There’s a reason I love history and why I’ve devoted so much of my academic and personal pursuits to its study. She’s a brilliant teacher and, at times, a remarkable creator of beautiful meaning and symbolism.
That’s exactly what she gave us with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 5-4 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, expanding the right for same-gender couples to marry nationwide. The ruling couldn’t have come at a more perfectly appointed time, handed down on June 26, the anniversary of two other landmark gay rights decisions by the Supreme Court.
One of those landmark cases came two years ago, when the court decided in United States v. Windsor to strike down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and open federal government recognition of same-gender marriages.
Yet, the unique and beautiful symbolism of the anniversary shines even brighter for another case — Lawrence v. Texas. Decided a little over a decade ago on June 26, 2003, the Supreme Court forever put an end to the criminalization of our love.
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For many decades and centuries, the love shared between two people of the same gender was illegal, punishable by fines, imprisonment, physical mutilation or castration and, in some eras and jurisdictions, death. Those punishments were often doled out regardless of who you were or what position you held in society. You could be targeted if your “criminal activity” was a one-time rendezvous or a lifelong, committed relationship. The law and its enforcers simply did not care.
Even the mere allegation of criminal homosexual activity absent any criminal conviction — often with the arrests of those alleged reported by local newspapers, complete with names, photos and home addresses — could end careers, break up families and lead to violence, sometimes self-inflicted.
After the Supreme Court ruled that private, consensual relationships between people of the same gender could no longer be criminalized, local law enforcement officers across the country often continued their harassment of otherwise law-abiding LGBT citizens. In one 2007 case in Waynesville, N.C., police ensnared a man during a public park sting even though no sexual activity occurred in public. The police report at the time was quite clear: no sex occurred in public and the man didn’t expose himself, engage in any unwanted touching or attempt to exchange sex for money. A qnotes report from the time plainly concluded that “he was cited for merely propositioning another adult male for private, consensual sex” — nothing illegal, especially after Lawrence.
So, it’s quite amazing, then, that only 12 years since Lawrence, our love has moved from criminal sex offense to celebrated and protected as equal in the eyes of the law in every state of our Union.
That’s no small feat and a tremendous victory that’s come at a lightning-fast pace, far quicker than I could have ever imagined.
Indeed, in 2009, I was among many urging caution, unable to see a nationwide marriage equality victory coming so soon. I penned a guest commentary for Bay Windows, Boston’s LGBT community newspaper, after Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and attorney Mary Bonauto — the visionary lead attorney in several cases opening marriage in Massachusetts and elsewhere — filed suit against the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That case, along with another, would eventually lead to the historic decision in Windsor in 2013 and, ultimately, to Obergefell last month.
At the time, I argued a push to overturn DOMA could lead to backlash in more conservative states like North Carolina. I was right about that — North Carolina became the last state to pass an anti-LGBT marriage amendment in 2012. But the thrust of my opinion and prediction then seems laughable today.
“Will we be left to fight alone?” I asked. “Will we be forgotten? Will we have to wait to be saved by the U.S. Supreme Court some two, three or four decades from now?”
Where I imagined a far-off victory as many as 40 years into our future, history unfolded in unexpected ways, again proving herself a valuable teacher. I was wrong in 2009. Today, I’m glad for it.
One day after this newspaper hits stands, Americans of all stripes will come together to celebrate the 239th anniversary of our birth as a free and independent people among the nations of our world. In Philadelphia and on the steps of Independence Hall, thousands will gather to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first public demonstrations for gay equality. An openly gay descendant of George Washington’s family will be there, joining Sgt. Eric Alva, a gay U.S. Marine who was the first to be wounded during the Iraq war, to lead the gathering in the Pledge of Allegiance. Millions of others will join similar celebrations of freedom and liberty. Fireworks will fill the skies. Patriotic music will sound out from bandstands. Small-town parades will be filled with floats decked out in red, white and blue bunting. Children and adults alike will wave our glorious flag and sing our national anthem. Many will publicly or perhaps privately read the Declaration of Independence. For many LGBT Americans, we will read those most famous of lines — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — with a renewed sense of what it means to celebrate more than two centuries of an enduring and expanding freedom in this Great Experiment we all call home.
And the day afterward, we’ll remind ourselves our work is not done. We’ll remember that it took over a century and counting for these initial promises of freedom to begin reaching our African-American siblings, more than two centuries and counting for it to begin reaching LGBT people and that many continue to be denied their basic dignity and equal station as free citizens in a free society. We’ll pick ourselves up and continue experimenting anew — collectively building toward a better and more perfect Union for all of us, remembering that our work in this Great Experiment is ever present and never ending. Because, as Americans, this is what we do. This is what we’ve always done. This is what history teaches us is right and necessary.
Happy Independence Day! : :