A Single Garment of Destiny: Looking Beyond Marriage Equality and the Supreme Court

04/28/2015 06:27 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

by Dr. Dorothee Benz, Communications Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights

Lines began forming around 6 a.m. on Friday for general spectator seats at today's oral argument in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case in which the Supreme Court is widely expected to uphold a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. With a rapid shift in public opinion favoring marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples and a slew of federal appellate rulings extending the Equal Protection Clause to gay couples, there is an air of inevitability around today's proceedings. Whether the optimism is warranted will be seen at the end of June, but either way, a federal right to same-sex marriage must be understood in context, both a civil rights context in the U.S. and a human rights context around the world.

While gay marriage is now legal in 37 states, discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment and housing is also perfectly legal in 29 states. Discrimination against transgender people, meanwhile, is legal in 32 states. Queer youth face an epidemic of bullying -- 74 percent report verbal harassment at school and 55 percent fear for their physical safety -- and family rejection continues to swell the population of homeless LGBTQ youth in shelters and on the streets. Some 25-40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBTQ. Our legal rights are far from complete, and especially for children, our human rights to shelter and physical safety are anything but secure. This brings us to the matter of hate violence against queer people. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) recently sounded the alarm on what was then 14 known LGBTQ murders so far in 2015; since then, there has been at least one more. The brunt of the violence is borne by people of color (90 percent), and especially by trans women of color (67 percent).

Black lives matter. While white gay people sporting new wedding rings -- people like me -- are the ones most visible in the media, LGBTQ people of color are the ones caught in the cross-currents of the declining civil rights protections for African Americans, rising but incomplete civil rights for LGBTQ people, and the assault on bodies of color by both police and civilians. The Supreme Court issued its 2013 ruling gutting the voting Rights Act (Shelby v. Holder) the day before it ended the term with the Windsor v. U.S. ruling affirming federal recognition of same-sex marriages. LGBTQ people of color were left to wonder, in the words of poet Audre Lorde, "which me will survive all these liberations." If queer lives matter, then all queer lives matter, and it is incumbent upon the more privileged and visible members of our communities to join the work of the unfinished civil rights agenda for people of color in the U.S.

But our view must be broader still, looking beyond our borders. The rising tide of queer rights in the U.S. has a counterpart, which is the growing exportation of homophobic agendas by U.S. conservatives to other areas of the world. This cottage industry manufacturing repression and violence in Africa, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere -- well-documented, most prominently by Rev. Kapya Kaoma of Political Research Associates -- includes both fire-and-brimstone types like Scott Lively and smooth talkers like Rick Warren. Lively, who is being sued by Sexual Minorities Uganda and the Center for Constitutional Rights for his role in the persecution of LGBTQ people in Uganda, is a one-man persecution consulting operation, traveling the world working with leaders to strip LGBTQ people of their fundamental rights. He is particularly intent on criminalizing LGBTQ people's very existence along with all advocacy on their behalf. Warren, under intense pressure in the U.S., eventually denounced the notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda that Lively embraced, but also told the African press, "homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right. We shall not tolerate this aspect at all."

Homophobes like Warren and Lively have sized up the advance of LGBTQ rights and popular opinion in the U.S. and decided to take their hate on the road. "The future of Christianity is not Europe or North America, but Africa, Asia, and Latin America," Warren has said. Those of us with our eyes hopeful on the Supreme Court today must realize that the future of LGBTQ rights is bound up with the civil rights and human rights of all people, across town and across the globe. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," Martin Luther King wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham. "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny."

Follow Dorothee Benz on Twitter at @drbenz3