Stonewall, Prop 8 and Gay Pride

05/25/2011 01:25 pm ET

Years from now, Proposition 8 is going to be thought of as the tragedy that sparked a revolution.

Gays and lesbians might find the pattern familiar: Stonewall, 40 years ago this month, remembered annually in Gay Pride celebrations around the country; AIDS 25 years ago. It has always been the case that our greatest community successes were built on the backs of what at first seemed like disasters.

Our strength is that setbacks prod us to work together even more closely.

Before last November, most gays and lesbians who wanted equal marriage weren't very active about it. We might talk to each other about inequality, but except for our activist wing, we weren't taking to the streets.

Marriage across the United States seemed like a pipe dream. When New England's Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders launched their 6 X '12 campaign - pressing for gay marriage in all New England states by 2012 - I almost laughed. No way, I thought.

At the time, only Connecticut and Massachusetts had equal marriage. California was taking it away. And New York, while it recognized marriages performed elsewhere, seemed blockaded by religious Democrats in the state senate.

But after the November vote for Proposition 8, gays, lesbians and our allies started marching in the streets. We started boycotting. We started writing letters. We started telling our stories. And it became clear: there are ramifications if citizens and legislators vote against us. We are paying attention. And we will act.

Then, suddenly, states were falling all over themselves to recognize marriage equality. Judges in Iowa quoted the original California decision recognizing the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. Maine and Vermont saw marriage barrel through their state legislatures. Soon we will add New Hampshire. The District of Columbia started recognizing marriages performed elsewhere - and Maryland might go the same way in a few weeks. The Nevada state legislature overturned the governor's veto of domestic partnership rights. Pennsylvania is taking up a marriage bill.

Some insiders, like New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and state Senator Tom Duane, are even predicting that New York may vote for equal marriage before Pride.

What felt like a Sisyphean struggle a year ago now feels like a landslide.

Even last week's California state Supreme Court decision felt something like a victory. The judges, in upholding Prop 8, ruled as narrowly as they could. Minority rights can't be taken away, they said. They can only be called something else.

Said the opinion:

"Instead, the measure [leaves] undisturbed all of the other extremely significant substantive aspects of a same-sex couple's state constitutional right to establish an officially recognized and protected family relationship and the guarantee of equal protection of the laws.

"Among the various constitutional protections recognized in the Marriage Cases as available to same-sex couples, it is only the designation of marriage - albeit significant - that has been removed by this initiative measure."

The court didn't overturn the 18,000 marriages. And they didn't overturn gay rights. Gays and lesbians have all the rights of married couples, they said. Just not the word "marriage."

And yes, that's "separate but equal." But - good news! - that's SEPARATE BUT EQUAL. And in our country we have a 50-year understanding that separate but equal is not equal at all. Which means that the decision is even more likely to be overturned the next time voters head to the polls.

June is Gay Pride month, and we have a lot to celebrate. We still have to fight. We still have to do the difficult personal and political work of reaching our to communities of faith and of color to reassure them that by supporting us, they don't lose anything. But what could have been a disaster that felled us instead inspired us to rise.

Forty years ago this month, we had Stonewall. Now we have Prop H8. It is exactly what our movement needed at exactly the time we needed it.