Those who know me know that I am not a morning person, and that if something can drag me out of bed at 5:00 AM, it must be extremely important. Nevertheless, that is exactly what I brought myself to do yesterday, as I had the privilege of joining community members and supporters to watch as the results of the Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor cases were announced on CNN from a jumbotron at the base of the grand rotunda that makes San Francisco City Hall so iconic. Flat, white light from the media crews illuminated the hundreds of people gathered under the dome. It was plainly evident that the event we were about to witness would be a monumental one.
City Hall is no stranger to significant LGBT history. In this same building, Harvey Milk was shot 35 years ago, and in this same building former Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the County Clerk to issue marriage licenses, ignoring state law and igniting the marriage debate nationally nine years ago. You can only imagine, then, the feeling of coming full circle when Lieutenant Governor Newsom descended down the rotunda steps with Phyllis Lyon, who founded the nation’s first lesbian organization 58 years ago. When the announcement came, we knew June 26, 2013 would be the newest addition to our community’s timeline.
The long road to marriage equality was arduous and came with many consequences. Prop. 8 passed when I was a sophomore in high school. I remember hearing the horrendous vitriol that spewed from the television ads of the “Yes on 8” campaign almost every day for a month before the election. It felt like institutionalized bullying, hate in a legalized and codified form. Our relationships, our families, and our lives were reduced to sound bytes and political debates. And when 52% of Californians voted to adopt the Proposition, it felt like 52% of Californians voted to say “who you are is wrong.”
The cases decided yesterday were not just significant to the LGBT community, but also to the legal and political framework of our nation. Both of these cases were highly unique, and they took the Court, as Justice Kennedy put it in oral arguments, “into uncharted waters.” This is the first time that the Supreme Court has addressed the issue of marriage equality.
United States v. Windsor
One of the most striking features of this case is President Barack Obama’s refusal to defend DOMA’s constitutionality. Typically, the Attorney General would argue on behalf of the government and the constitutionality of the law. But in an unprecedented move, the President, after carefully reviewing the merits of the case, conceded Windsor’s crucial argument that DOMA violates the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th Amendment, which states that “No state shall […] deny to any person within its jurisdiction equal protection of its law.”
The Court made two big rulings within this decision. Firstly, it ruled that the writ of certiorari was correctly granted, or that the Supreme Court had the right to discuss this case. This came into question with regards to the standing of a legally enigmatic body called the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) that came to argue for the constitutionality of DOMA in the President’s stead. They ruled that BLAG indeed had “concrete adverseness,” or that they had a sufficient stake in the case to have the right to argue in Court.
Secondly, the Court ruled that banning marriage equality violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th Amendment. It was evident to the Court that DOMA “impose[d] a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages.” The law essentially singled out a class of people for the purpose of subjugation, which by no means constitutes equal protection.
The result of this case is simple: marriages performed in states that recognize marriage equality will also be recognized by the federal government. All 1,138 rights that had previously been withheld are finally restored. Perhaps most poignant is the right to naturalize a spouse who immigrated to the United States. Countless LGBT couples have been torn apart through deportations that occurred because of the federal government’s refusal to recognize the marriage as valid, even if the couple was legally married in the state of residence.
Hollingsworth v. Perry
They say that arguments in the Supreme Court hardly relate to what the cases are actually about. Hollingsworth is a perfect example. Like in the DOMA case, the government’s executive representative (in this case, Governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris) refused to defend Prop. 8 in court, employing a similar argument to the Obama administration. The proponents of Prop. 8 stepped in to defend it, much like BLAG did in US v. Windsor.
Unlike Windsor, however, the Court held that the proponents did not have standing, or the right to argue in court. According to Article III of the Constitution, the judicial branch’s purview reaches only as far as resolving disputes, or cases. This is why the courts value demonstrating concrete harm to a litigating party. If there’s no controversy, there’s no need for the Court.
Here, the Court essentially decided that the case should not have been heard at all, and deferred to the lower court’s decision stating that there is no rational basis for the government with which to discriminate against LGBT Americans by prohibiting marriage equality.
Of course, this ruling is fantastic for LGBT Californians, but in reality, the Court stopped short of delivering a judgment that could have had implications for the entire nation. If the courts had ruled that it is unconstitutional for a state like California to prohibit marriage equality under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses, other states could have been compelled to adopt marriage equality as policy. Nobody expected the Court to go that far, especially with the high degree of respect for federalism that many justices have demonstrated.
“This is not the end, but the beginning”
Marriage equality is the issue that turned me into an activist. At such a young age, the campaign affected me in a deeply personal way. It was so much more than fighting for legal rights; it was about fighting against a government that was actively trying to subjugate us to a second class. Now that marriage equality is on the way to becoming a national reality, we have to remember that this issue is not the final frontier of the LGBT rights movement. Bullying continues to run rampant within our educational system. Youth still live in unsafe environments and are kicked out and left to fend for themselves on the street. Trans folk remain neglected and marginalized in the pursuit for equality, and it remains federally legal to fire an employee for being LGBT.
This is not the end, but the beginning. While the marriage equality story has come full circle, it is but one issue in the myriad of problems our community must deal with. It represents a moment in our community’s heritage, but we must remember that marriage equality is not a panacea. So for now, we celebrate this incredible milestone, but recognize that much is still needed to dismantle oppression and achieve full federal equality.
Jason Galisatus ’15 is the Executive Director of the Bay Area Youth Summit.