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We Are in it Together:
The Fight for Marriage Equality ... Freedom of Religion





As the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments on two marriage equality cases just over a week ago, my partner and I watched the television set with bated breath. When the camera zoomed in on the steps of the Supreme Court, and LGBTQ Americans took the podium to tell their stories, we took one another’s hand and choked back tears.

We are a straight couple.

The Supreme Court’s decisions on Proposition 8 and the Defence of Marriage Act ("DOMA") will decide the fate not only of about nine million LGBTQ Americans and 14 million children with same-sex parents, but also millions of millennials, young people in their 20s and 30s.

The millennial generation, including straight people like my husband and me, overwhelmingly supports marriage equality. Eighty-one percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 support marriage for same-sex couples, including more than 60% of evangelicals under 30.

In the coming months, as the Court deliberates legal questions of standing and scope of rights, millennials are asking a broader question: will the Court support our most basic understanding of equality under the law, or saddle us with the task of securing a right that nearly all of us, gay and straight, already understand as fundamental?

Like many straight millennials, my support for marriage equality formed over time. I grew up in a household that viewed homosexuality as an aberration and disease. When my best friend’s older brother came out as gay, I was confused. I knew he wasn’t a bad person, but I also was too afraid of the stigma to talk to him about it.

Still, it was difficult to feel disgust for someone I knew and admired.

When I went to college, my world opened up, old beliefs fell away, and I found myself with friends of different faiths, colors, and orientations. These friendships began to change the minds of people in my family too. But I did not become an advocate for equality until after September 11, 2001.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, I witnessed my Sikh community, many of whom wear turbans as a religious observance, targeted in hate crimes. For the next decade, I worked on films and campaigns against discrimination alongside my college friend J. Her race and sexual orientation were different from mine, but I wouldn’t understand what role this played in our work until a few years later.

After screening our film about hate crimes against Sikh-Americans at a community gathering in Queens, a young man stood up in the audience and said, “Just as I fight for the right of gay people like me to come out of the closet, I understand now that I must fight for the right of Sikhs to wear their turbans.”

His words echoed inside me.

He was tying the LGBTQ and Sikh struggle together in one greater movement for human dignity. I realized that our fight for equality is incomplete and vain if we are only standing up for ourselves. J. knew this all along. She showed me that our communities, in particular, confront similar forms of discrimination. 

Eight out of 10 students have been harassed in school for their sexual orientation, and up to three-quarters of all Sikh students have been bullied. Both are disproportionately targeted in hate crimes. Twenty percent of all hate crimes in 2011 were directed at LGBTQ people, and violence against Sikhs, such as the mass shooting at a Sikh house of worship in Wisconsin last August, suggests similar circumstances for the Sikh community -- though these crimes are not even tracked by the federal government.

Both communities have endured discrimination from the government, military, and employers. As legal scholar Kenji Yoshino explains, the law tends to permit discrimination against “mutable characteristics,” as if our religious identities or sexual orientations were things we could change in order to assimilate.

I’m not alone in making these connections.

Millennials who understand that our struggles are tied up with one another are changing the face of movement building. The old way of fighting for separate communities and causes no longer makes sense, especially in a world where multiple identities often intersect in our own bodies -- black and lesbian, Sikh and queer, gay and evangelical. 

In the Senate’s most recent hearing on hate crimes last fall, the room was filled not just with Sikh-Americans but with people of every faith and color, including LGBTQ Americans. In the immigrant youth movement in recent years, DREAMers often came out twice -- as gay and undocumented. And just last week, thousands made a pledge for marriage equality as a matter of moral conviction. Thousands more switched their profile photos on Facebook and Twitter to the red equality sign, including scores of my Sikh friends.

Establishing marriage equality in all 50 states would bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice -- not just for LGBTQ people but for all of us.

To be sure, the Court may wish to avoid a sweeping decision altogether, punting the responsibility to other political avenues. As evidenced by hours of oral argument about whether these cases have standing in the first place, the Court may be poised to throw out at least one of these two historic cases, in an effort to avoid a backlash. Justice Samuel Alito even asked whether the Court should issue a decision on a practice that is “newer than cell phones and the Internet.”

But most millennials have known LGBTQ people and committed couples long before we ever held a cell phone. We understand that centuries of persecution are long enough for a community to wait for equal protection under the law. In fact, the evidence shows that a sweeping decision would not result in a national backlash but rather vindicate the values of the public.

