A week before last Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court did the right thing, as well as something that many people would have believed impossible five years ago. It declared same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states. That day, I was filled with joy, and I still am. In the early years of my gay rights activism, I was not even sure if marriage equality would come in my lifetime. The Supreme Court’s decision reminds me of the quote from the great abolitionist, Wendell Phillips, that “liberty knows nothing but victories.” But we must also realize that this decision came because gay rights activists of all sexual orientations demanded it. If the Gay Rights Movement had not been persistent and even aggressive in demanding marriage equality, it would still not be the law of the land. The sea change on gay rights that has taken place in the last five years has been something to behold, but it didn’t happen by accident and probably would not have happened if activists had done what some people suggested and been content with civil unions and avoided speaking the truth: that opposition to marriage equality is inherently bigoted.
As much as a sea change has taken place, and as pivotal as the recent victory is, the fight does not end here. Gays and lesbians have equality under the law as far as marriage goes, but there is still public and private sector discrimination that must be addressed. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of gay marriage, the Gay Rights Movement has a colossal amount of momentum behind it. Gay marriage has probably been the gay rights issue that was historically the most unpopular with the public, which is why it made sense for it to be the cause that received the greatest amount of attention from many activists. After all, with such a Herculean task as legalizing gay marriage achieved, the rest of the movement’s legal victories will be accomplished much more easily. But only if activists take advantage of the momentum they have right now and vigorously press forward. I want to address three of the gay rights issues that seem extremely important to me going forward, though this should not be considered an exhaustive list.
1. Issuing of marriage licenses
Unsurprisingly, a number of county clerks are defying the Supreme Court’s ruling and refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In some cases, this continued discrimination has been openly supported by state governors. These clerks need to be fired and sued, and state governments that allow or encourage this kind of behavior should have the option of either completely privatizing marriage or being stripped of federal funds and prosecuted. If a public official cannot service all citizens equally, they have no business having a taxpayer-funded job. It’s that simple.
2. Anti-Discrimination laws
Most Americans believe that in all or most cases, businesses should not be allowed to discriminate against gay people. Unfortunately, most Americans do not realize that this is legal in many states. In much of the country, it is legal to not only refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex couple but also to deny someone a job or refuse to sell them a house because they are gay, or even put a “No Gays Allowed” sign on the door of a restaurant. This cannot and will not stand. Comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation for LGBT Americans must be passed at the federal level. I realize that many people find the idea of a bakery being forced to bake a cake for a gay couple or a photography business being forced to photograph a gay wedding unreasonable. But the fact remains that businesses cannot be permitted to have a two-tiered system in which heterosexuals receive a “gold package” with all available services, while gays get the “silver package” of everything except wedding-related services. The analogy used by some conservatives suggesting that this is equivalent to gay bakers being forced to make a “God hates f@#%s” cake is farcical. A Westboro Baptist-themed cake includes an explicit, extremely ugly political statement. A wedding cake that happens to be for a gay couple, even if it says something like “Bob Loves Bill” or “A Match Made in Heaven” is apolitical. The only reason this could possibly be seen as a political statement is that all too many people in society are worrying way too much about other people’s sexual orientations. The more appropriate analogy would be a gay baker who refused to make a cake for a heterosexual wedding, something few if any would do. If a gay baker does refuse such a request, by all means, prosecute them under anti-discrimination laws. But I think few gays are this close-minded. Any anti-discrimination legislation passed should have a narrow religious exemption similar to current anti-discrimination laws for other groups. A bigoted church should be allowed to refuse to ordain gay ministers. This does not mean that a religiously-affiliated business or religious school charging money for admission should be allowed to discriminate. A church cannot use its status as a shield for operating discriminatory businesses. If Notre Dame wishes to deny married student housing to gay couples, they can either close down or stop charging money for enrollment. And all institutions which receive funds or contracts from any level of government should be required to adhere to a full non-discrimiation policy.
3. Adoption and Foster Care
In much of America, it is legal for state adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate against gay prospective parents. Michigan has recently passed legislation that allows religious charities to discriminate against gays in their adoption services while still receiving money from taxpayers. Gays are just as qualified to raise children as heterosexuals. Kids need two parents; the gender of these parents is immaterial. And it is unacceptable to ask gays to be expected to pay their hard-earned money to support organizations that exclude them. Imagine the outrage from conservative Christians if a Muslim-run charity refused to allow Christians to adopt children and still received taxpayer funds. The solution is an ironclad federal law banning discrimination in adoption or foster care based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or race. The one exception should be for private organizations that do not charge prospective parents any money and do not receive one penny of public money.
America has made immense, almost unbelievable progress on gay rights. But it still has a long way to go. I am extremely optimistic about the strides that will be made in the next twenty years, and I am confident that full equality under the law is on the horizon.