Our path forward

By Cheryl Jacques

Originally published on Advocate.com January 07 2005 1:00 AM ET

The struggle for gay civil rights is at a crossroads in America, and even within the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community there are differences of opinion about how the struggle for equality should proceed. While many committed leaders are continuing the long march toward full equality, including equal marriage rights, others are arguing that we have gone too far too fast and that we should wait for society to catch up. In determining our path going forward, we should look to the past and learn from the leaders of the civil rights battles that have come before us.Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail in 1963 that “I had…hoped the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom…. [Some were arguing that civil rights needed to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’] Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.… Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”Important lessons come from the women’s suffrage movement as well. As Susan B. Anthony said, “Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation or social standards never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest are willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathies with despised ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences.”Some have interpreted the 2004 election results as a backlash against gay marriage. Thirty-nine years ago Dr. King dismissed the notion of “backlash” against the black civil rights movement. He stated, “There really is no white backlash, because that gives the impression that the nation had decided it was going to solve this problem and then there was a step back because of development in the civil rights movement. Now, the fact is that America has been backlashing on the civil rights question for centuries now.… The backlash is merely the surfacing of prejudices, of hostilities, of hatreds and fears that already existed and they are just now starting to open.”The lessons of history are clear: Equality cannot wait for a convenient time; society moves toward equality only when challenged to do so. Change does not come through cautious inaction but through principled insistence. A backlash isn’t a reaction, it is the surfacing of long-standing resentments and misunderstandings that can only be addressed if brought out into the open. And the most important lesson is this: Civil rights battles are never easy, and they are never short, but throughout our nation’s history, these battles have resulted in the expansion of equality to people who had previously been denied equal treatment under the law.2004 was a year of extraordinary accomplishment in the battle for GLBT civil rights. We have achieved things that once seemed like an impossible dream, including the legal marriage of more than 4,000 couples in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Through a national lobbying campaign unprecedented in our community’s history, we rallied enough votes in Congress to defeat the Federal Marriage Amendment that the opponents of civil rights have put forward to discriminate against us. We have moved several important steps forward toward fulfillment of the fundamentally American constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law.But many challenges remain, including the reintroduction of a federal marriage amendment and proposed constitutional amendments in Massachusetts and numerous other states that seek to make inequality a permanent condition. Even in Massachusetts, numerous corporations are hiding behind federal law to deny health care coverage to the lawful spouses of their gay employees. And we have elected leaders in this country, including in the Oval Office, who have placed themselves on the wrong side of history by actively campaigning against equality.So the question is, What do those who seek justice do today, tomorrow, for the next six months and the next 60 months to advance the cause of equality? First, we must recognize what election day taught us—that there is an enormous conversation and an enormous education campaign that still must take place in this country. The more that American voters learn about the aspirations we hold for ourselves and our families, the more they will realize that those aspirations are the same as theirs.We must also continue the conversation with corporate America. Thousands of lives are changed for the better every time a major corporation decides to offer fair workplace policies and benefits. Many major corporations are leading the way on the benefits of equal treatment, putting pressure on our elected leaders to follow. We must engage corporate leaders across America in the fight for equality.And we must expand the conversation to include religious leaders across America. Religious leaders have always played an important role in the battle for civil rights because equality is an issue of importance to people of faith. We must engage fair-minded religious leaders in this effort, and ensure that people understand that no one is seeking to force gay marriage upon religious organizations that object to it, but that we seek only to ensure equal access to the civil, legal institution of marriage.We must also strengthen our efforts to involve straight allies in this campaign. For advocates of equality, that means reaching out to your family and friends on a very personal basis. This last election showed us that because 51% of gay people don’t talk to their families, friends and colleagues about being gay, we don’t engage them. Consequently, they often don’t stand with us or vote with us. Coming out is about more than a personal journey, it is about joining a civil rights movement and making people feel passion about the role they can play as a partner in these efforts.The road to equality will be rocky, with days when much progress will be realized, mixed with days of setback and new obstacles. We have planted the flag of full equality solidly in the ground, and we must never lose sight of it. We must work tirelessly each and every day to get closer to it until we can gather around that flag as a community, as full and equal citizens of the United States of America.To those of you who are already fully engaged in the fight for equality, gay and straight, I want to say thank you. To those who have not yet gotten involved, I want to invite you to join us. Send me an e-mail at [email protected], and I will help you identify how you can have the greatest impact. I hope to hear from you, and I look forward to working with you in pursuit of a stronger, more inclusive America.