Today, a clear majority of Americans support marriage equality, up from 27% one decade ago. The Court would not be stepping out in front of the people; it would be catching up to the people, especially young people.

Anti-gay advocates are right about one thing: the upcoming decisions on marriage equality will change the institution of marriage for millions of straight people. Just not in the way they imagine.

For my husband and me, the decisions would strengthen marriage as a democratic institution, an institution that does not discriminate or denigrate people for the ones they love.

Most importantly, it would allow our generation to move on to much more challenging problems -- the poverty, homelessness, chronic disease, and violence disproportionately experienced by transgendered people and people of color, communities often marginalized within the LGBTQ movement.

So go ahead, Justices.of the United States  We know that striking down DOMA and Proposition 8 would require a sweeping decision on marriage equality.

But you need not be afraid. An entire generation will have your back.


The author is an award-winning filmmaker, civil rights advocate, and interfaith leader. She is Senior Fellow at Auburn Seminary, where she founded Groundswell to help mobilize faith communities in social action. Valarie studied Religion and Law at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale Law School, where she founded the Yale Visual Law Project

Deep Singh and Tara Dominic, volunteers at Groundswell, contributed to this piece. 

[Courtesy: MSNBC]

April 7, 2013


Conversation about this article

1: Ajay Singh (Rockville, Maryland, USA), April 08, 2013, 4:51 AM.

I am sorry, but I have to disagree with the idea of "marriage" being extended to a gay couple. This issue started with legal rights of married and commonwealth couples not legally sanctioned for a gay couple, such as inheritance, property, benefits (medical, social security, visitation etc) which I agree should be extended to all couples. However, a big part of marriage is procreation, it is comprised of a man and a woman, husband-wife, he-she, sanctioned by religion; that is a very basic and fundamental makeup of a marriage, defined over the ages by society, government and religion. I cannot bring myself to call a "marriage" that is anything but. Tomorrow, it will be about religious sanction, imagine the row when two men or women want to have pherey/laavan in a gurdwara. Please, extend every legal right and benefit and call it a civil union. In this case, the label matters. LG couples in a civil union deserve every right of a married couple but I still have the right to look at homosexuality and call it as an 'aberration', 'abnormal' and in my mind with good reason.

2: Harpreet Singh (New York, USA), April 09, 2013, 3:14 AM.

Dear Ajay Singh ji: You have made a whole list of statements which are quite unsupportable by facts or common sense. To begin with, if procreation is the primary basis for determining the right to marriage, then surely heterosexuals who cannot procreate should not be allowed to marry? How about when a couple gets past procreation age -- should they stop having sex or should their marriage be dissolved? And, sanctioned by religion! Wasn't it the Christian religion, among others, that was used until recently to sanction slavery? Isn't the Hindu religion used by some today to sanction the rape and prostitution of minor girls in India? These are but two of dozens of examples that come to mind. Therefore, sanction by religion or the absence of it carries absolutely no weight in modern society any more. Institutional religion (any and all) has lost the right to pontificate on social issues, given its track-record throughout human history. What should govern our hearts and minds today are common sense and common decency, fair play and justice. [In case the question arises, I'm heterosexual.]

3: Jessie Kaur (Brighton, United Kingdom), April 09, 2013, 5:25 AM.

I agree that religion has lost its right to have ANY say in social issues today. If religious sanctions were to be given any weight, much of Christianity, Islam and Judaism would write off the rest of humanity -- and each other - as deserving no seat in God's court and therefore, through extension, in the halls of power in the real world. If half of Christianity had its way, the other half - Catholics - would be summarily condemned to hell. The Catholics, on the other hand, feel the same way about their co-religionists that are not papist. The point being made is that the issue of gays and marriage is a legal one and subject to the constitution of the land, and no other whim or fancy. As far as institutionalized religion goes, it should be relegated to the private proceedings that can go on unabated within the walls of any and every place of worship and the hearts that subscribe to them.

4: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, USA), April 09, 2013, 6:22 AM.

It's about time that we address the issue in our own 'home' by allowing the Anand Karaj ceremony to include homosexual couples and leading the way for the rest of the world. If we can't give our own some dignity and allow them basic human rights, what right do we have to preach equality under the Sikh brand to the world?

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The Fight for Marriage Equality ... Freedom of Religion"

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