In a decision that is sure to spark national controversy, a New York state judge called upon the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution to void a state-level ban on same-sex marriage last Friday. The case, filed by five same-sex couples who were denied the right to marry in New York City, is the latest in a recent chain of lawsuits attempting to solidify the rights of gays and lesbians. While some may denounce the decision in this case as another act of “judicial activism,” this precedent will only help ensure that all citizens receive equal rights under the law.
Unfortunately, these legal decisions have met stiff popular resistance, and the backlash from last year’s case in Massachusetts has been severe. After the Massachusetts High Judicial Court threw out a ban on gay marriage and declared that only full same-sex marriage rights fulfill the requirements of the equal protection clause, conservative and religious forces went into panic mode. In 2004, 11 states passed constitutional bans on gay marriage, and last week, President Bush reiterated his call for a federal constitutional defense of marriage amendment. Even here in Michigan — a state that went to Bush’s Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry — a large majority of voters supported Proposal 2, a state-level constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions. This public backlash against gay marriage, which threatens the equality of citizens regardless of sexual orientation, must be addressed.
Hopefully, the citizens of New York will not respond to this case with the same reactionary measures supported by Bush, the Republican leadership and a sizeable portion of the American public.
In the long run, gay marriage will probably be accepted and legalized — statutory bans only delay that inevitable day. However, until then, the cause of gay rights cannot be advanced solely through the courts. While decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education surely advanced civil rights during the 20th century, judicial decisions were complemented by mass movements against segregation and discrimination. If our current civil rights struggle — against forces that wish to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation — is to succeed, a similar mass movement must take root. Here in liberal Ann Arbor, members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community are openly supported by allies in the University administration, city government and general population. A clear majority of Washtenaw County voted against Proposal 2. However, in much of America, this public support has not appeared. Ensuring it materializes should be the focus of the LGBT community and its allies.
Starting from liberal bastions and progressive strongholds, advocates of LBGT equality should spread their message across the nation. The myths, misconceptions and blatant misrepresentations used to suppress LGBT rights and same-sex marriage must be deconstructed, so that the public support critical to a successful civil rights movement is built. With public support and courts committed to upholding the guarantees of the Constitution, discriminatory measures aimed at curtailing same-sex marriage rights — and LGBT rights in general — can be defeated.