The Long Road Ahead

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April 27, 2015
Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart

As we stand on the brink of another historic moment in the movement for LGBT equality, I can’t help looking back and thinking – I’ve seen other moments like this.

As an LGBT and HIV activist for more than 30 years, I’ve lived through events and decisions that changed our lives and our country – just as we hope the Supreme Court ruling about marriage equality will also do.

But a movement to secure civil rights and equality is never finished by a Supreme Court ruling, no matter how important that ruling may be.

I was the Executive Director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) in Boston in 1986 when, in a ruling laced with antigay language, the Court upheld Georgia’s sodomy law in Bowers v. Hardwick. It was a terrible legal defeat for the lesbian and gay community, coming during a time when we faced tragedy every day as friends and loved ones were lost to AIDS. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ratified the power of state governments to treat us as criminals.

The decision galvanized us to greater action, and we fought back.

Seventeen years later, in 2003, the Court reversed itself in its historic ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, a case brought by Lambda Legal. I was the Executive Director of Lambda Legal by then, and I know first-hand how the Lawrence litigation followed years of strategic cases brought by our organization and others to challenge sodomy laws in state courts.

On Tuesday, Mary Bonauto of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and Doug Hallward-Driemeier of Ropes & Gray, a powerful combination of attorneys will speak not only on behalf of the petitioners in the cases, but will carry the hopes and dreams of same-sex couples from across the country to the highest court in the land.

Supreme Court decisions build one upon the other. Lawrence v. Texas laid the legal groundwork for the marriage victories that followed, and the victory in Windsor v. United States, a case brought by our colleagues at the ACLU, opened the door wide for ruling after ruling declaring unconstitutional the bans against marriage for same-sex couples. In a little over 10 years, we changed the law and the country – LGBT people went from being criminals to newlyweds in a majority of states.

Now we have another Supreme Court argument ahead: Lambda Legal is proud to be part of the team of exceptional lawyers and organizations litigating Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that we hope will finally bring the freedom to marry to same-sex couples across the country. We are especially proud of the plaintiffs we represent today, and the hundreds of couples and families we have represented across the country as we secured marriage equality in state after state. We have worked for years to get to this day – and we are ready.

If we win, it will be historic – but it will not be the end. The freedom to marry opens many doors, but it does not eliminate discrimination and violence against LGBT people and people living with HIV. And our well-funded opponents will not stop trying to roll back our advances nor standing in the way of equality. One need only read the recent op-ed by Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who says he won’t back down from laws inviting discrimination in the name of religion. Let’s be clear: These laws are dangerous and wrong.

I have been in these moments before and I know what is needed: resilience, dedication and a vision for the future. At Lambda Legal, we are ready to strengthen our work and continue fighting for the rights of LGBTQ youth who are bullied and LGBT people who face bias on the job, transgender people denied health care or employment, people with HIV who face stigma instead of fairness, LGBT immigrants who face discrimination in asylum or removal proceedings, and LGBT seniors fighting for dignity in retirement.

I have been doing this work long enough that I can predict the future: The victories will be sweet and some people will declare the movement over – but they will be wrong. Newly won rights have to be enforced and protected, and the work of securing safety, dignity and equality for every member of our LGBT and HIV communities must be continued with as much energy and dedication as we have.

At Lambda Legal, we are saying “I do” not only to love and the freedom to marry, but to the ongoing fight for justice.