Published on the Melissa Harris-Perry Blog.
As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two marriage equality cases last week, my partner and I watched the television set with bated breath. When the camera zoomed in on the steps of the Supreme Court, and LGBTQ Americans took the podium to tell their stories, we took one another’s hand and choked back tears.
We are a straight couple.
The Supreme Court’s decisions on Proposition 8 and DOMA will decide the fate not only of about 9 million LGBTQ Americans and 14 million children with same-sex parents–but also millions of millennials, young people in their 20s and 30s. The millennial generation, including straight people like my husband and me, overwhelmingly supports marriage equality: 81% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 support marriage for same-sex couples, including more than 60% of evangelicals under 30.
In the coming months, as the Court deliberates legal questions of standing and scope of rights, millennials are asking a broader question: will the Court support our most basic understanding of equality under the law, or saddle us with the task of securing a right that nearly all of us, gay and straight, already understand as fundamental?
Like many straight millennials, my support for marriage equality formed over time. I grew up in a household that viewed homosexuality as an aberration and disease. When my best friend’s older brother came out as gay, I was confused. I knew he wasn’t a bad person, but I also was too afraid of the stigma to talk to him about it. Still, it was difficult to feel disgust for someone I knew and admired.
When I went to college, my world opened up, old beliefs fell away, and I found myself with friends of different faiths, colors, and orientations. These friendships began to change the minds of people in my family too. But I did not become an advocate for equality until after September 11th. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, I witnessed my Sikh community, many of whom wear turbans as a religious observance, targeted in hate crimes. For the next decade, I worked on films and campaigns against discrimination alongside my college friend J. Her race and sexual orientation were different from mine, but I wouldn’t understand what role this played in our work until a few years later.
After screening our film about hate crimes against Sikh Americans at a community gathering in Queens, a young man stood up in the audience and said, “Just as I fight for the right of gay people like me to come out of the closet, I understand now that I must fight for the right of Sikhs to wear their turbans.”
His words echoed inside me.
He was tying the LGBTQ and Sikh struggle together in one greater movement for human dignity. I realized that our fight for equality is incomplete and vain if we are only standing up for ourselves. J. knew this all along. She showed me that our communities, in particular, confront similar forms of discrimination. Eight out of 10 students have been harassed in school for their sexual orientation, and up to three quarters of all Sikh students have been bullied. Both are disproportionately targeted in hate crimes. Twenty percent of all hate crimes in 2011 were directed at LGBTQ people, and violence against Sikhs, such as the mass shooting at a Sikh house of worship in Wisconsin last August, suggests similar circumstances for the Sikh community, though these crimes are not tracked by the federal government. Both communities have endured discrimination from the government, military, and employers. As legal scholar Kenji Yoshino explains, the law tends to permit discrimination against “mutable characteristics,” as if our religious identities or sexual orientations were things we could change in order to assimilate.
I’m not alone in making these connections. Millennials who understand that our struggles are tied up with one another are changing the face of movement building. The old way of fighting for separate communities and causes no longer makes sense, especially in a world where multiple identities often intersect in our own bodies–black and lesbian, Sikh and queer, gay and evangelical. In the Senate’s most recent hearing on hate crimes last fall, the room was filled not just with Sikh Americans but with people of every faith and color, including LGBTQ Americans. In the immigrant youth movement in recent years, DREAMers often came out twice—as gay and undocumented. And just last week, thousands made a pledge for marriage equality as a matter of moral conviction. Thousands more switched their profile photos on Facebook and Twitter to the red equality sign, including scores of my Sikh friends. Establishing marriage equality in all 50 states would bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice–not just for LGBTQ people but for all of us.
To be sure, the Court may wish to avoid a sweeping decision altogether, punting the responsibility to other political avenues. As evidenced by hours of oral argument about whether these cases have standing in the first place, the Court may be poised to throw out at least one of these two historic cases, in an effort to avoid a backlash. Justice Samuel Alito even asked whether the Court should issue a decision on a practice that is “newer than cell phones and the Internet.” But most millennials have known LGBTQ people and committed couples long before we ever held a cell phone. We understand that centuries of persecution are long enough for a community to wait for equal protection under the law. In fact, the evidence shows that a sweeping decision would not result in a national backlash but rather vindicate the values of the public. Today, a clear majority of Americans support marriage equality, up from 27%t one decade ago. The Court would not be stepping out in front of the people; it would be catching up to the people, especially young people.
Anti-gay advocates are right about one thing: the upcoming decisions on marriage equality will change the institution of marriage for millions of straight people. Just not in the way they imagine. For my husband and me, the decisions would strengthen marriage as a democratic institution, an institution that does not discriminate or denigrate people for the ones they love.
Most importantly, it would allow our generation to move on to much more challenging problems—the poverty, homelessness, chronic disease, and violence disproportionately experienced by transgendered people and people of color, communities often marginalized within the LGBTQ movement.
So go ahead, Justices. We know that striking down DOMA and Proposition 8 would require a sweeping decision on marriage equality. But you need not be afraid. An entire generation will have your back.