We survived a summer of headline-grabbing and, in too many cases, deadly incidents that launched a polarizing national debate on race relations and police militarization. We survived the subsequent autumn of controversial judicial decisions that have led to outrage and even rioting. We survived these periods of chaotic tension only to realize a winter of racial discontent is upon us. The civil rights discussion has re-launched in full force and, to many, the nation seems to have begun to revert or stall instead of progressing into a 21st-century mindset.
That is a debate for another time and another forum. Rejoice, my fellow Americans, because while certain aspects of the Civil Rights movement may have hit a few bumps in the road, other aspects have made leaps and bounds, even as recently as the last few days. Specifically, the LGBTQ community has recently seen positive strides taken towards its standing in the eyes of governments across the United States. The advancement in terms of acceptance and legal rights for millions of non-heterosexual people in America has improved at an unprecedented rate.
As a straight, white teenage male, securely in the middle class, the relevancy of many of these debates over race and marriage may seem distant or inapplicable to my life. I have never felt the wrath of racial prejudice or feared oppression because of my sexuality. I have never felt the need to be wary of police while walking at night. I have never feared ridicule or persecution because of my sexuality. I have never feared that one day, my marriage to someone that I loved would not be recognized in the eyes of the law. The issues of the racial and sexual minority communities, on the surface, may not appear to be my issues.
But they are. They are all of our issues. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “their destiny is tied up with our destiny.” This was in reference to the “white brothers” who had marched to Washington, D.C. alongside the black people of King’s movement that late August day in 1963. These words, like many of his, still ring true today. All of our destinies are intertwined. If we, as Americans, and as human beings, cannot join together in support of our equal rights for all of our brethren, regardless of race, creed, religion or sexuality, then we do not truly exemplify humanity or embody the American spirit.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. It was in response to a Hawaii Supreme Court case that brought attention to ambiguity in the federal government’s views on marriage. Politics and national consensus were different at the time. The country was not ready. Eight short years later in 2004, after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that denial of same-sex marriage licenses violated the state constitution, marriages between same-sex couples were first recognized and upheld in any jurisdiction.
Today, just over a decade after the Massachusetts decision, thirty-seven total states recognize same-sex marriage thanks to legislative approvals, voting majorities and a furor of appeals courts decisions. Since the beginning of October of 2014, seventeen states, including Alabama just this past week, all began issuing same-sex or gender-neutral marriage licenses thanks to some legislative or judicial statute. You know when Alabama is not the last state to hop onto a civil rights bandwagon things are heading in the right direction. Next stop, Mississippi!
On top of the thirty-seven states (and the District of Colombia) that have approved same-sex marriage, there are twenty-one Native American jurisdictions and certain counties in Kansas and Missouri that have joined this rapidly-spreading recognition. West Virginia joined the party in October, but its LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws are notably weak and fail to protect against employment and housing discrimination based on sexuality. The minute town of Thurmond, W.V. decided to do something about its state government’s failures and passed a sweeping and much stricter ordinance accounting for all kinds of LGBTQ discrimination. All five residents of Thurmond approved the legislation.
In Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber will resign this Wednesday after balking on doing so several times. His Secretary of State, Kate Brown, will assume the governorship upon Kitzhaber’s resignation. In becoming Oregon’s 37th governor and second female governor, she will also become the United States’ first openly non-heterosexual governor. Brown is happily married to her husband, but has confirmed she is openly bisexual. This is far from Brown’s defining feature as a statesman, but it is still incredibly significant from a historical and societal perspective.
The most important news in recent months is the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the issue of same-sex marriage by June of this year. Perhaps it is a little late to the ballgame and perhaps not even necessary with the national trend of late, but all progress is good progress. Fighting state by state, jurisdiction by jurisdiction may no longer be necessary in four short months. Sure, the Supreme Court justices may only be taking this case to preserve their legacy and to say they didn’t avoid the issue for the entirety of their tenures, but who cares what their reasoning is if the end result provides a happy ending, or rather, a happy beginning to a new era?