On Becoming Less of an Outlaw

What does it mean to exist in a country that reminds you that you exist outside of the law? How do you process a night like Friday, where you celebrate a huge entry into legal equality, but understand that doesn't make you fully legal?
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Friday night's historic vote for marriage equality in New York State was an incredible moment. The vote was a nail biter, it came after previous losses in the state, was done in the first Republican controlled legislature to ever pass such a bill, and it ushered in Pride weekend with incredible joy.

Pride weekend in New York is scheduled on the anniversary of the watershed moment in LGBT rights, the night of the Stonewall riots, 42 years ago. Stonewall, as many now know, is a gay bar in the West Village. It was also a regular target of police who would bust in and arrest the patrons. On the night of the riot, something changed. If purely being in a gay bar made us outlaws, why not step that status up, fight the police, and refuse to allow the humiliation the law was used to create.

At the Stonewall this Friday night, the bar was packed as the vote approached. The streets outside of it were full. From the location where we first fought the laws that fought against our basic humanity, a crowd watched a new legal era begin.

There's a lot of talk about the need for legal equality. And there's a lot of talk about how the culture of the LGBT community has always existed a bit outside of the structures the rest of society often inherits. There's talk about whether the LGBT movement should or should not appear, or become, more "mainstream" in the fight for equality. But what there's often little discussion of is what it means to live in a country that, by the nature of how you are born, has labeled you from birth as an "outlaw." Even if we all pay our taxes and never jaywalk, we've been listed as outlaws in various forms.

In the summer of 2003, the historic Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision came down. It said -- once more, in 2003! -- that it was no longer legal for states to arrest LGBT people for having intimate relations in the privacy of their own homes. Literally, the case was about a gay couple arrested for having sex in their own home.

By the time the decision came down, most states no longer had so-called "sodomy" laws on the books. But fourteen remaining states were like Texas, and still did have the law on their books.

After the decision's release, a friend emailed me, writing that she was shocked by how good it felt to no longer be considered an outlaw. After reviewing the fourteen states with the law on the books, I realized I had once visited one of them with a partner. We weren't arrested while there, simply for being together, but it was a shock to realize that could have happened.

Meanwhile, in Justice Scalia's dissent, he warned of, and I literally quote, an "anti-anti-homosexual agenda" that was getting too much power. The "anti-anti-homosexual agenda," he referenced were the parts of the legal community that refused to allow sexual orientation-based discrimination in hiring. Scalia couldn't even bring himself to call them pro-LGBT rights, but rather went to what they were opposed to, which was discrimination, and framed that as a bad thing!

As the years go by, we get a bit more equality after hard fought battles. Public opinion polling on LGBT equality has dramatically shifted over the years. Don't Ask Don't Tell is slated to move into dusty history books soon. But it's still legal in certain states to be fired simply for being LGBT. It's still impossible in certain states to visit your partner in their hospital room.

It's a popular thing at law schools for their LGBT groups to be called Outlaw. When I was at Harvard, one of the best parties of the year was the annual Outlaw dance at the law school. It's tongue-in-check in naming, and yet, legally, it's not fully tongue-in-check.

When Freedom of Information Act requests looked into how the Patriot Act had been used to spy upon progressive organizers, we learned that this tongue-in-check naming didn't end up being fully ironic after all. It turned out that our tax dollars had been spent on monitoring some very serious threats to our freedoms. By which I mean, LGBT law students at New York University.

It's amazing to read the writing of government infiltrators, searching out terrorists and zeroing in on the LGBT law students at NYU, who protested military recruitment on campus due to the discriminatory nature of Don't Ask Don't Tell. The tongue-in-check nature of the term was clearly lost on the government's spies, who documented that this group was such a threat to our nation that they even openly declare themselves "outlaws." Indeed.

What does it mean to exist in a country that in many ways reminds you that you exist outside of the law, despite any choices you make yourself about how to approach the law? How do you process a night like Friday, where you celebrate a huge entry into legal equality, but you understand that such a win doesn't make you as accepted by the law as the straight person next to you?

There is still the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which withholds over 1,000 rights and responsibilities from LGBT couples who do marry in a state that allows them to wed. There's also the hassle of hoping you don't get sick while traveling in a state that will not recognize your rights and relationship, or having to move to a state where you can slip down the scale of equality to get fired and be unable to rent an apartment because of who you love. So we have some rights, in some locations, and they are expanding; but traveling a few hundred miles can change that equation of where we exist in relation to how the law views us.

Even if every LGBT American lived perfectly within all basic laws, even if some of us serve our country in uniform, even if we give back to our communities and actively participate in the social structure of this country, we still are inherently outlaws. We live outside of the law, whether we like that or not. Maybe that's why we're able to protest and litigate in ways that view the legal structure as something amendable, something that can be changed to become equal. But it always leaves us outside some thickness of a window, peering in. We might get invited to the White House these days, but the majority of the people we have the option to elect still won't say we deserve full equal rights.

I think that this outlaw citizen status subconsciously or not affects the lives we build and how we approach community and our country. Everything always has to be redesigned to fit. If I'm an outlaw, why am I to bend to all the social structures I find outdated? If the law says that I am not a full citizen, I can't easily stand by when someone argues that immigrants who were brought to this country as children and then serve in the military or work their way through college shouldn't be allowed a way to stay in this country. I can't sit by idly as some promote laws that make it harder for young people, and old people, and people of color to vote. I can't view with indifference laws that criminalize the homeless purely based upon the financial fact of their homelessness. There's a tent called equality, and while working to get into it, I can't stand by as others get thrown out.

As much as a life of full equality seems a tempting thing to believe in, and as much as I would wish that for everyone, as long as the country says I'm an outlaw, I'll find a way to view that legal description as a badge of honor and responsibility. Even while celebrating a historic gain, such as Friday's vote, I won't forget that equality is a slippery thing that vigilantly must always be held in sight and worked for. It is not a passive engagement, walking around a country that categorizes you as other. It's not a thing that goes away as soon as we win one more legal right. It's hard to view a time in my life where this won't be the case. Where 100% citizen equality will just be had and enjoyed without someone somewhere seeking to strip it away. (I'm looking at you, Mormon Church and opportunist Republican GOTV operatives.) So, in the meantime, I'll embrace being the best type of outlaw I can be. And as an outlaw, I guess it's up to us to define what that looks like. Ironically, if we view this status well, we might just leave better the laws of this country.

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