At a recent speaking engagement, I asked a group of people what the world would be like if, from the day they were born, prejudice had never touched their lives. No homophobic bullying in school. Supportive families at home. No trans-bashing humor on TV. No workplace discrimination. Equal treatment of all families, regardless of orientation or gender identity. No closet, ever, because you had never, ever needed one.
Most of the people responded by talking about new laws that would be in effect, but they struggled to name the deeper, more personal impact on the texture of their daily lives. A few talked about what they would no longer fear, but struggled to articulate what affirmative would replace those fears. And one man wept and said it broke his heart that he could not imagine, even for a moment, what his life would have been without the constant presence of bigotry and hatred that he'd endured for more than 60 years.
I encourage everyone to try this exercise because it is surprisingly difficult, and because I believe it is the pathway to our most potent tools in response to government-imposed second-class citizenship: 1) a sense of urgency, and 2) the willingness to sacrifice in order to harness the transformational power of living "as if" -- as if the laws had already changed, as if society were already just. Sitting at a lunch counter that bans your presence is living "as if." Keeping your seat when ordered to relinquish it to someone that the law has designated your superior is living "as if."
As a child I was told that Rosa Parks was tired and fed up one fateful day and decided right then and there that she would not give up her seat. I was impressed by her courage. Later, when I learned that her protest had been contemplated at length with the consequences fully measured, I was inspired even more deeply by her willingness to intentionally sacrifice her freedom and safety to make the country confront the ugliness of Jim Crow.
So where are the places where we contemplate the consequences of living "as if" equality had already arrived? Housing discrimination, workplace discrimination, adoption/custody issues and hate violence are constant threats in LGBT lives, but not in inevitable or predictable ways. Where are the "sit-in" opportunities for the LGBT movement that can expose the contradiction between what our fellow Americans believe they stand for and what they allow to be done in their name?
Certainly, discrimination in marriage laws and the military provide the most direct opportunities. These are the places where the law defines us specifically as unequal, where we can make a reliable appointment with discrimination and be certain that it will show up right on time. Service members who come out while on active duty and fight for the right to continue to do their jobs are a model for this kind of personal commitment and sacrifice. They decide not to participate in their own discrimination. They and the organizations fighting for them are shifting public opinion in dramatic ways.
What is the civilian equivalent? What can we do that demonstrates not only the rhetoric of equality but the personal sacrifice that will awaken the conscience of a nation? What if those of us who are married lived as if our marriages are universally legally recognized? What if we literally refused to deny our spouse on any form, under any circumstances -- ever?
When the government asks legally married couples in Massachusetts to file as "married" in their state and then mark "single" on the federal tax form, they are asking that couple to participate in their own discrimination so that the government doesn't have to dirty its hands. They are literally demanding that we lie, to tell an untruth about our marital status, so that they can avoid confronting the difference between the hate-based discrimination they impose on us and the reality of our loving families. Imagine the ripple effect of government-issued letters to married gay couples ordering them to deny their spouse on federal forms. We have to compel these moments by deciding that our lives will be about honesty and self-respect -- even if it comes at a price.
Rosa Parks showed us that even one family refusing to participate in their own discrimination will have an impact. But thousands of us, all of us, can decide to leave the discrimination up to the other side. We can refuse to collaborate in our own discrimination if we refuse to deny our spouses even when the law tries to force us to lie; if we insist on paying our taxes as married couples, even though the federal government assesses our taxes as though we were single; if we risk being detained at the border by customs agents who insist that we mark "single" on declaration forms despite the marriage certificate we hold.
With growing frequency I hear from people who are weighing the consequences of refusing to deny their spouse ever again. I find myself asking the same questions, as well. Even with expert legal guidance detailing the risks, a good dose of uncertainty would be inevitable for anyone taking such a step into uncharted territory. Am I willing to take that risk? Are you? Are we all?
We march, we lobby, we educate, we protest, and we should and we must. But it seems increasingly clear to me that we must now do what civil rights movements have always done: with forethought and solemnity place ourselves visibly at odds with an unjust law, to provoke the consequences that can prick the conscience of our country.
Are we willing to pay the price that civil rights movements require at this critical moment, when a reinvigorated national dialogue is raging about our place under the law? Are we willing to compel the government be as ugly as it will have to be to enforce its determination that we are not married? Are we willing to say we are married, regardless of the costs?
"No excuses, no delays" is a fine rallying cry, but it's one that has to cut both ways. When we call our on our government to take action, we must also call upon ourselves to do more.
In focus groups we hosted several years ago, a panel of straight people who knew gay people said that they did not believe discrimination was real or nearly as bad as we described it, because their gay friends or family would have told them these things. Then, in the all-gay focus groups, participants were asked, "Do you share your fears and experiences of discrimination with your straight friends and family?" They said, "No, if they cared they would ask." They don't ask, we don't tell, and rarely are they required to see with their own eyes the deep harm and real pain inflicted by laws that tell us we are less than our neighbors.
Every civil rights struggle in this country has required people to sacrifice and make institutionalized discrimination so visible that no one could avert their eyes. People stepped forward knowing that they could lose their homes, their jobs, their safety. They walked willingly toward hateful mobs and police with snarling dogs. They turned a proposed one-day bus boycott into 381 days of solidarity. They sacrificed, and the country watched and changed.
Every civil rights struggle in this country has required people to sacrifice.
The country is watching. Are we ready to do the same?
Nadine Smith is executive director of Equality Florida.