Love Wins! Lessons from the Movement for Marriage Equality

An artistic rendering of The Statue of Liberty kissing a golden woman of justice. Wow. For a brief moment I am feeling such gratitude for our Supreme Court—well, at least for five justices of the court! This is a time to celebrate. Gay and lesbian couples are finally recognized for their commitment to love their partners just as any heterosexual couple does. What an amazing moment of honoring and respecting people who choose love and commitment. What an amazing moment of honoring the sanctity of marriage. I am overcome with joy and celebration.

With this decision, the Supreme Court made it clear once and for all that anyone who loves another person can marry that person in any state in this country regardless of their partner’s sex. No longer will gay rights advocates have to waste time and money litigating the right to marriage on a state-by-state basis. No longer will they have to waste time and money fighting for partner benefits from their spouse’s employer. No longer will they have to argue with hospitals to be at the bedside of their loved ones when they are sick and dying. (I realize that some of these battles will persist but they will be resolved much more quickly than if they had been challenged on a piecemeal basis.)

The impact on the families is enormous—as one of the plaintiff’s from the case in California said after hearing the decision, his children will no longer have to explain to kids at school why they have two daddies. Gay and lesbian youth who suffer a sense of loneliness, separation, and bullying will now know they are not alone, they are not crazy and that their love of someone of the same sex is not only natural but even recognized and held in equal regard as heterosexual love. What a beautiful day it is.

So how did this come about? Less than five years ago no one thought this was possible. Various factors merged to bring about an acceleration of the movement to gain marriage equality. First, activists went to the root of the problem. When the movement began, there was debate within the gay and lesbian community about how best to achieve equality. Some felt strongly that they should accept civil unions and not push for the right to marry. Some believed the movement would never win the right to marry, or that it would take too long, so activists should settle for civil unions. Others argued that they did not want to be associated with heterosexual marriage—they wanted a different status. Debates then ensued about whether being gay or lesbian merited special legal status. And then there were those who could see the importance of demanding recognition of their lifetime commitments in sanctified ceremonies. They insisted that such recognition would have a ripple effect, leading to broader social acceptance and respect.

Being married is much more than a legal status, as Justice Kennedy articulated in his opinion. It is about public, community recognition of the love two people have for one another, and of their commitment to each other—a love that can no longer be limited or seen as less legitimate than the love of heterosexuals.

Over time, and with the empowerment that comes from this decision, gay and lesbian relationships will no longer be seen as strange or outlandish or even as a political statement. Instead, they will be seen for what they truly are: a statement of commitment and love.

How did this incredible transformation occur so rapidly? First, as more and more gay people decided to stop being ashamed, embarrassed, or scared, more and more people came out of the closet and began living openly as gay or lesbian. All the brave souls who lost their jobs, their families, and their lives by choosing to be openly gay well before it was accepted in our society paved the way for those who came later. This provided the opportunity for heterosexuals to work with, live next to, send their children to the same daycare or school as, be in the same religious or spiritual community as a gay or lesbian individuals. This broke down the separation and “othering” that so easily and often occurs in our society. Gay men and lesbian women slowly stopped being someone else who is not like “us”—an “Other”—and instead became our friends, neighbors, parents of our children’s friends, our family members. Once the larger society began engaging with gay and lesbian individuals and couples the boundaries between “us” and “them” broke down.

Another major factor in the shift that swept through our country is that the argument for same-sex marriage based solely on the basis of legal rights (e.g., the “right” to marry and “equal” rights) and economic entitlements (e.g., the right to have the benefits of being legally married for tax and other economic purposes) shifted to one based on the value of love. People who otherwise would have opposed same-sex marriage were able to see the deep yearnings of same-sex couples to be treated with dignity and respect. If there is one shared deprivation that cuts across all class, gender, race, and sexual orientations it is this: the deprivation of love, the feeling of not being fully seen and recognized for who we are, the feeling of being surrounded by a world of selfishness and me-firstism. When people advocate for rights it is sometimes perceived as yet another interest group demanding something for itself. But when they advocate for love, and against the practices, policies, and laws that interfere with love, almost everyone can identify with them, because they too have been feeling that there isn’t enough love coming to them—and wondering why.

So when gays and lesbians started to talk about the sacredness of marriage as an institution that is meant to provide a safety for loving spousal and familial relationships, more people shifted their perspective on the issue. It was no longer an issue of conceding privileges to a special interest group. It was about providing safety for loving relationships—something most people want more of in their own lives.

You only have to read Justice Kennedy’s decision to see how much the opinion is written in language of spiritual progressives rather than traditional liberal values. Kennedy focuses on the ideals of love, dignity, and a spiritual connection between two people who choose to enter into the sanctity of marriage. The decision is grounded in higher values than rights (although he inevitably rules that the Constitution gives them the right to marry): it is grounded in spiritual values.

