Op-ed: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
The response to Jo Becker's book from many of my friends and colleagues in the LGBT movement has had a profound effect on me. Most troubling of all is the impression that I personally am unaware or dismissive of the decades of hard work — often done in the face of personal risk and even harm — that made possible last year's groundbreaking marriage equality decisions from the United States Supreme Court. I want to respond to that line of criticism in particular, because it could not be further from the truth. And anyone who treats the successes of the past few years as the full story of this movement is missing something essential.
I think back to 10 years ago today, when committed and loving lesbian and gay couples across Massachusetts were watching the clock. It had been more than five months since the highest court in the state had issued a landmark ruling striking down the state’s unequal marriage laws in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, but the court had given the legislature a full six months to respond before same-sex couples were free to marry in the Bay State. And LGBT advocates who had been active in the marriage fight for years knew that Hawaii lawmakers had taken advantage of a similar window to stop marriage equality there in the 1990s.
But then, when the clock struck midnight on May 17, 2004, the most amazing thing had happened: nothing. The legislature didn’t act, and history changed forever as lesbian and gay couples were finally free to access an institution that the U.S. Supreme Court has called “basic and fundamental” in more than a dozen rulings throughout its history.
How did that day happen? To most Americans, those first photos and news clips of men marrying men and women marrying women seemed to come out of the blue, but that’s just because few had yet paid due attention to the LGBT advocates who had been laboring for decades to make that day possible.
Mary Bonauto argued that case, and she secured the first-ever civil unions in Vermont five years earlier. Today, Bonauto — and the team at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders — are the singular reason why New England is a bastion for marriage equality. She’s been rightly called the marriage movement’s Thurgood Marshall. And she wasn’t alone.
Evan Wolfson argued for marriage equality even earlier, in a transformative case in Hawaii in 1996. His leadership of this movement dates back to his law school dissertation, written at a time when few academic advisors wanted to be associated with an idea like marriage for same-sex couples. Today, Freedom to Marry — with Wolfson at its helm — continues to play an irreplaceable role in changing hearts and minds on marriage equality across this country, and he remains my greatest teacher on the importance of ballot-box fights for marriage in the states. And he wasn’t alone, either.
Andrew Sullivan took the argument for marriage equality public in a tectonic article in The New Republic in 1989. He followed it with the seminal 1995 book Virtually Normal that should be required reading for every newly-out person looking to get involved in marriage advocacy. Today, he’s an indispensable voice.
Robbie Kaplan secured a transformative ruling in Windsor last year that has been the foundation of every state and federal marriage ruling since. Edie Windsor made her private life public as Robbie made her case in the courtroom. Paul Smith changed everything by striking down all sodomy bans in Lawrence v. Texas. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been on the right side of history since even before their Supreme Court victory in Loving v. Virginia, has given us trailblazing LGBT advocates from Matt Coles to James Esseks. The invaluable contributions of the Williams Institute have provided countless advocates and attorneys with much of the concrete facts used in courtrooms and congressional hearings across the country. David Mixner and others have been relentless voices for civil rights and equality for decades. Gavin Newsom stood on the steps of San Francisco City Hall in 2004 to marry committed and loving couples and send a message to the nation. Kate Kendell and Shannon Minter at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Kevin Cathcart at Lambda Legal are leading the most aggressive and comprehensive marriage litigation efforts in the country at this very moment. Philanthropists like Jon Stryker are master strategists and dauntless innovators. And no one can hold a candle to Tim Gill, who, for decades, has dedicated both his money and his brilliant strategic mind to the cause, keeping a relentless focus on expanding equality in the states and always insisting on proven metrics for success.
That’s not an exhaustive list. No list on this subject can be exhaustive. Countless more led, lead, or will lead the fight for LGBT equality — not just marriage equality, but transgender equality, HIV/AIDS activism, workplace equality, immigration equality, racial equality, gender equality and economic equality.
It’s a blessing that the list is so long. Most LGBT people don’t even realize the brilliant minds that dedicated their entire lives to fighting for their equality. And, of course, even they followed in the footsteps of individuals like Harvey Milk, who paid the ultimate sacrifice for standing up and speaking out, or Bayard Rustin, the gay man who planned the 1963 March on Washington and worked tirelessly behind the scenes. Today, as every day seems to bring a new victory for marriage, we can’t forget that there was a time when there weren’t any victories for LGBT people, period. None. And the people on that list were fighting even then — often alone, but never ashamed.
I came out of the closet after many of these people had been active in the struggle for years. I'm not going to lie and say it wasn't a challenge for me. I grew up in Arkansas, where I went to a Southern Baptist church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night too. I spent my childhood thinking I didn't know a single other gay person in my town. And when I did finally come out, it wasn't due to some newfound personal fortitude; it was because the world had changed around me thanks to a national conversation on equality started by every single one of those advocates — and countless more. Simply put, I have nothing in common with the trailblazing courage of Rosa Parks.
Today, I’m proud to call those heroes my movement colleagues — in the fight for marriage, and in every other fight we engage in every day. And when the day does come that the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down every ban on marriage equality across this country, it won’t be any one lawyer who carries the day. And it won’t be any one plaintiff who was so uniquely inspiring as to demand a sweeping ruling. It will be because of all of them — and all of us, who today are lucky to stand on the shoulders of giants.
CHAD GRIFFIN is the executive director of the Human Rights Campaign.