The long road ahead

Fifty years after Brown v. the Board of Education, people forget that most victories in the fight for racial equality came after that court decision outlawing segregation. For gays and lesbians, it’s time to steel ourselves for the decades of work we still have to do to achieve equality.



There are lessons we can learn from those who went before us—for we are not the first to have to fight for equality and inclusion. In fact, we are not the first to have to challenge discrimination even in marriage.You see, marriage has always been a human rights battleground on which our nation has grappled with larger questions about what kind of country we are going to be:

  • questions about the proper boundary between the
    individual and the government,
  • questions about the equality of men and women,
  • questions about the separation of church and
  • questions about who gets to make important
    personal choices of life, liberty, and the
    pursuit of happiness.

As a nation, we have made changes in the institution of marriage and fought over these questions of whether America is committed to both equality and freedom in at least four major struggles in the past few decades:

  • We ended the rules whereby the government, not
    couples, decided whether they should remain
    together when their marriages had failed or become
    abusive. Divorce transformed the so-called
    “traditional” definition of
    marriage from a union based on compulsion to what most
    of us think of marriage today: a union based on
    love, commitment, and the choice to be together
    and care for one another.
  • We ended race restrictions on who could marry
    whom [that were] based on the traditional
    “definition” of marriage—defended
    as part of God’s plan, seemingly an
    intractable part of the social order of how
    things have to be.
  • We ended the interference of the government in
    important personal decisions such as whether or
    not to procreate, whether or not to have sex
    without risking a pregnancy, whether or not to use
    contraceptives—even within marriage.
  • And we ended the legal subordination of women
    in marriage, thereby transforming the
    institution of marriage from a union based on
    domination and dynastic arrangement to what most of us
    think of it as today: a committed partnership of

Yes, our nation has struggled with important questions on the human rights battlefield of marriage, and we are met on that battlefield once again.As in any period of civil rights struggle, transformation will not come overnight. Rather, the classic American pattern of civil rights history is that our nation goes through a period of what I call in my book, Why Marriage Matters, “patchwork.”During such patchwork periods, we see some states move toward equality faster, while others resist and even regress, stampeded by pressure groups and pandering politicians into adding additional layers of discrimination before—eventually—buyer’s remorse sets in and a national resolution comes.So here we are in this civil rights patchwork. On the one hand, as the recent powerful and articulate rulings by courts in Washington and New York states demonstrated in the past few weeks, several states are advancing toward marriage equality, soon to join Massachusetts in ending discrimination and showing nongay Americans the reality of families helped and no one hurt.Meanwhile, on the other hand, as many as a dozen states, targeted by opponents of equality as part of their own ideological campaign and for their political purposes, could enact further discriminatory measures this year, compounding the second-class citizenship gay Americans already endure.These opponents—anti–marriage equality, yes, but also, antigay, anti–women’s equality, anti–civil rights, anti-choice, and anti–separation of church and state—are throwing everything they have into this attack campaign because they know that if fair-minded people had a chance to hear the stories of real families and think it through, they would move toward fairness, as young people already have in their overwhelming support for marriage equality.Most important, as Americans:

  • see the faces and hear the voices of couples in
    San Francisco,
  • witness the families helped and no one hurt in
    Massachusetts, and digest the reassuring way in
    marriage equality is already finding acceptance
    there after just a few months,
  • [and] engage in conversations in every state,
    and many families chat with people like us and
    nongay allies...

Hearts and minds are opening, and people are getting ready to accept, if not necessarily yet fully support, an end to discrimination in marriage.

Tags: Commentary