The path toward equality

Oct. 12, 2013 @ 04:35 PM

''We can no longer afford to stand idly by when fellow lesbians and gays are being beaten or insulted. 'All men are created equal. And we have to stand up and say, 'We're gay and we're here.' It is particularly acute for those of us of color. We've paid our dues and it's been painful. It's time we stop paying and start collecting.''

Those words, uttered 26 years ago at the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and quoted in the next day’s New York Times, had the assertive tone of a message still rebuffed by many of the speaker’s fellow Americans.

Today, it would be naively optimistic to say none of that defiance is necessary. But society has come a long way in the intervening quarter-century.

We are a society today that embraces differences far more than it did a generation ago, and polls show that people in their teens and 20s today are even more accepting yet.  Still, the celebration last week of National Coming Out Day had as its theme, “Coming Out Still Matters.”

A rally on Duke University’s Bryan Center Plaza Thursday captured the openness of a younger generation, with many straight allies joining LGBT students for a rally and where many students talked of coming out in a far more relaxed manner than their predecessors of a couple of decades ago were likely to. 

“Students are starting to really own the power of coming out,” said Sultan Shakir, director of youth and campus outreach at the Human Rights Campaign. The HRC, he said, sees more campuses understanding that students who feel protected and supported by the university perform better as students.

That, by the way, is a message that we wish would reach legislators who bullied the UNC Board of Governors into retreating from approving a gender-neutral housing experiment at UNC that was intended to help gay and lesbian students find more comfortable housing arrangements.

Which brings us to the acknowledgement the struggle for acceptance and tolerance is far from done.  Here in Durham and Chapel Hill, we live in a bit of a bubble, where the overwhelming vote against an amendment banning gay marriage contrasted sharply with the equally overwhelming approval across the state.

Here, business and political leaders fully realize the importance not just of tolerating diversity but embracing and celebrating it.  In an intensely competitive worldwide economy, we can afford to write off no segment of the population by marginalizing it, whether because of sexual orientation, race or gender.

Indeed, the gay rights movement has been the culminating surge of three great 20th-century waves for equality, movements that also advanced civil rights and women’s rights.  

Civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson told that 1987 Washington march, “'We gather today to say that we insist on equal protection under the law for every American, for workers' rights, women's rights, for the rights of religious freedom, the rights of individual privacy, for the rights of sexual preference. We come together for the rights of all American people.''

Those words resonate today, no less so because we have made so much progress, even more so because we have so much more to make.