Dignity Declared, Yet Still Denied

On June 26, I walked out of the U.S. Supreme Court after hearing Justice Kennedy declare the right of same-sex couples to marry and came upon what looked like a world changed. Rainbow flags waved high, a church choir sang hymnals of love and liberation and everywhere, young, queer people cheered, kissed and held hands.

One woman held a sign that read simply, "Dignity Declared," echoing Justice Kennedy's words affirming the "equal dignity in the eyes of the law" of all LGBT people. As Kennedy's opinion powerfully proclaimed: "There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices."

Yet, the reality is that while dignity may now be declared by the highest court in our land, it is still denied for too many.

The ink had barely dried on Kennedy's opinion before one state attorney general after another in the South made clear that nothing in the Supreme Court's decision required immediate compliance. Louisiana Governor Jindal declared: "Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that." Even before the decision, North Carolina's legislature passed legislation to allow a magistrates and registers of deeds to opt out of performing marriages to which they have a religious objections -- meaning in practice, marriages of same-sex couples. And in anticipation of the decision, Alabama's state senate went as far as to pass a bill entirely eliminating state-issued marriage licenses in favor of a process that removes state participation.

While it is likely that these states will eventually permit same-sex couples to marry (and some have already), dignity delayed is dignity denied, especially when the sole reason for the delay is the state-sponsored belief that gay and lesbian citizens are not worthy of equal respect.

No couple should have to suffer that indignity on their wedding day. On my own wedding day, I remember experiencing the powerful feelings of "nobility and dignity" that Kennedy described, when walking down the aisle, hand-in-hand with my now-husband. We stood in front of our friends and family and before our government, proclaiming our love and commitment to each other without shame.

I also know the fear of holding my husband's hands walking down the street and the shame from letting go after one too many stares. For too many in our community, those stares and whispers escalate into violence. Just a month ago, our community suffered the murder of the 10th trans woman this year, with the loss of 17-year old Mercedes Williamson. And this is in spite of LGBT federal hate crime legislation passed over five years ago. For Mercedes, the dignity of being protected by the law could not save her from a brutal end.

Without a doubt, the law is critical to LGBT progress. As Justice Kennedy's opinion declared, "the Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach." But laws are just words on paper until we give them meaning in people's everyday lives. Still today, too many in our community remain beyond the reach of liberty's promise.

That is especially true for some of the most vulnerable in our community, including undocumented LGBT immigrants. As a 2013 report from the Center from American Progress depicts, LGBT immigrants in U.S. detention facilities face an unacceptably high risk of abuse, including solitary confinement and sexual assault. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in fact found that the treatment of LGBT immigrants in U.S. detention facilities violated the Convention Against Torture. Often, these immigrants' only offense is escaping persecution in their home countries, in hopes of a safe harbor in the U.S.

Yet, when activist Jennicet Gutiérrez dared to call attention to this continuing injustice at this year's White House pride event, her act of protest was met with indignity and shame. This is despite the fact that 35 U.S. House of Representatives have similarly called on the Obama Administration to end the detainment of LGBT immigrants, given the unreasonable risk to their safety. For Jennicet and other undocumented LGBT immigrants, dignified treatment is as unattainable as marriage was for same-sex couples just 20 years ago.

"The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times," wrote Justice Kennedy about the past denial of marriage to same-sex couples. His entreaty applies in equal force to us today. What are the injustices that we are blinded from seeing today? And more importantly, how do we hasten the day when we can see those injustices for what they are -- unacceptable stains on our Constitution's promise of equal dignity?

Let us pay attention to Mercedes, Jennicet and so many others to force discomfort into our moral consciousness, until we can no longer deny the shared humanity of those who have not yet been included. Dignity declared can become dignity attained, but only if we continue our long march towards equal justice for all.

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