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

So what can we learn from this to support a movement for love and justice?

  1. Keep on keeping on. This victory took decades and decades and cost countless lives (both those who are more famous and those who are invisible). It will similarly take decades and decades to transform our society from one based on the values of money and power to one based on the values of love and justice.
  2. Don’t be realistic. Pushing for civil unions certainly helped move the country and ultimately the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriages. And without the persistence of those who were deemed “unrealistic” (even by those pushing for civil unions) to aim for what they knew was needed to really gain the respect and dignity they wanted, we would not be celebrating today.
  3. Work on multiple levels. Work on local, state, and national levels and challenge injustice on every level. Make people uncomfortable, bring the realities of injustice into the public arena so that people become more educated. In this way, we need to advocate for the New Bottom Line (i.e., one that judges the “success” of our social, economic, and political institutions not to the extent that they maximize money and power, but to the extent they maximize love and kindness; caring and generosity; social and economic justice for all; environmental sustainability; and the capacity to treat each other with dignity and respect and to respond to the universe with awe, wonder, and radical amazement). We need to adopt a New Bottom Line in our schools, our workplaces, our professional institutions, our hospitals, our cities, our counties, our states, and our nation.
  4. Bring the struggles of working class and poor people, people of color, and people from other countries into the lives of mainstream Americans and into the political arena. As already mentioned, the reason the gay rights movement has been so successful is because people began to know gay and lesbian individuals and couples personally: when you have a personal connection with someone, it is much harder to dismiss them and their concerns. You even become their ally in their struggle for liberation. So we have to raise consciousness of the real-life stories of people struggling to survive in the current economic structure of capitalism. We have to start talking about how the economic system of global capitalism results in the exploitation of other human beings and animals, as well as of the planet, and creates both human and planetary suffering. We have to do this until people respond to the suffering of others so deeply and so profoundly that they are willing to both be allies to those suffering and to those working to change the systems and structures that create and perpetuate this suffering, and to make the changes necessary in their lives that will result in enhancing and improving the lives of others. We need to break down the separation between “us” and “them.” Instead of seeing people who are most profoundly affected by the current systems and structures as some “Other” separate from us, we need to find ways to transform consciousness so that we see them as our neighbors, our friends and even our family members.
  5. Cross gender, race, class, religious, and political boundaries. The gay rights movement crossed these boundaries. There are men and women of all races, from all socioeconomic classes, from all religions, and from all political parties who identify as lesbian, gay, transgender, and queer. The gay rights movement used the language of love and justice, of caring for each other, and of community to build their movement and sway people of various persuasions. We need to find a way to talk to about the impact of capitalism in a way that unites rather than separates as many people as possible. If we start talking about human dignity, security and safety, purpose and meaning, parents spending time with their children and providing adequately for their families’ needs, then we too can begin to bridge what otherwise seem to be insurmountable divides. If we start to talk about the sanctity of Mother Earth, the beauty of our planet, and our shared love for being in nature, we are more likely to work together to transform our society.
  6. Change the debate from legal rights and economic entitlements to one based on shared values: caring for each other and caring for the earth. In other words: demand a New Bottom Line. If we integrate into our social change work the call for a New Bottom Line, we will draw together activists from different social change efforts as well as those whom we might not otherwise reach. We may even reach those who are adverse to some of these important efforts.
  7. BUILD A MOVEMENT. Finally, I think about all the gay rights marches, the colorful gay rights flag, the fun and playful energy of the movement. I believe that we have to build a movement—one that is fun, colorful, includes dancing and play, is family-friendly and uniting so all can join in. We need not only to hold marches for love and justice again and again, and to make them fun and meaningful. We also need to bring up the issue again and again and again in our workplaces, schools, cities, doctors’ offices, and the like.

This movement will undoubtedly be more difficult in many ways than the struggle for same-sex marriage. Challenging a bottom line that prioritizes money and power at the cost of everything else means challenging a very fundamental foundation, I’d even say the real American religion: worship of the dollar. But wasn’t that one of the arguments used against same-sex marriage—that it would never pass because it challenged a very fundamental foundation of many religions and of our country, the institution of marriage, the oldest and most sacred of all institutions in our country?!

So to all those naysayers out there who call me idealistic, I say THANK YOU. I am deeply grateful to all those in the abolitionist movement, the women’s movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the gay rights movement who refused again and again to be realistic. You give me hope and inspiration every day. This is the time to invoke our highest ideals and values rather than be realistic. I feel a change a-coming, won’t you join me on this bandwagon?!