I can honestly say that I wasn’t sure I’d live to see the day when the freedom to marry was something enjoyed by same-sex couples in every state of the union. In fact, 20 years ago, when I committed the Los Angeles LGBT Center to fighting for marriage equality, a number of activists warned that our movement would be set back by this battle.
Now, with marriage legal in 36 states (and counting), it’s likely we’ll soon have a Supreme Court ruling that makes it legal for us to marry our loved ones in any state. It’s been so much faster than most of us expected that it’s the closest thing to an LGBT civil rights honeymoon I’ve ever experienced.
But before we think we’re done, let’s remember: Just like in real life, after the wedding comes the reception.
What will happen now in states where marriage is legal but public support remains low?
We’ve already seen how politicians like the governor of my birth state of Idaho, Butch Otter, will use our victory to burnish their Tea Party credentials, continuing their attacks on our families. As we inch toward November 2016, don’t expect to see many politicians from deep red states tout their support for marriage equality. But among folks who aren’t running for office in those states, I think we can expect a continuing shift of opinion.
People who don’t support marriage equality but are otherwise reasonable will begin to change. Just as President Obama purported to “evolve,” they’ll soon realize the future of civilization isn’t at risk simply because their LGBT colleagues and neighbors are getting married.
It would be very wrong, however, to mistake this for the end of LGBT discrimination. Though a majority of Americans now support our freedom to marry, bigotry continues, and it’s often expressed in very harsh ways. For example, the Los Angeles LGBT Center is caring for more homeless LGBT youth — abandoned and shunned by their parents — than ever before. In a majority of states, it’s still legal to fire LGBT people just for being who we are. LGBT seniors continue to face rampant discrimination in retirement and assisted living facilities, and the latest research shows that LGBT people earn less money than our counterparts.
The truth is, even the most historic court victories only start the process. Social change isn’t won top-down, it’s an ongoing effort — often a hard one — to bring discrimination and prejudice to an end. That’s why, by itself, Brown v. Board of Education didn’t solve the problem of race-based prejudice, and Roe v. Wade didn’t end the debate on reproductive justice.
And that’s why the center’s committed to the work of our Vote for Equality Project, which was featured this week in the highly respected journal Science. We know there’s nothing automatic about reducing and eliminating prejudice, yet it can be done. Our voter persuasion and prejudice reduction work — subjected to the most rigorous scientific measurement — made conservative voters markedly less prejudiced against gay and lesbian people. No other initiative subjected to such rigorous measurement has ever achieved these kinds of lasting results.
It took five years, 1,000+ volunteers, and 12,000+ conversations in neighborhoods across Los Angeles where voters crushed us on Proposition 8, but what we learned — and what we have now proven in a scientific study — is that we can change the hearts and minds of voters who are against us or who are conflicted by coming out to them and discussing their real, lived experience with LGBT people. That’s what enabled voters to not only support our freedom to marry but to lastingly shed their prejudice against us.
Of course, coming out doesn’t always — and immediately — end anti-LGBT discrimination. Sometimes coming out causes discrimination, even (and especially) by family members. But since the earliest days of the LGBT rights movement, leaders have understood the necessity to change public opinion by being out, and now — for the first time — we’ve proven how right they were.
Now the Los Angeles LGBT Center is applying what we’ve learned in an attempt to reduce other forms of discrimination, including the prejudice against our transgender brothers and sisters and — with funding from Planned Parenthood — the stigma against women who have had an abortion.
So as we celebrate this incredible year, let’s be grateful for the organizations, lawyers, plaintiffs, and activists around the country who have moved us so far forward on marriage. They’ve walked us down the aisle.
But we’re not done. Instead, we’re about to experience the broader public reception.
Yes, it’s tempting to think that the courts can do all the work for us. Yes, it’s hard work and can be uncomfortable to talk with voters who disagree with us. But let’s vow to continue the work that has proven to make voters less prejudiced, because marriage is only the beginning of what we need while we work to eliminate LGBT discrimination altogether.
LORRI L. JEAN is the chief executive officer of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.