By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.
Equal Justice Under Law
Those hallowed words are engraved above the doors of the Supreme Court of The United States, final arbiter of the Constitution and the fourteenth amendment from which they are derived. The cases brought before America’s most august legal body and the rulings handed down, still delivered by hand on paper, instantly become landmarks of history. While the high-profile lawyers and noted organizations, who represent the parties involved do all the talking, it’s the plaintiffs who have been wronged and seek their equal justice who deserve to be remembered for their courage.
Never is this truer than the LGBT plaintiffs who courageously stood up for their rights and the equality of their Community, even though doing so meant extreme public scrutiny; an avalanche of homophobic hate from the conservative, religious right; and risk to their own personal health and safety. These women and men believed in equality and had the courage to claim the LGBT+ Community’s full civil rights as Americans.
When the United States Post Office refused to deliver the first gay magazine, “One” in 1954 deeming it “obscene,” founders of the gay rights organization, Antonio Reyes, Martin Block, and Dale Jennings who published the periodical sued in Federal Court. At that time, being identified as homosexual was considered deviant, a mental illness, and destroyed lives publicly and professionally. But these men sued based on their First Amendment, freedom of speech and in 1958 SCOTUS ruled in their favor.
In 1992, Colorado voters passed Amendment 2, forbidding state and local governments from passing laws to ban discrimination against gays, which had been promoted by Colorado for Family Values, an evangelical Christian group. Plaintiffs, Richard G Evans, Angela Romero and others sued Governor Roy Romer, who strongly opposed the Amendment but was forced to defend it, all the way to the Supreme Court. In what would become the first of many rulings furthering LGBT civil rights, Justice Kennedy wrote a scathing rebuke, striking down the law.
“…it deprives gays and lesbians even of the protection of general laws and policies that prohibit arbitrary discrimination in governmental and private settings.”
It wasn’t Lawrence v Texas which ended sodomy laws, it was John Geddes Lawrence, Jr. and Tyron Garner v Texas. Both were arrested when found having sex together in the privacy of Lawrence’s home and both men stood up for the right to privacy in front of the Supreme Court. The Court’s ruling overturned, 1986’s Bowers v. Hardwick, upholding a challenged Georgia statute not finding a constitutional protection of sexual privacy.
As the patchwork of legal same-sex marriages in states grew across America, recognition at the federal level was still blocked by the Defense of Marriage Act. Then came Edie Windsor, who demanded her right to due process under the Fifth Amendment after the death of her wife, Thea Spyer. The State of New York recognized their lawful marriage but DOMA prohibited the Federal government from doing the same. Justice Kennedy, again writing for the majority, “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”
Just weeks after DOMA was overturned, Jim Obergefell and John Arthur were married in Maryland because they were not permitted to in their home state of Ohio. Learning the state would not recognize their marriage, they sued the State of Ohio while John was terminally ill with ALS. The couple then sued to have Jim Obergefell’s name listed as “surviving spouse” on his husband’s death certificate when the state refused.
But the case of Obergefell v. Hodges is not one lone case, on its way to the Supreme Court, it was consolidated with six other cases representing sixteen same-sex couples from four states. In one of his most beautiful and powerful rulings Justice Kennedy wrote,
“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 they once were. “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.”
These are but a few of the thousands of men and women who have taken up the cause of equality and civil rights, not only for themselves but for the entire LGBT+ Community. The personal blowback, threats, and homophobic rhetoric they received is unimaginable, especially given today’s age of social media where hate is weaponized. Whether in the highest court in the land or a US District Court in Kentucky, they deserve to be recognized and celebrated for their courage.
Previous posts from theOUTfront series, “Generations of Pride”
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