Recent Comments


    What Now for the Gays? Reflections on the State of Our LGBT Movement in the Wake of Obergefell

    Rafael Mandelman

    Rafael Mandelman

    The Supremes have done it again. Another Pride season has come and gone, and with it, another momentous Anthony Kennedy opinion affirming the shared humanity of gays and lesbians. Not to mention, another deliciously histrionic dissent from Antonin Scalia providing fodder for Jon Stewart and the other late night comedians. It was only two years ago that the Court issued its decisions in the Windsor and Perry cases, then as now just in time for Pride. At the time, Scalia and company feared the brethren and sistren of the Court majority were setting themselves on an ineluctable course to eventually finding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. On that point at least, Scalia has been proven right. He can’t be wrong on everything, I suppose.

    This summer’s Obergefell decision was obviously a culmination of decades of disciplined legal and policy work by many great lawyers and political leaders, and sustained activism over that time by our queer and ally communities. For good or for ill, the recent history of our still-young LGBT political movement has been defined primarily by this fight for marriage equality. The path to victory was a winding and, at times, heartbreaking one. To this day, I remember standing in the crowd outside the California Supreme Court building in Civic Center in late May of 2009, as the same justices who only a year prior had found that the California Constitution protected same sex marriage now upheld Proposition 8. I was literally speechless; if there’s a judicial equivalent of a sucker punch, this felt like it. But the fight continued, and now, such a very short time later, it has been won.

    And now what? That is a question a lot of queer folks have been asking, even before Obergefell was decided, as a win came to seem increasingly likely. Over Pride weekend, as I made the rounds of the various events we queer electeds are expected to attend, I quite liked the early answers I heard. Again and again, speaker after speaker reminded our celebrating community that while marriage may have been won, we are not near done.

    We are not done when we cannot get the Congress to pass ENDA (more than 40 years after it was first introduced), and 29 states still allow employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and 32 states still allow it on the basis of gender identity. We are not done when one in five transgender people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, when queer youth constitute 20–40% of the more than 1.6 million homeless youth nationally, and when in our own queer Oz of San Francisco, nearly a third of homeless people are LGBT. And we are not done when, as demonstrated by a recent joint study by the Human Rights Commission and the LGBT Center, so many of us, particularly transgender people and queers of color, experience shockingly high rates of violence.

    Seemingly with one voice, I heard our community leaders declaring a collective intention to build on the foundation of the marriage victory to finally address the struggles of arguably greatest relevance to the most vulnerable among us. The challenge will be in moving from intention to action: will relatively more affluent gay men and lesbians who had been so motivated by marriage equality now rally around issues of housing and employment and safety that may not seem to impact them as immediately? One certainly hopes so.

    The other worthy point I have heard repeatedly made in the days since Obergefell relates to the irony of our winning this victory at a time when so many other long-oppressed groups have been losing ground. The Court that gave America marriage equality is after all the same one that just days later upheld the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s use of a controversial lethal injection drug in death penalty cases and announced its intention to re-consider in its next session the constitutionality of affirmative action in university admissions. The contrast between the humanity of the Court’s treatment of same sex couples, on the one hand, and its tolerance for the death penalty and skepticism about efforts to right historic racial injustice on the other, echoed a similarly disconcerting juxtaposition back in 2013 when in the same session that it issued the Windsor and Perry decisions, the Court majority also struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

    I was thinking some of these thoughts Pride Saturday morning—wondering what it means for gays and lesbians to be winning greater equality at a time when so many inside and outside our community are being left behind—as I stood at the top of Twin Peaks overlooking the giant pink triangle that Patrick Carney and his amazing volunteers have been installing there each year for the past two decades. I love Patrick and I love the Pink Triangle installation, but I will confess I have always been just a tad bit uncomfortable with the pink triangle as a symbol of queer liberation. Surely a movement as joyful as ours ought to have a more celebratory icon. Or, then again, maybe not. Maybe the pink triangle is actually perfect.

    For me up there on Twin Peaks that Saturday morning something shifted. What better symbol, I asked myself, could there be to remind us not just of the oppression experienced by our forebears, but of the obligations those of us lucky enough to live in this moment, who do not suffer in the way they did, carry to remain engaged in other struggles for justice? What better symbol to shock us out of the complacency that an affirmation of our belonging like Obergefell could engender?

    Every queer person at some point has the experience of being a little bit different, and that experience can provide a perspective that is a gift to the individual and to the community in which he or she lives. The exercise of consciously choosing to identify with people who have experienced persecution and injustice beyond our imagination should allow us to be both more empathic and more indignant. And in doing so, it may help to remind us of our collective responsibility to lessen the suffering of others, to make the world more just for all.

    Roll up your sleeves, Queer Friends, and pin on those pink triangles. Savor this win, by all means, but there’s still a lot of work to do, and the world needs us to do it.

    Rafael Mandelman is an attorney for the City of Oakland. He is also President of the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees.