Dignity and Indignity: Why Justice for All Needs to Be the Focus of Marriage Rights Advocates

After the DOMA and Prop 8 victories at the Supreme Court, David Boyd, the lead lawyer on the Prop 8 case, and Chad Griffin, the chair of the Human Rights Campaign, declared that they were pushing for same-sex marriage in all 50 states within the next five years. With the wind at our backs, gay folks feel that there is no stopping us now. We are proudly marching toward marriage equality and an ability to realize our own dignity, a word used nine times by Justice Kennedy in his Supreme Court decision on DOMA.

This thrilling result came in the shadows of another decision, just the day before, that dismantled the Voting Rights Act, a 1960s law that protected the voting rights of minorities, mostly in the South. While most people agree that this law needs to be modernized, it has been utilized to protect voters as recently as in the last presidential election, when schemes were in place to suppress constituencies that were unlikely to vote for Mitt Romney and others on the Republican ticket. President Obama highlighted these inequalities in voting in his first State of the Union address after reelection, when he welcomed Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old black woman who waited nine hours to vote in Florida, as a personification of the problem. Gutting the Voting Rights Act was an indignity to Desiline and the many others who had to go through unnecessary hoops simply to cast a vote.

And good news on DOMA and Prop 8 came only two weeks before the conclusion of the Zimmerman trial, which further divided Americans by party lines and tribal experience. Not only was the not-guilty verdict incredibly upsetting for African Americans, who remain suspect of a judicial system stacked against them, but we experienced after-trial rhetoric from people on the right sarcastically celebrating their victory, seemingly ignorant of this country's history of violence against black people. They seem to communicate that a black teenager in a hoodie does not have dignity and does not deserve to be treated like a person.

The proximity of these differently decided Supreme Court cases and the Zimmerman trial should serve as a reminder to LGBT people that it is immensely important to have a broader sense of justice than our own drive for marriage equality. For instance, in the goal to make marriage equality present within all 50 states, we should resist all temptation to proactively push for popular votes as a strategy for realizing this goal. Chris Christie, New Jersey's governor and a likely 2016 presidential candidate, vetoed a 2012 bill that would have made gay marriage the law within his state. At that time and still today, he believes that New Jersey citizens should vote in a referendum on this issue because of the conflicting views on marriage within our society. This is the case despite the fact that New Jersey, unlike California and other states, has no tradition of popular votes on the topics of social movements or human rights. New Jersey typically only uses referenda for topics like bonds and environmental law.

When Christie first suggested it, he was confronted by opponents for proposing to put the rights of a minority group up for a majority vote. This could allow for the "tyranny of the majority." Opposition to popular votes on gay marriage has been the point of view that the LGBT rights movement has argued for years. Quite honestly, this was not an argument based only on philosophical principles; it was also practical. We lost popular vote after popular vote in the past, even in liberal California. But things have changed over time with popular votes on marriage equality. On all three referenda that were up for a vote in 2012, marriage equality was victorious. Today, polls in New Jersey show that residents stand for marriage equality by a 2-to-1 margin. It's not a guarantee, but it's very likely that the law would pass a popular vote in the state.

So if it's only about victory and the drive toward 50 states in five years, why not say "yes" to Christie? It's practical, ego-boosting, and momentum-building. But it would be wrong to give up on an incredibly important principle for the sake of expedience and a "feel-good" experience. The LGBT activists should have a broader perspective that remembers that a path to real justice means justice for all. If we drive for popular votes because we know that we would win, we set up a precedent for future votes on the rights of other minority communities. Yes, our dignity would be satisfied at the polls, but we would be the ones creating the opportunity for indignities against others in the future.

The New Jersey Supreme Court very well may decide that marriage equality and New Jersey are perfect together. The civil unions law that the court forced years ago now fails to meet the New Jersey Supreme Court's own standard, since it does not create an equal opportunity for gay couples. This is because civil unions do not guarantee federal benefits like marriage does now that DOMA is unconstitutional. Many conservatives bemoan using the courts to decide these cases. They are concerned about "judicial activism." But I did not hear any conservatives argue against the attempts to find Obamacare unconstitutional through legal challenges in the courts. And they shouldn't. We have three branches in our government for a reason. All are valid, and all are meant to protect the citizens of these United States.

LGBT activists should always remember that the SCOTUS decision favoring our rights came the very day after the Voting Rights Act was undercut. We should know that it happened within weeks of the Zimmerman debacle. As a minority group seeking rights, we have a responsibility to stay true to those core principles that will apply to current and future minority groups. We need to set a path that erases any potential indignities, those present today and those that have the potential to exist in the future, as we seek to realize our own dignity as persons within this country. While it may be counterintuitive, we need to resist our newfound popularity and stay on the better path toward justice.