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Did the Respect for Marriage Act Displace the Equality Act?

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A longtime LGBTQ+ activist contemplates whether perfection really is the enemy of progress.

Like many, I've been an advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community for a long time. In 2019, I began working with Freedom for All Americans and a coalition of individuals and state equality organizations towards advancing the Equality Act. There were advocates from Michigan to Maine, Georgia and Florida, Texas, Ohio and beyond. Our task was to educate the public and the polity to the on-going discrimination endured by LGBTQ + Americans. And that the Equality Act -- comprehensive, enduring non-discrimination federal legislation -- would alleviate and right this wrong.

It was humbling and exhilarating to work with scores of progressive grassroots activists toiling away in red states -- faith leaders, families, LGBTQ+ youth, journalists and elected officials. As a diverse working group, we addressed legislators and their constituents who, with education, might come to support the passage of federal equality legislation.

My undertaking was to create through the media a drumbeat of otherwise unheard voices of citizens and activists. Others organized and held countless meetings with elected officials. A million conversations took place -- to share personal stories and shed light on the need for protective legislation.

During this time, the House of Representatives twice passed the Equality Act. Twice it was stalled in the Senate.

After years of working under the burdens of the pandemic and the Trump/MAGA assault, it was no surprise, but a deep disappointment when it looked like hope for the Equality Act was all but dead. When SCOTUS repealed the right to abortion (Roe), and Justice Thomas called for revisiting other decisions which governed privacy, including same-sex marriage (Windsor), interracial marriage (Loving), and the decriminalization of sodomy (Lawrence) -- it looked like the final nail in the coffin. Equality legislation, already extremely unpopular in the MAGA dominated Republican world, fell resoundingly to the bottom of congressional priorities.

Fast forward to Washington D.C. on December 13, 2022.

When I received an invitation to the White House for President Biden's signing of the Respect for Marriage Act. I felt conflicted. I'll admit, I was honored, touched, even flattered to be invited to such an auspicious event. I knew too that the 13 Republican Senators who had voted for the Respect for Marriage Act were the very senators whom we had educated and sought to support the broader equality legislation. I wanted to be there, but could I celebrate this achievement when the Equality Act had been tabled? Was it a cynical case of bait and switch? We'd worked relentlessly to persuade senators to support equality legislation. At the final hour had our efforts been thrown behind codifying and protecting only the right to marriage?

Should I stay away? And what about the realities of the pandemic? Should I decline the invitation? At the urging of family and friends, I decided to go with the better angels and attend this once in a lifetime event.

I took an early morning train to Washington, invitation in hand. It was cold, but a crisp, sunny day. There was a lively crowd on the White House lawn when I arrived (media reported 3,000). I found a spot near the front, close to the elected officials "pen"-- that was fun. Surrounded by a sea of gay men, I was flanked by a family of two blonde, middle age, mid-western women and their four biracial children, there to see the president sign into law, an act that validated their parents' marriage and their family. I began to get over my thoughts about the Equality Act to see that something important was happening here.

The excitement and joy around me was real. The steps of the White House were filled with families who had fought in the courts over the years for the right to marry. Their children, some young, some grown, were with them to witness this historic day.

Senator Schumer spoke, Cyndi Lauper sang, "Dancing Queen" blared over the loudspeaker. Elected leaders like Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Carolyn Maloney, Adam Schiff, Jerry Nadler, Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin, Dianne Feinstein, and others poured in along side us.

"Hail to the Chief" played over the loud speakers. And President Biden spoke eloquently of our right to love, of equality - and signed the legislation into law.

But it was Nancy Pelosi who changed my mind. It was Pelosi, addressing the assembled, who raised my spirits, ameliorated my cynicism. She hit the refresh button on my feeling of hope, of value, and a reason to participate:

"Each and every one of you should pat yourself on the shoulder. Because regardless of how much we have done, internally maneuvering or taking the lead in our legislative capacities, and certainly the president, this would not have happened... without the advocacy, without the mobilization at the grassroots level. You all made this happen.

But our work isn't done. Our work isn't done and won't rest until the Equality Act is passed into law.

This fight is an essential thread in the fabric of our nation's history. Because at its core, America has always been about expanding freedom, not restricting it. Not restricting it.

To that end, I want, again, to salute all of you who have gathered here with us and so many more across the country who helped achieve this victory. Know your power. Take satisfaction. None of this would have happened without your mobilization, your advocacy, which not only expanded freedom for the LGBTQ+ community, but for all American -- inside maneuvering only takes us so far. It was you outside -- your patience, your persistence -- well, you weren't always so patient.

Your impatience, your persistence and your patriotism got the job done. Thank you for the personal defense you have made in this fight."

Pelosi recognized the importance of advocacy, of the critical role we'd played in this day -- the signing of legislation which not simply validated equality in marriage and intermarriage, but moved the needle forward for a more just, more equal, fairer world.

Pelosi, like many, has been on the barricades for 40 years, from her first House floor speech imploring the government to address the AIDS crisis, to passing the Affordable Care Act, to signing the House of Representatives' Respect for Marriage Act, to now stand alongside the president signing into law the civil right of every citizen to marry whom they choose and have their marriage respected at the federal level.

As I stood there, it flooded over me: The Respect for Marriage Act is not displacing the Equality Act -- nor obliterating the need for it, which she, Biden, and Schumer clearly articulated. It's about moving forward what can be moved, when it can be moved: stone by stone, together.

I felt honored to be a part of that forward motion. My faith in the efficacy of our community is renewed. As is my belief that there are some elected public servants and millions of fellow citizens who are committed to democratic ideals, and to the right to equality for all Americans. If we want more change -- and we do -- lets allow our spirits to rise with every achievement and continue to fight as a community with every breath.

Roberta Sklar is a communications specialist. She has served as the Director of Communications for the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, NY State Pride Agenda, The Task Force, OutRight Action International; and has supported a wide range of efforts to advance LGBTQ+, Reproductive and Human Rights.

Views expressed in The Advocate's opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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