On Valentine's Day 2000, the four founders of Marriage Equality California (two gay men, a lesbian, and a straight guy) staged America's first public "mass-marriage" protest for gay couples. We organized about three dozen same-sex couples to line up at the Beverly Hills Courthouse and marched in, two by two, to have our purported marriages rejected by the city clerk's office. At the time -- only 14 years ago -- the protest had an air of unreality. People questioned why gay men and lesbians would even want to get married. How far we have come.
In 2000, another California lawyer and I drafted California's first civil unions bill, only the second one in the country after Vermont's. We did something unprecedented: we gave California gay couples equal rights to straight couples, something that had not even been done in Vermont. This idea, less than marriage but the fullest equality allowable by law, was considered so radical at the time that even the premier nationwide and local gay-rights organizations refused to support it. These organizations considered it politically impossible to even propose that gay people should have equal rights under the law and forced the pro-gay (but straight) legislator who introduced the bill to kill it and to substitute it for a bill that a gay-rights organization had drafted in its stead, a bill that allowed hospital visitation and a few other protections for gay couples but less than 1% of the thousands of legal and civil rights that marriage provides to couples under California and federal law. How far we have come.
I was pleased that Vice President Biden mentioned Will and Grace as one of the societal changes that helped change his mind. In 1994, I joined with a few dozen other advocates in a march on Hollywood where we met with high-ranking studio executives and asked them why it was that gay and lesbian characters were always minor characters and stereotyped. We reminded them that the depiction of African Americans in situation comedies had led to a decline in racism and an understanding by white Americans that black families were not so different from white ones, with the same joys and sorrows, pleasures and pain that all humanity faces. We urged them to show that gay families were not so different from straight ones and noted that it could be done with humor and sensitivity. I remember the face of a pained studio executive who had no counterargument. He knew we were right, but felt the "time was not right." How far we have come.
Last year, Frank Kameny died. One of the founding fathers of gay rights in the United States, Kameny served bravely in World War II but was fired from the Army in 1957 for being gay. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which argued in 1961 -- and still says today -- that you can be fired just for being gay. That didn't stop Kameny. He organized dignified protests in front of the White House. He worked to change laws that made it illegal for two men to have consensual sex. He worked to change the view of the American Psychiatric Association that claimed until 1973 that homosexuality was a disease. It is less than a decade ago that the United States Supreme Court finally held that a state cannot put adults in jail for private consensual oral sex, something the State of Georgia had found punishable (even between a husband and wife) with up to 20 years in prison. How far we have come.
Fifty years ago, Bayard Rustin, the inimitable organizer of the March on Washington, was almost prevented from speaking at the event he organized, by civil rights leaders who feared his sexual orientation would detract from the Event. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. overruled the naysayers at a time when being gay was still considered a disease and a crime. Dr. King was way ahead of his time. How far we have come.
As brave as President Obama is for being the first sitting president to endorse marriage equality, his "evolution" on the issue must be understood in the context of America's evolution. On perhaps no issue other than marriage equality has public opinion changed so dramatically in 15 years, from a quarter of the population to majority support. People under thirty today have difficulty understanding why anyone would deny equality under the law to two loving, committed individuals in an attempt to prevent them from their pursuit of happiness. Just as people under 60 today fail to understand why this country once banned the marriage of the president's parents. How far we have come.
I'm proud to have played my small part in this evolution, from co-founding Marriage Equality California to helping draft the marriage-equality legislation that just recently passed in the District of Columbia. I'm quite confident that state after state will follow suit until, 15 years from now, all 50 states allow gay and lesbian couples the equal protection under the law that the Constitution purportedly guarantees. We still have a lot of work to do. But when the president of the United States finally openly affirms that gay and lesbian Americans should have the same rights under the law that straight women and men enjoy, it seems OK, for just a day, to celebrate, sit back, and reflect on how far we have come.
Mark Levine, a talk radio host in Washington, DC and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, formerly served as Legislative Counsel for openly gay Congressman Barney Frank.
Note: This article has been updated to correct the date of the Valentine’s Day marriage protest in California. It was 2000, not 1998.