LGBT Equality: It’s Not Just About Marriage, It’s Not Just Up to the Courts, It’s on Us

As LGBT issues continue to be front and center across our nation, it is critical that the American people do not confuse gay marriage with equal opportunity for the LGBT community.

With three months since the election, the theme repeated most often in this past cycle has been the exhortation that Americans must take personal responsibility for their actions. But what has so often been missing from this debate is the recognition that, in a moral and just society, our personal responsibilities go beyond selfish self-interest and extend to the obligation to protect the rights of every citizen. While marriage equality is a necessary step in this process, it does not fulfill the palette of equality so desperately needed for every individual.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided it will discuss and debate the validity of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in this country. Whether it will continue to stand relies on a small body of Justices, whose voices will be lobbied by thousands of people around our nation. As a woman and lesbian who believes in the fundamental principles underpinning the founding of our country, I have to believe the repeal of this discriminatory law will be upheld. Yet, when it comes down to it, we must ask ourselves why Americans continue to wait for the Court to determine these life-changing issues?

In 2009 Vermont became the first state in the nation to pass marriage equality through our state legislature. Our elected representatives chose to vote for equality not because a judge told them to do it, but because it was the right thing to do.

I get the argument: when the court does it, everyday Americans are not held responsible for these huge decisions. But that path stands the principle of democracy on its head. In the United States the courts are meant to be the protector of rights not the writers of laws. In a democracy, what we stand for comes from the votes of the people and where there is inequality we are fully empowered to vanquish it. We cannot and should not leave it to the venue of last resort, the courts, to decide our future. At the heart of it, Americans showed an incredible presence by voting to pass equality on all four ballot initiatives in November, but while we await to hear on DOMA, we cannot stand by on issues that are more important than ever. If the conversation surrounding LGBT rights succeeds in critical states while DOMA is debated, we let fear win and our nation is better than that.

In the next five, 10, 20 years, issues for the LGBT community will only continue to grow. They won’t be glamorous and compact like the issue of marriage, but instead the issues will be employee protection, trans health rights, adoption issues, federal tax compliance, and elder care — topics that are neither sexy nor easily understood.

Think of how long this fight took us and how much is left; civil rights for LGBT people is touted as the fastest progressing in history, but that doesn’t change the fact that emerging laws question and inhibit our rights with increasing frequency. Thirty states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, 29 states can fire an individual for their sexual orientation, and 34 states can fire a person solely for being transgender. None of which accounts for the countless people across our country who cannot even come out safely to their families and friends.

We will only move forward when we use our voice loudly and consistently. Now, we can no longer just mean queer, it must also be our allies. Maybe in some cases that voice is not public, but silent, reflected by votes in ballot boxes instead of the rallies and marches we’ve grown accustomed to. Not every battle will be won for us by the Courts. Let these votes be a lesson of the future challenges the LGBT community faces.

If we lose, we have no one to blame but ourselves because at the core, LGBT issues are everyone’s issues and our youth won’t stand for any other answer but yes. I hope and believe that DOMA will be overturned, but marriage equality does not wipe the slate clean. It’s only the beginning of our nation’s path towards justice. Don’t let them look back at us and see how we stood on the wrong side of history.

This blog was originally published in The Huffington Post.

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