THREE MONTH AGO, we were in the midst of celebrating Capital Pride and marking the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, which is universally acknowledged as the birth of the modern gay rights movement. Another anniversary quietly came and went with little recognition. On June 12, 1967, the United States Supreme Court unanimously struck down Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States.
This is important to note, because while today we are fighting the battle for marriage equality for the LGBT community, we must remember that this fight, while important, is not going to come easy, and it sure won’t happen overnight. To be sure, we have made great strides and have taken positive steps in the last few years. However, we are nowhere near our goal of true equality.
Today, it is hard to imagine a white man and a black woman not being able to marry one another. In fact, there is strong public support for it. But that was not the case 50 years ago.
IN JUNE OF 1958, Mildred Jeter, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were married here in the District of Columbia. Both were residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Some time after their return to their home, they were caught sleeping in their bed by a group of police officers who had invaded their home — which sounds eerily familiar to the machinations that led to the Lawrence v. Texas decision back in 2003.
The Lovings were charged with evading the Racial Integrity Act, a law banning marriages between any white person and any non-white person. In this violation of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages, the Lovings pleaded guilty, and were sentenced each to one year in jail. The judge suspended the sentence on the condition that they leave the state and not return to Virginia together for 25 years.
In their decision on Loving, the Supreme Court wrote in part, “Marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man.” The Declaration of Independence lists our inalienable rights as being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is one of the most famous phrases of our American history.
We struggle to compare the civil rights movement of black America to that of gay America. However, we need to understand that the history of Stonewall and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” does not equate to that of slavery and Jim Crow laws. While I say we cannot compare, I do believe they are tragic, cynical and appeal to man’s most base instincts of hatred of that which is different or not understood. We can’t compare, but we have learned from the struggles of black America.
WE HAVE LEARNED that we cannot merely focus our battles in state capitals. We can’t say “pretty please” to the majority heterosexual population that they not discriminate against us in hiring and housing. Yes, we’ve learned.
A few weeks ago on these pages, it was suggested that the National Equality March, scheduled for October would be an ill-advised protest. I respectfully disagree! Yes, the last two marches on Washington, April of 1993 and April of 2000, had major financial issues. And yes, only one-third of the anticipated one million participants showed up. But, look where we are today. We have openly gay and lesbian members of Congress. We have many (mostly Democratic, but a few Republican) allies who have formed the LGBT Equality Caucus. What if Martin Luther King had listened to those who said that it wasn’t the right time? Would we have had the Civil Rights March in 1963, which led to sweeping civil rights legislation the next year?
We not only need to hold our elected officials’ feet to the fire, but we also need to do the same with our community groups. That includes the Human Rights Campaign, the Victory Fund and even the organizers of the National Equality March.
As we continue our struggle for full equality, we must keep everything in perspective. Ten years ago, same-sex marriages did not exist anywhere globally. Five years ago, we lamented the fact that 11 states had just passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriages by wide margins. While there are 29 states that have constitutional amendments explicitly barring the recognition of same-sex marriage, said marriages are now legal in six states, and in seven countries around the world. And, as of July 7, those marriages are now recognized here in the District of Columbia.
Yes, this is a civil rights fight, and we must charge forward.
Originally published in the Washington Blade, July 10, 2009