Love NOLA: On being gay in a post-DOMA (Southern) world
“God Bless America.”
That was my first thought yesterday as I saw the words “DOMA Struck Down 5-4” flash across my computer screen.
That thought was almost immediately followed by, “Is Justice Scalia related to Grumpy Cat?” as I read his pouty, petulant, and peevish dissent.
Really now, Antonin. What is it that has you being so abominable? That forward-hair-comb? The fact that Ruth Bader Ginsburg—a Jew and a woman and a 100-pound octogenarian---could whoop your ass? Do us all a favor: Take your big boy chair, pull it to the ornate corner of the Court’s chambers and give yourself a little boy time-out.
Mostly, though, I thought of a conversation I had had with a group of friends on Tuesday night, barely 13 hours before DOMA was struck down. There were 2 ½ generations of us sitting around a table, doing what we do best in New Orleans: drinking, eating … and talking. Given the buzz around the Supreme Court, we started talking about gay rights.
I was the only gay person at the table (well, the only confirmed gay!).
A friend (a very well-read, well-educated, well-plugged in friend, I might add) asked me how I felt about the whole thing.
I told her that I kept hearing the words of my former boss, Gerry E. Studds, who was the first openly gay member of Congress. Gerry used to begin every speech to the gay community with these words: “We must never forget both how far we have come … and how far we have to go.”
“Yes, yes,” the group agreed, “the gay community has come so far.”
“That’s true,” I said, “but think about this: I actually gave up rights when I moved from Boston, Massachusetts, to New Orleans, Louisiana.”
There was silence.
I then explained how, in Massachusetts I could be married. In Massachusetts, there were legal protections that ensured I could not be fired or denied housing because I am gay. In Massachusetts, there are laws that protect gay kids from bullying.
I have none of that in Louisiana. No marriage, no protection (but for hate crimes, which in a rare sign of collective intelligence, the state legislature did pass) and gay kids are left to fend for themselves.
“But what about federal protection?” someone asked.
“There is no gay civil rights law,” I replied.
“But you live in New Orleans,” everyone said.
“True dat,” I said. And it is true that New Orleans does offer me protections from discrimination. I can’t be denied housing or lose my job in New Orleans because I am a gay man. That’s a good thing.
But, here’s the deal: In terms of my relationships, all that the City of New Orleans can offer me is a domestic partnership registry. Where my partner and I can sign our names. No rights, just names. Um, what is this? 1994?
And here’s the other deal: The rights and protections afforded me by the City of New Orleans only apply when I am within parish limits.
I spoke with a friend yesterday who lives Uptown, but works in Jefferson Parish, where there are no protections, except for gays’ right to be in public places … you know, like restaurants and parks and such. Whoo hoo!
“So, here’s how this works,” he said. “When I get up in the morning, I have rights, because I live in New Orleans. But when I drive to work, I lose rights, because my job is in Jefferson Parish.”
Now, think about that for a second. Think about what it would be like to have rights from 5:01 p.m. to 7:59 a.m. (and all day on weekends), but not have rights from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Kinda sounds like one of those old calling plans, doesn’t it? Except it’s not a calling plan. It’s people’s rights. It’s my rights. It’s your brother’s rights. You’re best friend’s rights. Your neighbor’s rights. Your childhood hero’s rights.
Basic civil rights. Now you see them; now you don’t.
I write all of this today not to be Debbie Downer and throw cold water on yesterday’s triumphant, joyous victory (my tears of joy still haven’t dried). Nor am I writing this to imply that I regret moving to New Orleans (I don’t).
I write this because, as we celebrate the moment of yesterday’s triumph, as we who live in New Orleans give thanks for living in a city whose heart is both big and just, we must remember.
We must remember that the Supreme Court’s decision applies to those who have been legally married in the now 13 states that allow gay marriage. Sure, the decision sets the stage for what even Grumpy Justice acknowledges is likely to be a successful fight to make gay marriage the law of the land, but that fight has not been won. And as the dust settles and the sun rises, we see that the path for even those 13 states with gay marriage is far from clear. And for those of us who live in the 37 states that prohibit our marriage? Well, yesterday's victory was a case of being on the outside, looking in.
We must remember that, as great as it is to have rights in New Orleans, not all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people choose to live in fabulous, over the top, three-ring circus cities. Some choose to live in suburbs. In Cajun country. In, dare I say, Kenner. And those who do live in those places, some not even 10 minutes away, do not have the same rights we have. Bigger stores, better streets, yes. Basic rights, no.
We must remember that gay rights is not just a fight about marriage. It is a fight about equal rights. Civil rights. In schools, in housing, in employment. Rights that aren’t dependent on fair-minded cities or blue-leaning states. Rather, rights that are guaranteed by a federal government that is still learning to hold self-evident the truth that all are created equal.
We must remember.
To keep standing up. Speaking out. Reaching out. Coming out.
Until that time comes, and it will come, that we have come so far that we have nowhere left to go.
God Bless America.
A special thanks to SarahJane Brady, Richard Bullock and Renee Peck for assists with today's column
Brett Will Taylor is a southern Shaman who writes Love NOLA weekly for NolaVie. Follow him @bwtshaman or email him at [email protected]