THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT ruled today that individual states cannot prohibit gay people from marrying, in effect making gay marriage legal nationwide. It is an historic decision, and one being celebrated by gay rights advocates. Tim McCarthy is adjunct lecturer in public policy and director of the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. He is an historian of politics and social movements. We spoke with him shortly after the ruling was announced.
Q: What were the specific issues involved in this case?
The big issue at stake in the Obergefell v. Hodges case is whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. The Supreme Court essentially had three choices with this ruling: (1) a negative ruling saying the same-sex couples do not have the right to marry; (2) a narrow ruling saying that states get to decide the issue of marriage, which would include recognition of same-sex marriages granted in other states—say, Massachusetts—by states where same-sex marriage is still illegal; and (3) a broad ruling, in effect, making marriage equality the law of the land. In a 5-4 decision, with Justice Kennedy joining the liberal wing and writing the majority opinion, SCOTUS delivered the third option.
This ruling means that LGBT people are included in the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection insofar as marriage is concerned, and it means that state-level bans on same-sex marriages are unconstitutional. That's a very big deal, and this is a huge, historic day for the country.
Q: What does this ruling mean for gay and lesbian Americans?
Practically speaking, the Supreme Court's ruling in the Obergefell case means that every gay and lesbian person who wants to get married in the United States can do so, regardless of where they live or who they love. It's a sweeping ruling that means the right to marry is now a fundamental civil and human right enjoyed by every American citizen.
More broadly, today is a day where LGBT people can take a giant step—a leap, really—in the direction of full and equal American citizenship. But we aren't there yet. Today, in too many states, LGBT people can still be fired from a job or denied housing because of their sexuality or gender identity. Tonight, LGBT youth will still sleep in shelters or on the streets, rejected by their families and faith institutions. And tomorrow, LGBT people will still have battles to fight—against racism, poverty, war, stigma, and ongoing discrimination and inequality, here at home and abroad. But right now, we can pause to celebrate a momentous victory for human rights before getting back to work.
Q: Are you surprised by the pace of the revolution of gay rights in the United States over the past 15 years?
Certainly, there have been huge shifts in public opinion in favor of gay rights over the last 15 or so years. This is certainly the case with marriage equality, which has enjoyed growing support throughout the country, especially since the Goodridge decision was handed down in Massachusetts in 2003. But we also have to keep in mind a few things.
First, the struggle for marriage equality is just one part of the larger struggle for equality for LGBT people. Too often, marriage equality is conflated with LGBT equality more broadly, and I think that's a mistake, one that blinds us to other pressing issues that remain unresolved. Second, as we celebrate the pace of progress, we must also be mindful of the paradoxes of progress: the fact that while gays and lesbians have weddings this weekend, our brothers and sisters in Charleston, SC, are attending funerals; the fact that our Pride parades happen on the same streets where our homeless brothers and sisters sleep each night; the fact that we are seeing an increase in anti-LGBT "religious freedom" bills at the state level. Our right to marry will not stop or resolve these other problems of race, poverty, and religious bigotry. As we have seen throughout our history, progress is neither inevitable nor irreversible.
And lastly, I think it's worth remembering that the "gay rights movement" emerged a half century ago, with the June 1969 Stonewall rebellion and the many forms of activism that both preceded and followed it. We've been at this a very long time, and the fight is far from over!
Q: Does the outcome of this case put the United States in line with other countries in terms of gay marriage and gay rights in general?
With respect to same-sex marriage, the United States is more a follower than a leader. In the mid 1990s, South Africa wrote equality for gays and lesbians into its constitution after the fall of apartheid. Just last month, Ireland legalized same-sex marriage, quite spectacularly, by popular referendum (talk about fast change—Ireland didn't decriminalize homosexuality until 1993!) By last count, eighteen countries have legalized same-sex marriage.
Today's historic Supreme Court case will likely have a global influence, mostly because the United States is a global superpower, but the U.S. is just part of the larger story and ongoing struggle for LGBT human rights globally. There is still so much more work to do on so many fronts.