state in the country, will once again be able to marry, and couples in states that have already legalized gay marriage will now have full access to federal marriage benefits. They did not however, go as far to rule that same-sex couples nationwide had a right to full marriage equality.

It was around 11:00 a.m. when I first heard the news of the Supreme Courts rulings, first on DOMA then Prop 8, and I instantly broke into tears. I was overtaken by an overwhelming feeling of joy as Facebook statuses and news updates celebrating the victory continued to pour across my computer screen. On some level, I was in shock, I almost couldn’t believe it. Even in 2013, being gay in this society isn’t easy. The daily emotional and psychological trauma we endure for living outside the sexual and gender norms of a deeply homophobic society takes its toll on all of us; from higher rates of family rejection, homelessness, suicide, mental health problems, and substance abuse to everyday feelings of depression, insecurity, and alienation. So, to have the most powerful court in the country declare—even if it’s only partially—that we are human beings deserving of equal treatment under the law, is a pretty profound experience. Victories like this not only provide very real and important material improvements to our lives, especially for working class queer couples, while also taking us a step close toward equality and liberation, they also restore in oppressed people a basic sense of human dignity, self-worth, and confidence that oppression, discrimination, and violence continuously rip away from us. In doing so, they imbue us with the sense of confidence and pride required to hold our heads up high and keep fighting for more. For anyone genuinely concerned with justice and equality for LGBTQ people, this week’s historic ruling is a victory to celebrate. 

What makes last week’s victory so bittersweet is knowing that the Supreme Court simultaneously made other rulings that stripped away civil rights for people of color.

While I’m ecstatic about our community’s victory, and how it will improve the lives of so many same-sex couples, I am also well aware that our dream of full equality is far from achieved. We cannot consider ourselves free and equal as long as 37 states maintain constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, 29 states lack any employment protection for sexual orientation and 37 states for gender identity and expression, there persists a shameful and obscene epidemic of queer youth homelessness and suicide, queer youth lack access to safe schools and relevant curriculum, LGBTQ people lack access to safe, accepting, and accessible healthcare and housing,  too many queer people of color remain locked inside prisons and detention centers because they’ve been victimized by our country’s racially discriminatory and unfair criminal justice and immigration systems, or while LGBTQ people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine continue to live under the bombs and violence of American militarism. While full LGBTQ equality and social justice includes marriage equality, it also extends far beyond on it, and our vision of freedom must encompass the struggles of LGBTQ people everywhere, not just those of us within America’s borders.

What makes last week’s victory so bittersweet is knowing that the Supreme Court simultaneously made other rulings that stripped away civil rights for people of color. The first being their decision to rule against the legitimacy of affirmative action, the second being their ruling to role back Native peoples sovereignty and self determination, and third being their elimination of important sections of the 1965 Voter Rights Act, an important gain won by the Civil Rights Movement. Meanwhile, the Texas state legislator came incredibly close to passing a bill that would have shut down all but 5 abortion clinics in the state. Thankfully they were stopped by the bravery of Senator Wendy Davis, who gave a 13 hours speech to block the senate from voting, and tens of thousands of Texan women and their allies who took over the capitol building with chants of “KILL THE BILL!”

While we should celebrate the defeat of DOMA and Prop 8, we need to be filled with outrage over the Supreme Court’s and our political system’s other shameful attacks on civil rights. Our community isn’t just lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer; we are also women, people of color, immigrants. While we fight for full LGBTQ equality, we must also build a movement that is based on the politics of solidarity and addresses the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class. We should think critically before we jump forward with praise for the Supreme Court’s ruling, considering these are the same justices who stripped away the civil rights of our sisters and brothers of color. Even when we like the Supreme Court’s rulings, can we not also recognize how profoundly undemocratic it is that nine unelected judges, totally disconnected from the lives of ordinary people and the rulings they make, can make such sweeping decisions that have such a profound impact on people’s lives? Why should the basic civil rights of oppressed and marginalized groups be put up to a vote, or the opinion of nine judges, anyway? Shouldn’t these be recognized as basic human rights guaranteed to all people? 

Our community isn’t just lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer; we are also women, people of color, immigrants. While we fight for full LGBTQ equality, we must also build a movement that is based on the politics of solidarity and addresses the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class.

In the aftermath of these important victories, many from the mainstream gay political establishment, such as the Human Rights Campaign and MassEquality, have been quick to praise the efforts of politicians, judges, and lawyers, and credit them with these accomplishments. This isn’t surprising, considering that the strategy perused by Gay Inc. for the past twenty years has been to take our movement out of the streets and into the folds of the Democratic Party, the halls of congress, and executive board rooms. While Gay Inc. raises millions of dollars every year, they continue to pour these resources into a political strategy that has given us slow progress at best, and a painfully narrowed agenda, that pushes too much of our community to the sidelines, at worst.

The mainstream gay political establishment has forgotten an important lesson from history; that it’s the power of ordinary people and their capacity to build fighting grassroots movements—not politicians, CEO’s, and judges—who are the motor force of progressive social change. The historic defeat of DOMA and Prop 8, and all the progress we have made as community since the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, is the result of tireless, uncompromising activism on behalf of ordinary LGBTQ people and our allies. It’s because we stormed the streets after the passage of Prop 8,  because 250,000 people mobilized for the National Equality March in Washington D.C in 2009, because countless activist have spoken out , sat in, signed petitions, and demonstrated in cities and towns across the country, and because millions of us have come out to our friends, family, and community, that we have transformed the national political climate around LGBTQ rights and pressured those in positions of power to act.

We can’t let opportunistic politicians steal away the credit for our victories so they can harness more votes and campaign contributions. We need to ask the tough and discomforting questions; like why can the Obama administration take our votes and money and use it to bail out Wall St., but not deliver an all-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act in his first four years in office? How can we consider politicians who close our schools, shut down our youth homeless shelters, and eliminate these services with the funding they need to address the epidemic of queer youth homelessness, suicide, and bullying, our “allies?” Our job as a movement isn’t to make politicians feel comfortable, or get cozy with CEO’s and Wall St. Our job is to fight for a world we deserve to live in, to demand what we want, and what our community needs, not what we are told is realistic by people who live in a world totally disconnected from most of our lived experiences. 

The mainstream gay political establishment has forgotten an important lesson from history; that it’s the power of ordinary people and their capacity to build fighting grassroots movements—not politicians, CEO’s, and judges—who are the motor force of progressive social change.

Today, we celebrate the power of our community to come together and struggle collectively, and the advancements we have made in our long effort for full equality. But, we need to remember that we have a long way to go until we achieve the dream of full federal equality, and live in a society that is affirming of people all across the sexual and gender spectrum. And, if there’s anything to be learned from our recent victories, it is the power of good, old fashioned people’s movement, grassroots activism, and protest. It will be our ability to break the rules, confront those in power, and fight—just like the women of Texas did on the night of June 26th—that we will make our goal of full federal equality a reality.

*Keegan O’Brien is a long time LGBTQ youth activist in Boston, anti-war organizer, a student at UMass Boston, a former board member of BAGLY, and member of the International Socialist Organization in Boston. He also has written extensively on LGBTQ social justice websites.

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