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May 11, 2011

Last week, in Clovis, New Mexico, the local school district announced that it had approved students’ application for a gay-straight alliance (GSA). High school senior Steven De Los Santos had first applied for permission to form the club in late February, but what was usually a routine process had been subject to delay, uncertainty and an unexpected change of the school clubs policy by the school board — until the ACLU sent a demand letter asking that the club be immediately approved.

This is just one of the hundreds of victories the ACLU and ACLU affiliates will achieve this year on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans. Some will be small: A student will print a PDF off our website, take it to his principal, and because he has a letter on ACLU letterhead saying the school must allow it, he’ll get to bring his boyfriend to prom. Some will be a bit larger: We’ll advocate with state Departments of Motor Vehicles to create consistent, reasonable guidelines to change gender markers on state-issued IDs, so that transgender men and women can easily obtain identification that accurately reflects their true gender. And some will impact all of us: Our case on behalf of Edie Windsor could strike down Section Three of the Defense of Marriage Act, requiring the federal government to recognize marriages of same-sex couples for the first time.

In the context of this deep commitment to fairness for LGBT Americans, we also have to acknowledge where the ACLU has fallen short. While the ACLU first tackled gay rights 75 years ago in 1936, defending Lillian Hellman’s lesbian-themed play “The Children’s Hour,” in the 1950’s we fell short, failing to challenge sodomy laws. As Dale Carpenter pointed out in his New York Times op-ed “How the Law Accepted Gays,” when all 50 states made homosexual conduct a crime, the ACLU did not bring legal challenges to those laws.

But as Anthony Romero points out in his letter to the editor in response to Carpenter’s op-ed, just because we didn’t challenge sodomy laws in the 1950’s doesn’t mean we weren’t working on gay rights. In the 1950s and ’60s, we challenged police raids targeting gay establishments. In 1971, we brought the first case seeking marriage for gay couples. We represented Michael Hardwick in his 1986 Supreme Court challenge to Georgia’s sodomy law. We were counsel with Lambda Legal in the 1996 case striking down Colorado’s antigay amendment. And the Supreme Court relied in part on our brief in finally striking down sodomy laws in 2003.

We all make mistakes, and the ACLU is no exception. We realize that mistake today and have understood for decades that LGBT Americans are in every way entitled to the freedom and equal treatment that the Constitution promises. Our work will continue — in Clovis, New Mexico, and across the country — until that promise is realized.

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