All Over The Map | July 2015

By Liz Massey, July 2015 Issue.

By the time you read this, I’m hoping the United States has achieved full marriage equality. If it hasn’t, it’s likely that a fractured U.S. Supreme Court decision has created chaos and further muddled the question of whether states are required to recognize the validity of same-sex marriages.

Regardless of the outcome, July is a fine month to ponder the meaning of the Constitution and what it means to be an American. Independence Day reminds all citizens of what had to happen for the colonists to establish a “more perfect union.” It’s also a good time for LGBT Americans to consider how inequality robs us of our full citizenship.

Even if we now have unfettered access to legal marriage, there are plenty of situations in which our openly queer status can lock us out of the good things in life – including employment, education, parenting/adoption, housing and public accommodations. For many generations, our tribe couldn’t serve in the military, couldn’t teach school, could be fired from a federal government job if we came out and we couldn’t sponsor a same-sex partner who wanted to immigrate to the U.S. There were even some places – including New York City immediately before Stonewall – where it was illegal to knowingly serve a homosexual a drink at a bar.

All of these (perfectly legal) past and present limitations on our behavior have constricted our participation in American civic life. And that’s exactly how our opponents want it. It plays to their advantage, since between the country’s changing demographics and the emergence of a super-majority that favors LGBT equality, it’s hard to see how at this point they could win a fair fight between their view of who deserves civil rights and ours.

Asserting our civil rights through filing court cases and advocating for inclusive legislation is one critical path for our community to achieve our full citizenship. The other path involves asserting our civic responsibilities – which means purposefully encumbering ourselves with the same duties required of our straight co-workers, friends and neighbors. Here are a few of the obligations that LGBT people should consider assuming, if they haven’t already, in order to be able to take their rightful place in American life:

• Pay attention to the local news. 

Find a newspaper, magazine, TV station, blog, online publication or smartphone app that can keep you informed. And if doing so doesn’t entail a visit to Trollville, share your perspective on the news with thoughtful commentary.

• Take an active interest in public schools and public libraries. 

These two institutions are portals to equal opportunity for all.

• Take part in initiatives that make your neighborhood better. 

Whether the solutions are promoted by government, private enterprises or public-private partnerships, being involved in community improvement projects can make you valuable new friends and (re)kindle hope that Americans can create livable communities by working together.

• Be political. 

What has two generations of “out” people who are proud to say “I’m not political” gotten us? Not nearly as much equality as we could have if we had all advocated for what’s right and fair!

• For heaven’s sake, VOTE! 

And vote for people who support our rights. You don’t even have to leave the house for this one!

As we get closer to full legal parity, we will face more and more backlash from the shrinking number of Americans who wish to keep us disenfranchised. When we experience that, it’s easy to get discouraged and want to turn our backs on mainstream society. There have been times when it made sense to focus on self-help, such as during the worst years of the AIDS pandemic in the early 1980s. But to consider such a course of action in 2015 would be foolhardy. We would be missing so many opportunities to collaborate with our allies, whose ranks are rapidly growing. We’d also be turning our backs on 20 years of legal victories, which for many of us have restored our faith in “equal justice under the law” that our system of government promises us. The momentum at this moment is forward, not back.

I’ve quoted Harvey Milk many times in this column, and for good reason. His words still resonate 37 years after his assassination because he was one of the first queer politicians to place his gay-rights campaigns squarely in the tradition of striving for the American Dream.

Milk told his audiences that “rights are won only by those who make their voices heard.” He knew that LGBT Americans, like all minority groups within the country, had the chance to seize their full citizenship if they were willing to fight for it.

“All men are created equal,” he said. “No matter how hard they try, they can never erase those words. That is what America is about.”

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