On June 28, 1969, New York City police perpetrated a typical late-night raid on a typical Greenwich Village fag bar known as the Stonewall Inn. But the Stonewall's patrons did not go quietly. They had simply had enough. On that night, a group of brave men and women finally said "no more" to decades of police harassment, public humiliation and arrest. Instead of a neatly tied together group of homos quietly plodding their unhappy way into the back of a paddy wagon, police got a riot. Following that event, a series of marches and scuffles between the NYC police and the LGBT community broke out, quickly spreading from the Stonewall Inn to all of New York City and nearly every other major metropolitan area in the U.S. Thus the gay rights movement was born. And for nearly 44 years, the Stonewall Riots, as those early skirmishes became known, stood alone as the single most important event in the modern day fight for gay equality.
Now, more than four decades later, the United States Supreme Court has one-upped the actions of Stonewell's brazen queens, dykes, trannies and street kids. In a 5-4 decision, the Supremes finally upheld and protected our nation's constitutional promise of equality. They did this by overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which said that the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages even if those marriages are legally sanctioned in U.S. states or in other countries. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection as the primary grounds for overturning DOMA -- and this is exactly as it should be, so kudos to Kennedy and his concurring cohorts.
So cue up the disco, and let the celebrations begin.
In a separate but closely related decision, the court voted against ruling on the legality of California's Proposition 8. As you may recall, Prop 8, approved by a thin margin in the 2008 state election, effectively banned gay marriage in California. Soon after that election, California's judicial system overruled the vote, calling it unconstitutional, and for a brief time gay marriage was legal in the state. However, proponents of Prop. 8 filed a lawsuit, the one that was just rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, and California placed a temporary stay on gay marriages until the case could wend its way up the judicial ladder. In choosing not to rule on Prop. 8, the Supreme Court has essentially upheld the decision of the California courts. In other words, gay marriage is now legal in California. Or it will be as soon as the court that issued the stay lifts it, which likely will happen very quickly.
What Does This Mean?
As the courts have clearly stated, the issue of same-sex marriage is not now nor has it ever truly been about heterosexuality versus homosexuality. Rather, the issue is one of equal protection under the law. These are the same protections now routinely offered to all Americans regardless of gender, religious beliefs, ethnic or racial identity, or physical/mental disability. The fact that the U.S. legal system has finally officially stepped forward and stated that gays are people too is incredibly significant, and not just in terms of gay marriage. The ramifications extend much further, much as they did with the landmark civil rights cases of the 20th century. Just as negative stereotypes about Jews, African Americans, women and others have diminished in the last 40-plus years, so too will hurtful misperceptions about the LGBT community.
Sadly, it has been a long and painful road to this day. Both before and after Stonewall, countless men and women died by their own hands in despair because they were unable to openly be their true homosexual selves. Others died equally horrible deaths at the hands of violent homophobes. And in the 1980s and '90s, the LGBT community watched in horror as the U.S. government both blamed gays and refused to help as hundreds of thousands died from HIV/AIDS. However, all of these excruciating events have served to slowly raise public awareness. The entire, agonizing gay rights history (much like the civil rights movement) has shown, time and again, that out of every tragedy and loss, we, as a people, can and usually do adapt and grow. It seems that only by experiencing and working through great pain can we can achieve great progress. Such is the human condition.
Is Everything Right in the World?
Will the recent Supreme Court decisions fix all the ills of homophobia? Not by a long shot. As was the case with the civil rights movement, there will be big-time backlash, and that backlash will likely continue for quite some time. (If you don't believe me, just listen to conservative talk radio, where civil rights laws are still a regular punching bag.) Conservative commentators and "defense of marriage" groups are going to make a lot of noise about these two decisions. They will kick and scream and create as much chaos as they possibly can. And let's face it, in many places effeminate boys will still be called "faggot" and picked last for the team, while butch girls will still be labeled "dykes" and ostracized. But maybe this will happen just a little less often each day as the reality of equal rights under the law sinks in, slowly driving away the bigotry that leads to so much loss.
Beyond marches and legal decisions, the great equalizer among us (the Internet) has become a leading force in reducing prejudice and the ignorance that fosters it, especially among young people. In fact, studies show that kids are far more accepting than past generations of dissimilarities in race, religion and sexual orientation. Digital technology undoubtedly plays a vital role in young people's increasing acceptance of those who are different, as children are now exposed to far more than just the "information" and opinions proffered by the nearest adult authority figure. It seems very likely that thanks to laptops, pads, smartphones and other devices, the "social liberalization" of American young people will continue, and that it will, over time, expand to older generations.
As a gay man and tax-paying American citizen whose right to equal protection under the law has been denied me my entire life, today I feel guardedly hopeful. Guardedly, as I am fully aware of how many people share equally strong negative feelings about the court's recent rulings. To those struggling with these court decisions, I want to say that I acknowledge and respect your beliefs, and I fully support the right of any church or private organization to refuse to dignify or allow homosexual marriage. However, I cannot support the belief that it is now or that it has ever been the role of the U.S. government to say that some people are "more equal" than others and therefore possessed of certain rights and privileges not shared by all.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he has developed clinical programs for The Ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles.