Fifteen years ago, I had a conversation that changed my perspective on same-sex marriage when I sat down with my friend and colleague Evan Wolfson, then the director of a group called the Marriage Project at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.
At a time when President Clinton had recently signed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, Evan argued to me it was absolutely essential to fight for the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian couples. I disagreed and maintained it was not the right battle at that time. The LGBT community should focus on ending discrimination in employment, allowing gays to serve openly in the military, outlawing hate crimes, providing access to health care and other more pressing issues, I argued.
Evan won me over that day with a familiar but compelling analogy. He said we have to shoot for the moon, and even if we fail, we end up in the stars. In other words, by fighting for marriage equality, we would make it easier to achieve anti-discrimination laws, hate crimes laws and lifting the ban on gays in the military. And the push for marriage would also move the boundaries of the debate, he argued, so civil unions would eventually become a default fall-back position for moderates instead of outright opposition to gay relationships.
I agreed with his argument, but I still feared marriage would become the dominant issue in the LGBT movement, and other bread-and-butter issues like employment discrimination, access to health care and resources for HIV/AIDS, which disproportionately affect African-Americans and LGBT people of color, would never be resolved.
Turns out we were both right. Evan was exactly right to push for marriage equality way back in the 1990s when no one thought it was possible and many voices, even in the LGBT community, thought it was a mistake. But I believe I was also right that marriage would consume the LGBT movement, which it did for the next decade and a half.
So this week, as the Supreme Court takes up two gay marriage cases, it seems inevitable that marriage equality will eventually become the law of the land, if not from the court’s decisions this year then certainly from the dramatic shift on the issue in popular opinion. But even if same-sex marriage becomes legal in all 50 states, gays and lesbians can still be fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation in 29 states, the majority of the country. That issue has not been resolved.