A Bittersweet Anniversary of the Marriage Equality Ruling

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June 17, 2016
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Susan Sommer
Susan Sommer

The following are remarks by Susan Sommer at the “Lambda Legal in DC” event held at the Newseum on June 15.

We come together tonight, as a community, united in sorrow, anger and resolve after the tragedy this past weekend in Orlando, when members of the LGBT community were gunned down, on a night celebrating Latinx culture as well.

Young men and women, transgender and cisgender, joined in pride in themselves; in their exuberance to dance and express who they are; in friendship, camaraderie and perhaps romance, had done what so many here tonight have done as well—and in a sense, what we are doing this very evening: building and enjoying community, reveling in the progress that LGBT Americans have made in this country, taking pride in the LGBT and Latinx experience and identity, and exercising the liberty to stand up as LGBT individuals and allies and to expect the same freedoms, safety and pleasures that others in our country enjoy.

We are devastated to think of so many lives lost, so many injured and suffering, so many grieving families and friends, and the deep psychic scars we all will bear from this senseless violence targeting LGBT people and their friends on a tragic weekend night.

And I am angry. I am angry that LGBT people and those living with HIV in our country continue not to be safe in their jobs, in their families, in their communities, in the places where they congregate and seek refuge, in the places where historically LGBT people could find one another and express their sexuality and pride.

I speak not only of this horrible atrocity, as abominable as it was. No, I am angered as well by the daily acts of discrimination and aggression—and violence—that must galvanize us to carry on and continue our work, to double down on our resolve to secure liberty and equality for all.

While a mass shooting with an assault weapon shocks us, as it should, we are painfully aware that individual LGBT people, and especially transgender people of color, over and over are targeted for violence and murder, and that all these acts of violence must end.

“What Lawrence did was provide an assurance that gay and lesbian couples could live openly in society as free people and start families and raise families and participate fully in their communities without fear.”
—  U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli

I had hoped that tonight could be a particularly joyous occasion, celebrating the first anniversary since we prevailed in Obergefell v. Hodges—thanks in no small measure to the enormous contributions of the man with whom I have the honor to share this podium tonight, the Solicitor General of the United States.

I must confess that I am a huge fan, dare I say groupie, of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli. It’s not just the dapper morning coat, with tails, in which he, as Solicitor General, argues in the U.S. Supreme Court—though, of all communities, ours can and should appreciate self-expression through one’s attire, however much it may set one apart from conventional sartorial norms.

Even more, it’s what the Solicitor General has said and done. It’s the deep intelligence and conviction with which he has spoken out, on behalf of this community and others that have suffered from long histories of oppression, and his doing so as the foremost lawyer representing our federal government—the very government that for many decades led the way in oppressing LGBT people, and now is helping to build a path forward towards liberty and inclusion.

In the argument in Obergefell, in which he stood shoulder to shoulder with the lawyers arguing for our community, General Verrilli spoke poignantly of the impact of Lawrence v. Texas, Lambda Legal’s 2003 Supreme Court landmark striking down sodomy prohibitions and establishing the equal liberty to which LGBT individuals can lay claim, words I find particularly haunting tonight. He said:

“What Lawrence did was provide an assurance that gay and lesbian couples could live openly in society as free people and start families and raise families and participate fully in their communities without fear.”

Yes, absolutely, Lawrence—as well as Windsor, Obergefell, and other landmarks—helped open that door, but as we at Lambda Legal know all too well, we have far more work to do before all LGBT people in this country, young and old, can truly rely on that promise.

Certainly not while North Carolina’s hateful law, HB2, one of more than 200 anti-LGBT laws introduced in legislatures around the nation in the past year alone, deprives LGBT people access to non-discrimination protections.

And certainly not while it leaves our transgender brothers and sisters fearful and humiliated when they need to exercise a right and function as basic as using a public restroom.

Do we really believe that all LGBT people and those living with HIV in this nation can live freely and openly, can build families, can express themselves, can congregate, can go to school, can hold jobs, can walk our streets, can even dance, without fear?

And not while it denies transgender schoolchildren the freedom to grow up and attend school in peace, supported in their gender identity. Lambda Legal is fighting back in the courts against that discrimination.

And certainly we have not achieved the full promise of liberty and equality while transgender people, in particular Black and Latinx transgender women, continue to suffer an epidemic of violence against them.

And certainly the LGBT community is denied equal respect and dignity for their families and their children when mothers like Lambda Legal client Brooke, on whose behalf I just argued in New York State’s highest court, is denied the ability even to see her darling son, her little boy, who has her last name on his birth certificate, based on harsh New York law that says a non-biological parent, without marriage or adoption, is a legal stranger, no parent, to her child.

And our client Thomas Hamm was certainly not safe when he went to visit his incarcerated partner in a city jail and was viciously beaten by Correctional Officers, leaving him with facial fractures and falsely charged with the crime of attacking his attackers—all for the offense of being a gay man trying to visit his fiancée. Lambda Legal is standing up for Thomas too.

To be sure, we do have much to celebrate today, at the same time that we grieve. We have achieved the freedom to marry for same-sex couples nationwide—that is huge. We have broken important ground in recognizing and protecting the rights of transgender people. We need to acknowledge, revel in, and seize those and so many other historic gains, gains felt in the daily lives of so many.

But I ask you – do we really believe that all LGBT people and those living with HIV in this nation can live freely and openly, can build families, can express themselves, can congregate, can go to school, can hold jobs, can walk our streets, can even dance, without fear?

Do we really believe that, without our constant vigilance and effort, hard-won constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms are secure?

Do you feel that safety and security? Do you believe this civil rights movement can sit back and relax, mission accomplished?

We at Lambda Legal do not, and we will continue in our resolve to ensure that all members of the communities we serve can live in dignity and peace, and come together in safety, pride and joy.