Eyes on the Prize, Rainbow People! A Post-DOMA Challenge

Usually it’s gay people who are writing the talking points for others. I’ve done my share of that in my day. That’s why I wish some of of us had thought more clearly about the language we would use in the (predicted) event of a DOMA strikedown and a decision to permit gay marriage to resume in Calilfornia.

Sounds of exultation, fine, and I am making some of my own. People of my generation can’t quite believe that the Supreme Court is saying that we really do deserve equal protection under the Constitution. We have to pinch ourselves.

But it is precisely our gratitude for the Constitution’s equal protection amendments that should cause us take special care about language. Today is not a day to crow about the “new civil rights movement”; it is not a day to say, as one lesbian interviewed on NPR said, “they saved the best for last.”

In fairness, the person interviewed was telling an otherwise compelling story about the need for queer people to make common cause with low-wage workers. She and her spouse are small-time farmers in the Central Valley: in that context they can feel how wrong it would be for them to say “thank you very much” to the Supremes and then proceed to ignore the economic struggles of their neighbors.

But the phrase “saved the best for last” thoughtlessly suggests that the other SCOTUS decisions bearing on the 14th and 15th amendments were good or acceptable decisions.

For Black people, they were devastating decisions. As many observers point out, the Court would probably have struck down both the heart of the Voting Rights Act and all forms of race-based affirmative action completely this week, but they punted on affirmative action for now because of the level of outrage and wounding the Black community and those in solidarity with the still-unfinished Black freedom struggle would feel under the weight of two body blows in a single week.

In her powerful dissent on the Voting Rights case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited Dr. King on the “arc of the moral universe,” adding that it only bends toward justice through steadfast commitment—and that that commitment had been “disserved” by the Court majority. Many Black writers have been quoting Ginsburg in their laments over the Shelby case. How unfortunate, then, that a respected friend who works for a multifaith justice organization would end his e-blast on SCOTUS messaging with “let’s keep this arc of history bending toward justice.” The writer is a dear friend, and I know what he means. I just wish he had mentioned the immense damage done by this Court to the other arc—the one King had in mind.

If I can use an old preacher’s phrase, I think we have an obligation “walk in the other man’s shoes” for just a bit. The 14th and 15th amendments were enacted precisely to provide equal legal and civil protections for Black people. How can we not see how Black people might now feel that these passports to freedom have been hijacked by others, even as they were being canceled or compromised for their original beneficiaries? In the very same week and by the very same Court.

I don’t have the actual talking points, but here is my simple plea. We should use this occasion to celebrate, modestly, today’s breakthroughs for LGBT people even as we publicly lament the losses suffered by Black America and pledge our firm solidarity in struggles against hate and injustice that are still to be won.

That’s what we should say. And then we should match our words with our deeds.