Gay Pride Month: The long struggle is not over

We kiss in a shadow, We hide from the moon.
Our meetings are few, and over too soon.
We speak in a whisper afraid to be heard. When people are near we speak not a word.
Alone in our secret together we sigh for one smiling day to be free,
To kiss in the sunlight and say to the sky,
“Behold and believe what you see, behold how my lover loves me.”
– We Kiss in the Shadow: The King and I by Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers

Today as gay people we tend to take for granted our right to come out of the shadow and kiss in the sunlight. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in our favor in 2015. Indeed, so confident and comfortable are we with our rights that we and the public have moved on to prevent school bullying and are now supporting the transgendered community. We forget how long and difficult it was to achieve our rights, and we ignore the fact that these right could still be taken away.

Rodgers and Hammerstein depicted our world in 1944. At that point homosexuals in Germany were sent to the gas chambers with a pink triangle tattooed on their arm.

Nationally it has been a long struggle which for years went nowhere. Starting in 1981 the AIDS epidemic brought terror, prejudice, stigma, and homophobia. As of 2016 about 675,000 people in the USA have died of HIV/AIDS – the majority being gay or bisexual. Nonetheless, in the 1990’s states started outlawing discrimination against gays. The next big step was toward marriage equality. However, by 2008 candidate Barack Obama said, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman.” It wasn’t until 2012, after Vice President Joe Biden expressed support for the union, that Obama backed them. It was the court’s historic 5-4 ruling which appeared to cement the legality of same-sex unions nationwide.

When I arrived in New Jersey in the1980’s there was rampant prejudice and discrimination, including entrapment by police. We met in bars, strolled the streets, and held house parties. There were also more formal groups which I joined: the Gay Activist Alliance of New Jersey, primarily a social group, which met weekly in a Teaneck church, and a state-wide organization which met monthly at Rutgers University to fight against discrimination and to start the journey toward marriage equality. Later in 2004 there was Garden State Equality which triumphantly led the public effort to our current status.

  • In Tate v. Ciuffini (1978), a state appellate court struck down the state’s sodomy laws.
  • From its establishment in 1933, the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control regularly harassed LGBT bar patrons, preventing licensees from serving “any known criminals, gangsters, racketeers, swindlers, prostitutes, female impersonators or other persons of ill repute.” In 1967, a state court invalidated this interpretation.
  • New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination was amended in 1991 to include “affectional or sexual orientation” and in 2006 to include “gender identity and expression.”
  • Marriage between persons of the same sex, was not mentioned in our statutes, but was challenged in Lewis v. Harris (2006), with the legislature choosing civil unions as a remedy..
  • Finally a lower court decision in 2013 went beyond civil marriage and insisted on same-sex marriage.
  • Governor Chris Christie appealed the ruling, but in October 2013 he gave up his efforts when it became apparent that the NJ Supreme Court would not support him. The lower court’s ruling still stands.
  • While our Supreme Court could theoretically decide at any time to reverse the lower court ruling, it would run counter to the U. S. Supreme Court decision, and for the time being seems unlikely to occur.

Donald Trump shortly after his election indicated he’s “fine” with the high court’s opinion and called it “settled.”  Nonetheless, as the Human Rights Campaign points out, “Despite a brief flirtation with “evolving” in 2013, Trump has maintained his opposition to marriage equality” He took aggressively anti-equality positions as a formal candidate. He put on his ticket Mike Pence, who as governor signed a bill to allow businesses to discriminate and deny service to LGBTQ people. He expressed support for North Carolina’s HB2, saying he would rescind the Obama Administration’s guidance for transgender students. Also in 2016 he stated he would “strongly consider” appointing judges to overturn the same-sex marriage decision.

Trump’s first appointment to the Supreme Court was a conservative, and it is likely that he will have one or more opportunities to nominate others of the same ilk. As we have seen, Supreme Court rulings that at one point were “settled law,” like Roe v. Wade (affirming abortion rights), can become unsettled and chipped away. After a long struggle we cannot become complaisant. We must remain vigilant. There are no guarantees that rights gained one day might not be taken away thereafter.

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