Rights Still to Be Won
The civil rights struggle for legal equality in America today is no less necessary, nor worthy, than a similar struggle fought by blacks several decades ago. Now, as then, Americans are denied rights simply because of who they are. When lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans gather in Washington on Sunday for the National Equality March, they will invoke the unfulfilled promise in our Constitution that they, too, are due equal protection under the law.
I will join them in their march because I believe in their equality and believe in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution that promises to protect it. I will join them because the humanity of all people is diminished when any class of people is denied privileges granted to others. I will join them because I know that when heterosexuals stand up and call for justice alongside their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters, the sooner justice will come.
In the ugly days of racial segregation, we had a dream. In August 1963 we came to Washington and declared that dream to the nation. Among us that day were LGBT Americans such as Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the '63 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His homosexuality caused discomfort among some leaders of the day, and they played down his role in the march. But his heroic work has served as a model for civil rights organizers ever since.
We can no longer pretend that civil rights do not include rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. Flimsy justifications for anti-LGBT bias are giving way to evidence that society is strengthened, not weakened, when LGBT people are given equal protection under the law. Where they are free to marry those they love, the sky has not fallen. Where they cannot be denied employment and housing simply because of who they are, the sky has not fallen. Where they serve nobly in the military without the burden of secrecy, the sky has not fallen. Rather, when all people are free to live up to their full potential, all of society benefits. Yet the United States still permits all these forms of discrimination.
And this is why we must march.
My friend Coretta Scott King said in 2000: "Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender or ethnic discrimination." That is why the NAACP resolved several years ago that "we shall pursue all legal and constitutional means to support non-discriminatory policies and practices against persons based on race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or cultural background."
The civil rights movement has achieved tremendous victories in past decades, and so we must again. The bias against LGBT people tolerated in this land, even at the end of the first decade of the new millennium, is ugly. We must create a better future, which will give us a past upon which we can look back and be proud. This weekend, those who believe in the ideals of our Constitution, those who have a dream that we will one day live in a nation where people will be judged not by whom they love but by the content of their character, and those who stand up for their ideals can be proud that they stood up and spoke out for justice.
The writer, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and distinguished professor in residence at American University, is board chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.