Respect for Marriage Act Key to Resisting Threats to LGBTQ+ Equality
Either America is a country where fundamental rights are guaranteed, or we are a nation where your rights depend on who you are and your zip code. Those are the stakes right now, as an emboldened far-right political movement attacks federal protections for the rights to vote, access abortion care, marry the person you love, and more.
It’s a critical step forward, then, to see the U.S. House’s strongly bipartisan passage of the Respect for Marriage Act. The bill, which heads to the Senate, would ensure federal recognition of marriages between same-sex couples and interracial couples.
The bill’s passage comes after Justice Clarence Thomas’s chilling sentences declaring not just the Obergefell ruling ensuring the freedom to marry but also Griswold’s guarantee of contraception and Lawrence’s right to consensual same-sex relationships to be “demonstrably erroneous decisions.” He all but invited challenges to these historic precedents.
The Respect for Marriage Act evokes an earlier time in the long fight to win marriage equality. I have been replaying vivid memories of traveling the South a decade ago with our team at the Campaign for Southern Equality, standing with hundreds of same-sex couples who courageously requested marriage licenses in their hometowns to call for marriage equality, knowing they’d be denied. We worked with families in small towns like Morristown, Tenn., and cities like Mobile, Ala. I think about those who were plaintiffs in lawsuits striking down marriage bans in state after state. Those brave efforts worked — changing hearts, minds, laws, and our nation. Public support for the freedom to marry has grown steadily to now-historic levels, with polling tracking support at 71 percent. So many Americans have a close friend or family member who is LGBTQ+ and show their support everywhere from the kitchen table to the voting booth.
Despite this resounding public support, the LGBTQ+ community has been subject to a ceaseless assault from a far-right, Christian nationalist movement that exerts tremendous political power at every level of the American government. This movement has, through a mix of methodical strategy and deliberate chaos, seized the reins of the U.S. Supreme Court and almost every state legislature in the South. If they prevail in having Obergefell or other landmark precedents revisited or overturned, so many families and marriages would be at risk.
We must all be clear-eyed that we are entering a new chapter in the movement for LGBTQ+ equality. We’re already seeing the damage, especially in the South, which has been and will likely continue to be the epicenter for these attacks. Nearly every Southern state has passed laws targeting transgender youth for discrimination and exclusion. Parents who advocate for their trans children are being investigated as “child abusers.” The Texas attorney general has vowed to defend a 50-year-old law criminalizing homosexuality. A South Carolina congressional candidate called for LGBTQ+ people to be charged with treason. Even simple civic affirmations of LGBTQ+ people, such as Pride Month proclamations, are being censored.
We must harness the power of the supermajority of Americans who support LGBTQ+ equality. A record number of communities in the South have passed nondiscrimination ordinances, there is strong bipartisan support for LGBTQ+ protections, and countless Southern families are responding with love when a child comes out. For me, this is a source of very real hope.
The variety of hope I feel is not the buoyant stuff made of easy promises of what can be. It is, rather, hope that’s like a muscle you train until it’s strong enough for the work ahead, the kind made of prayer, grit, and crystal-clear resolve.
The stakes for our country could not be higher. Now is the time for us to take swift action in every part of our lives:
Individuals should take legal steps to protect themselves and their families and make concrete, detailed plans around access to health care, including transgender health care and reproductive health care.
Communities should mobilize funding, volunteers, and infrastructure for frontline work to support communities under attack.
At the state level, we should focus efforts on repealing “latent” laws, from so-called sodomy laws to marriage bans, that could be revived to challenge LGBTQ+ people.
Nationally, we must demand that Congress codify in federal law the freedom to marry who you love, abortion access for all, and the right to contraception — including urging the Senate to pass the Respect for Marriage Act.
We know what is possible if we prevail — and we also know what happens if we do not. This work is our charge. It is the work of our lifetimes. And it will take all of us.
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. She and her family live in Asheville, N.C.