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Mike Rogers: Yesterday's Coat, Today's Suit

Mike Rogers,
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June 20, 2008

There are times during the day filmmakers refer to as the ‘magic hour.’ It’s when the natural light that make a great film come together. With the levels of white light lowered, the colors on film are warm and the result is, well, magical. The majesty of the Jefferson Memorial, coupled with the reflection of the sun off of the Tidal Basin and that perfect moment of magic hour light during the right time of year, is a tribute to the brilliance of Jefferson. Like the sun, the third president’s glow has helped to light the path to justice for generations and will continue to for generations.

From one of four walls within the memorial:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

Jefferson got it. He got it better than those that would turn back the clock of time on us today. So, what does the boy’s coat and today’s struggle for marriage equality have in common? Suits.

Lawsuits in the courts have long been a place for the LGBT community to seek equality. While many point to the legislative and executive branches as more reflective of the electorate, it’s not true. The Mid 19th century populist movement changed appointed to elected judges in many jurisdictions. “Judicial activism” is no more or less “activist” than a legislature passing a law or a governor making a pro-gay decision.

Keep the old, ill-fitting coat?

A national coalition of the nation’s best known civil rights groups (including the ACLU) has turned to the couples married in California to say, “don’t’ sue” back in their home states. Some will argue that, in many cases, rights are won in courts and that despite what will be some losses, overall lawsuits and judicial redress are to be seized upon. Others say, “not so fast.”

Who’s right? Everyone.

But make no mistake about it. Without the proper support behind the scenes, the movement’s rate of success will slow significantly. Consider the story of Rosa Parks. Remember how one day just simply fed up with being told to move to the back of the bus said “no”?

Well, actually that is not how it happened. Behind the scenes, Rosa Parks was a lot more connected than most people know. She served as secretary of the Montgomery, Alabama NAACP chapter, of which she was a member from 1943 through 1957. In the summer of 1955, just months before the boycott later the same year, Parks spent time at the Highlander Center, the south’s most important organization dedicated to progressive training and movement building.

Newly married couples would be wise to consider the groups’ advice before moving ahead without the massive legal efforts these cases require. This is not one you want to leave to the guy who was your counsel in a small claims court over the crappy paint job on your car.

The strategy that these groups have been managing is working. We’re winning. Sure, along the way battles are lost here and there. And, when it gets to the Supreme Court may even rule against us the first time (Remember Bowers v. Hardwick?), but within a generation a new Court will, I predict, do exactly what the Court did in Loving v. VA, give a quick “ta-ta, buh-bye” to every one of the state constitutional amendments. At least we don’t have to pick up arms and REALLY lay it on the line for equality — legislators, businesses, governors, public opinion and, yes, the courts are doing that.

Marriage has never been “my” issue, per se, yet one could easily argue that it is one of the most central issues in our movement, EVER. It’s the equalization of the very institutions from which gays have for so long been excluded that will do a lot more to change society than a piece of legislation could ever do. Equality is the prize at the end of the culture war and I want us fighting on every front.

The game is too important. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize. Let’s not drop the ball.

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