In the U.S. today, the tide is turning in support of both marriage equality and improved rights for the LGBT community. However — as always — a minority of the country is resisting progress and hampering the attainment of equality for all Americans. In the last two years, the number of states that allow or will soon allow gay marriage has doubled, with 12 states and the District of Columbia having passed marriage equality statutes or amendments. As a recent New York Times blog pointed out, this number is expected to increase, but only for a short time. Historically, some states have been extremely resistant to social change, meaning that even decades after the vast majority of states legalize gay marriage, there will still be parts of the country where all men and women are not recognized equally under the law.
The same situation was played out in the middle of the 20th century, as civil rights for African Americans passed in the vast majority of states, but remained untouched in most of the South. Federal court rulings helped to end a great deal of discrimination at the local and state level, but federal statutes and a constitutional amendment had to be passed to stop some of the most egregious violations of equal protection under the law.
Though it may not be possible to say with utter certainty that Southern states would have continued discriminatory practices without federal intervention, there are a plethora of examples in which former Confederate states attempted to subvert and challenge federal civil rights laws that are now almost universally accepted. It wasn’t until 1987 that the state of Mississippi repealed its law banning interracial marriage, and until 1995 that it ratified the 13th Amendment, banning slavery. Even in 2012 — nearly 50 years after the Loving v. Virginia case officially made anti-miscegenation laws like that in Mississippi illegal — one in five Alabama Republicans and more than one in four Mississippi Republicans believed interracial marriage should be against the law. This data doesn’t even include the multiple court cases and legislative battles in the south against federal anti-discrimination laws.
Many parallels have been drawn between the civil rights movement and current fights for LGBT equality, but the need for federal intervention in both situations is one of the most apt of these comparisons. Though early in a movement, a state-by-state strategy is key in building support, eventually the tide must turn nationally. The current Supreme Court cases dealing with marriage equality — U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry — will likely be two of the biggest first steps in a national conversation about gay rights, but litigation cannot be the only aspect of this fight. Federal legislation addressing not only gay marriage, but also discrimination in the workplace, housing and other areas of life must be proposed and eventually passed in Congress.
When it comes to divisive social issues like racial equality and gay marriage, the U.S. has a history of seeing certain groups linger in the past as the rest of the country moves forward. Arguments against equal rights for blacks would be heard as simply another point of view, even as recently as 30 years ago. But in today’s society, racism is unacceptable and has no legitimate place in the national conversation. In a matter of decades, the same will be true for arguing against gay marriage and LGBT equality. Some parts of the country will continue to be stuck in the past on LGBT rights, but the vast majority of states will move forward.
The U.S. cannot maintain itself as a true democracy when certain citizens have full rights in some places but not in others. Even in my short lifetime, I’ve spoken with black friends who talk about being treated differently in certain cities and states because of their race. Some have encountered people who are simply rude, while others have experienced full-on hatred and a determination to continue old ways in whatever manner possible. No one could say for sure, but it’s highly likely that most of the South — as well as other parts of the country —would have continued with Jim Crow were it not for federal legislation forcing progress.
Obviously, governments cannot fully legislate morality and equal treatment. However, important action can be taken to stop discrimination, and it’s our duty as citizens in a free country to continue down the road of progress — even if that means dragging parts of the country with us, kicking and screaming the whole way.
James Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.