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Week of 12.5.08

What's Next for Gay Americans?

Joe Solmonese Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization, talks to NOW about his hopes for the future of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community following recent setbacks at the polls.

NOW: How discouraged are you by the recently-passed bans on same-sex marriage in California, Arizona, and Florida, and what is to learn from it?

Joe Solmonese (JS): There is no denying, as the dust settles from these defeats, that we have been injured—but we will not soon give up. We know that progress is possible. In 2000, California voters approved Proposition 22, which barred legal recognition of same-sex marriages, by a margin of 61.4 percent to 38.6 percent. This year, Proposition 8 was rejected by 48 percent of Californians. So what have we learned? People that know us are more likely to support our march for equality. History is on our side, as public opinion and the voice of the voters suggests. It is only a matter of time before we undo this loss and add more states to the march for equality.

NOW: Some would argue that "civil unions" are appropriate equivalents to same-sex marriage. What's your view?

JS: Similar rights are not equal rights. Granting civil unions to one group of people and marriages to another is inherently unequal. Should being gay render a person a second-class citizen? No. Does everyone deserve equal protection under the law in a nation that believes in "liberty and justice for all"? Yes. We are asking to be treated the same as any other family—and civil unions do not amount to equality.

NOW: What is your message to people of strong religious faith, given that many people were guided by their faith to vote against gay marriage?

JS: I stand with the more than 4,000 religious leaders across America who have called publicly for marriage equality because honoring the love and commitment of lesbian and gay families is the moral and just thing to do. We must continue to engage people of faith to let them know that many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are also people of deep religious faith. Regardless of our religious beliefs, our goal is to live in peace and mutual respect with our neighbors. For many people it boils down to their belief that sexual orientation is a choice. We will continue to show them the truth that: 1) God has created us as we are and 2) our desire to marry is about living up to our commitments and moral responsibilities to each other. That's what marriage is about.

NOW: How does the election of Barack Obama and the new Congressional makeup affect your goals?

JS: The election of Barack Obama and a fair-minded Congress has been groundbreaking. Not only has President-elect Obama consistently shown that he understands that LGBT rights are civil rights, but for the first time, an incoming administration has listed sexual orientation and gender identity in its employment opportunity and hiring clause. Looking towards the next four years, we look forward to working with the Obama Administration to roll back eight years of the Bush administration's failed policies. We look towards our community for input as we put a plan in place for each piece of legislation we are trying to pass. This is the best opportunity we've ever had to ensure workplace protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity and to protect our community from hate crimes.

Watch NOW: "Under the Rainbow" to learn about Florida's ban on adoptions by gays and lesbians.
NOW: Do you feel the fight for LGBT rights is comparable to the civil rights movement of African-Americans in the 1960s?

JS: I believe we are very much in a modern-day civil rights struggle. And although the African-American experience of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow is unique in our nation's history, our community is also fighting for the equal rights that should be our birthright as Americans and as human beings. We are grateful to the civil rights heroes of this nation's history, who have paved the way for each successive movement to expand the protections and opportunities many people take for granted. We take lessons from the civil rights experience and apply them to our work.

NOW: In your view, what keeps people who deplore gay marriage from accepting the idea? Can their perceptions be changed?

JS: Over 30 years ago, gay-rights activist Harvey Milk taught us that the best way to get people to change their mind about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is to talk with out LGBT people. The same is true for marriage equality. When people see the loving commitments of their gay and lesbian family members, friends, neighbors, and fellow congregants at church, they abandon their prejudices. It is true that people often use misconceptions about the Bible to shut their hearts and minds to us, but the more they get to know us, the harder it becomes for them to deny us the right to express our love for one another through the sacred bonds of marriage. There is much education that we still need to do around LGBT issues, but as Harvey Milk taught us, we in the LGBT community are our own best advocates.

NOW: Who is in the most appropriate position to decide on issues involving gay rights: a judge, an elected official, or a voter?

JS: The Framers of our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the 14th Amendment decided these issues long ago. Our rights derive from our humanity, a truth that the founders considered "self-evident." And over the centuries, it has become clear that "We, the people" means all of the people. For too long, governments have sought to restrict or deny our right to have intimate relationships and to form equal families. In recent years, the courts have correctly recognized that LGBT people, like all others, possess civil and human rights that no government, and no voter, may abridge. It is not a question of the courts granting rights—but of our constitution's promise of equality being enforced. Our community promotes legislation that advances civil rights, supports fair-minded candidates for public office, and educates the public about the importance of rejecting discrimination. We also advocate for fair-minded judicial appointments, because the courts play a constitutional role in protecting the rights of all people.

NOW: Massachusetts and Connecticut are currently the only states that allow full marriage rights to gays and lesbians. Which states are closest to joining them and by what means?

JS: A state senator in Vermont plans to introduce a marriage equality bill when the legislature reconvenes. And there is talk that something similar may be in the works in Iowa. In fact, a Boston-based civil rights organization said that it hopes to get full marriage equality throughout New England by 2012. We could see Proposition 8 overturned or put back up for vote in 2010, depending on what the California Supreme Court decides in the coming weeks or months. It may be too soon to say, but we will continue to push for such legislation, as we tackle this issue state-by-state, day-by-day, vote-by-vote.

Related Links:

Human Rights Campaign: Op-ed by Joe Solmonese on Approval of Proposition 8

NOW: Under the Rainbow

New York Times: Bans in 3 States on Gay Marriage

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