As recently as 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that states could criminalize same-sex relationships, and dismissed the legal challenge to state laws that classified LGBT people as outlaws as “facetious.” Just a little more than 25 years later, the court ruled that DOMA violates the federal guarantees of due process and equal protection because of its “interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages.” Rarely has any movement achieved such dramatic progress in such a short period of time.
And yet for most LGBT people in this country, everyday life is still rife with discrimination, economic and social inequality, violence, and the threat of violence. The reality is, nearly 30 states still do not recognize same-sex relationships in any way and treat even longtime partners as legal strangers to one another.
Many states still provide no way for both partners in a same-sex couple to be legal parents, which can mean that one of the parents has no ability to provide health insurance or make medical decisions for a child, and that the child may end up in foster care if the legal parent dies. Twenty-nine states still have no statewide protections against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, and even more — 34 — have no statewide protections against discrimination based on gender identity. More than a quarter of all homeless youth still identify as LGBT. Transgender women of color still face one of the highest rates of hate violence of any group in the country. And virtually no states give significant protections to unmarried couples or to diverse family structures, such as female couples co-parenting a child with a male friend, or two same-sex couples raising a family together.
But if past performance is any indication of future trends, we can change this. We came to this moment because countless LGBT people and our friends, families, and allies stood up time and again and pushed for a better world. We have come so far, but we are not done and we are not leaving anyone behind.
Here are 10 ways we can capitalize on our momentum and accelerate change — even in more challenging parts of our country.
1. Stay informed and get involved! Especially at this critical moment, on the cusp of so much change, we need all hands on deck. Get involved in your state and local equality groups, and support NCLR and the other national advocacy groups who are fiercely committed to achieving full equality for all LGBT people.
2. Reach out to allies, who have been incredibly supportive of LGBT equality, and speak out on issues such as immigration reform, voting rights, workers’ rights, reproductive justice, disability rights, and race and gender equity. In addition to the fact that these issues directly affect many people in our community, we would not have made anywhere near the progress we have made without the strong and unflinching support of other civil rights movements and leaders. In the words of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, “racial hostility, homophobia and misogyny are braided together like strands of the same rope. When we fight one, we fight them all.”
3. Remember that our families come in many different forms and that we need protections for unmarried couples and parents as well as the freedom to marry. Speak up when people make disparaging comments about single or unmarried parents, and stand up for the principle that all children deserve full legal protection regardless of their parents’ sexual orientation, gender, or marital status.
4. Support the push for marriage equality through legislation and state court litigation in the next tier of winnable states, including Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New Mexico, among others. Donate often and early, and encourage others to do so as well, to Oregon’s effort to repeal its constitutional marriage ban through a direct voter initiative in 2014, as well as to any other such efforts.
5. Enact civil unions or comprehensive domestic partnership laws in states such as Wyoming, and, no matter how conservative your state, enact local domestic partnership registries to build a foundation for statewide recognition.
6. Urge your congressional representatives to support the Respect for Marriage Act, federal legislation that would repeal ALL of DOMA (not just section 3) and ensure that all married same-sex couples are entitled to ALL federal benefits, no matter where they live.
7. If you are a married same-sex couple living in a non-marriage equality state, don’t accept your state’s refusal to respect your marriage. If you are married and are willing to take the risk of encountering discrimination, say so on state forms, to your employer, neighbors, clergy, family members, businesses, and friends. Where you are entitled to spousal rights, benefits, or responsibilities, assert them, and if they are denied, consider taking steps to challenge the denial.
8. Get in touch with NCLR or one of the other national LGBT legal groups if you are denied a state or federal benefit based on your marriage, so that we can monitor whether states and federal agencies are complying with the law, help you protect your rights, and identify the strongest possible cases for potential legal challenges.
9. Urge your state and local representative to enact strong antidiscrimination laws that protect both LGB and transgender people. Urge your congressional representative to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a proposed federal law that would give LGBT people an equal opportunity to work.
10. Educate yourself about the issues facing LGBT youth and the latest research and best practices on how to engage ethnically and religiously diverse families and communities in respectful dialogue about the tremendously positive impact of family and community acceptance of LGBT youth.
The Supreme Court just struck a fatal blow to two of the most virulently anti-LGBT laws ever enacted in this country — Prop. 8 and section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. History — and momentum — are on our side, but each of us must make a genuine commitment to keep that momentum going until we can all cross the finish line together. Few other generations of LGBT people and allies have had such a clear opportunity to create lasting change that will benefit our community for generations to come.
SHANNON PRICE MINTER, ESQ., is the legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.