In 1986 my grandfather took me into a voting booth. It remains one of the most influential moments of my life, not just because he put me on his shoulders and let me pull the lever, or because I felt the excitement of something new. What was really striking was learning, years after he died, that he could not read or write. Born to sharecroppers in Virginia, he never received a formal education. Still, in a country that didn’t value his education, Grandpa Charlie understood the importance of participating in his community: through the neighborhood civic association, and by exercising his right to vote.
Grandpa Charlie didn’t live to see me graduate from college, his first descendant to do so, he didn’t live to see me come out as gay, and he didn’t see me go on to lead a national civil rights organization and fight the type of injustice that kept him from an education. I hope he’d be proud — because every day it's his story, his dreams for my future, and his belief that his voice mattered that inspire me to fight smarter, work harder, and dream bigger.
I’ve thought a lot about Grandpa Charlie in what has proved to be a bittersweet week. First the good news: the Supreme Court’s decisions to strike down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, thereby extending federal benefits to same-sex couples, and Proposition 8, paving the way for marriages to resume in California, are a monumental victory. They show what is possible when we build strong movements, work for cultural change, and monitor the courts. The message these rulings send to young people and the opportunities that they open for thousands of committed couples and their families cannot be understated.
I was personally invested in both decisions: I oversaw all of GLAAD’s advocacy work for four years and worked at the organization for six, and I now serve as the only openly gay leader of a national black civil rights organization, ColorOfChange.org. But the issue, to me, is not just about LGBT rights and the freedom to marry. It has always been about social justice — not one group’s victory over another but our collective progress. One fundamental truth for me is that when oppressed people win, they win for everyone. That’s true for the racial justice movement, for immigrant rights, or feminist or gay rights. Their legislative, legal, and cultural victories don’t just open up opportunities for one particular oppressed group – they empower all of us. The push for gay rights and marriage equality owes a big debt to the pioneers of the civil rights movement half a century ago. Likewise, the feminist movement hasn’t just allowed little girls to have bigger dreams; it has opened the way for little boys to be the best of themselves too.
And then there’s the bad news. At ColorOfChange my week was spent responding to the Supreme Court’s attack on the Voting Rights Act. The decision in Shelby v. Holder, gutting one of the signature achievements of the civil rights movement, is part of a coordinated effort to make it harder for black people, other people of color, women, and young people to vote. This rising American electoral tide — the coalition that elected and reelected Obama, has put pro-gay candidates into office around the country, has defeated antigay ballot measures, and has advanced gay rights at extraordinary speed — poses a clear threat to reactionary forces in our country. The lawsuit at the heart of the Supreme Court decision was clearly meant as a backlash against us. We should make no mistake — without the Voting Rights Act and its enforcement, the rising American electorate doesn’t give us the type of political victories that have been part of the wind underneath the wings of the marriage equality movement.
This week’s contrasting rulings from the Supreme Court remind us that we must seize opportunities for progress but also be mindful of the opposition that would set us all back. In particular, we need to make sure that our victories are sustained and do not get undermined by gradual pushback from the other side.
Going forward, we can expect to see conservative forces advancing their opposition to LGBT equality by continuing to seek religious exemptions and other opt-out measures. Through their rhetoric, they will attempt to label the oppressed minority as an oppressive minority assailing their rights. We know this because they’ve already done it with the civil rights movement, rebranding the push for racial equality as an expression of racial entitlement.
As it is for so many, my Grandpa Charlie’s civic participation was about the fulfillment of this country’s promise, and the struggle that so many of us continue – to be heard, to be visible, to be counted, to express our will for a better future, regardless of whether we are privileged or vulnerable, majority or minority, in favor or out of favor with those in power.
This week was full of rejoicing and disappointment, and another reminder of the complexity of oppression, opportunity, and power, and the work we must do to not just change culture and win victories, but to hold on to those victories. The road we are on is a long one that will be full of more victories and some setbacks, I remain just as hopeful and inspired about what we are able to accomplish if we work together as that boy on his grandfather’s shoulders — the levers I am pulling now are different, but the promise remains the same.
RASHAD ROBINSON is the executive director of ColorOfChange.org, the largest online civil rights organization in the country. ColorOfChange.org recently launched FreeToVote.org, a movement in response to the Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder.