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    What a Difference a Quarter Century Makes

    With the issue of marriage equality now before the United States Supreme Court, it is important to look at how far the LGBT movement has come over the last quarter century at the Court as we continue to seek full equality nationwide.

    In 1986, the Supreme Court in Bowers v. Hardwick upheld the constitutionality of so-called “sodomy” laws that criminalized intimate sexual activity between persons of the same sex.  In essence, a 5–4 majority of the Court said that it was fine for a state to put lesbian, gay, or bisexual people in jail if they physically expressed their sexuality, even in the privacy of their own homes.

    John remembers dashing to Castro and Market the evening of the decision to protest. Soon after he arrived, the late, great LGBT rights attorney Mary Dunlap addressed the massive crowd gathered. She shouted to the justices over 3,000 miles away in Washington, D.C.: “Have you ever had oral sex? If you have…you’re hypocrites! If you haven’t…you’re ignorant!” Dunlap then ripped a copy of the opinion into pieces and threw it to the crowd. The next year, Stuart participated in the direct action protest of Bowers at the Supreme Court, which shut down the Court for the first and only time in its history.

    In addition to Bowers motivating LGBT activists and advocates to work even harder for equality, the personnel on the Court began to change over time. In 1996, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who joined the Court after Bowers, wrote the Supreme Court’s first decision in favor of LGBT rights, Romer v. Evans, invalidating Colorado’s Amendment 2 that prohibited the state and any localities within Colorado from protecting lesbian and gay people from discrimination. Justice Kennedy held that Amendment 2’s purpose was simply “to make” lesbian and gay people “unequal to everyone else,” something that the Constitution does not permit.

    In 2003, Justice Kennedy went further and authored the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Lawrence v. Texas, overturning Bowers. He observed that sexual expression was “one element in a personal bond that is more enduring,” and that “as the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom.” That evening, we once again dashed to Castro and Market, this time to celebrate.

    And last year, Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Windsor, invalidating critical parts of DOMA and finding that “DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others.”

    Two weeks ago at an appearance at the University of Minnesota, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited the “remarkable” shift in Americans’ attitudes toward LGBT rights, to “[h]aving people close to us who say who they are…” Justice Ginsburg’s observation about the role that every out LGBT person has played in our movement means not only that we can all share in the celebration of our victories but that we also all must continue to speak up to succeed in our search for greater freedom.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for nearly three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. They are leaders in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA.

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