Remember when gay marriage seemed almost unimaginable? Hold on to that, because the way we got to where we are now — with equal marriage rights throughout the land — can teach us something about the Trump era.
The torrent of recent threats to civil rights and civil liberties from the Trump administration and Congress have sparked strong resistance, but they have also left many of us deeply worried. Facing such unprecedented threats with so much power behind them, some people understandably wonder whether or not we really have a chance of stopping them.
I say we do.
We have already learned the hard way that we need to take President Trump’s threats seriously, and we can’t take victory for granted. But we also have reasons for hope. Those who care about equal rights have been in really difficult situations before, and the decade before the nationwide win for marriage equality provides a recent and important example.
The first legally recognized lesbian and gay marriages in the United States began on May 17, 2004, in Massachusetts. This shot-heard-round-the-world breakthrough inspired many who care about equality — but it also provoked a fierce backlash.
Dozens of states actually amended their constitutions to ban marriage and even civil unions for same-sex couples. A majority of Wisconsin voters jumped on this bandwagon for a while, approving an anti-marriage amendment 59-41 percent in November 2006. For a few years, it seemed that such measures could sail to passage anywhere.
Even Massachusetts had to face down a constitutional amendment. For years, Massachusetts remained the only state to recognize the freedom to marry. If an anti-marriage amendment had passed there, the light of equal marriage equality might have gone out for a long time.
But supporters of equality refused to give up and defied the odds, mounting an intense campaign to win people over. Massachusetts lawmakers eventually saw that times had changed, and they voted overwhelmingly — 151-45 — against putting fundamental rights on the ballot.
That made a huge difference. With just a little more time to see how the still-new notion of same-sex marriage helped lesbian and gay couples and harmed no one, more courts ruled for equality. Then voters even began to approve pro-marriage measures at the ballot. In Wisconsin, an ACLU case overturned this state’s marriage ban in 2014, and the next year, our client Jim Obergefell won at the U.S. Supreme Court, striking down the remaining marriage bans all across the country.
Those who have joined the resistance to President Trump’s threats find ourselves in a similar position. We can’t take victory for granted, but we have the potential for a remarkable comeback.
Today’s resistance has familiar element: people outraged by inequality, who just won’t give up. If anything, the energy behind the resistance to President Trump’s attacks on women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and others far surpasses what propelled supporters of equal marriage rights to a history-making victory.
And just as in the case of marriage, today’s resistance has organizing and legal know-how drawn from other civil rights work. We have already seen massive, successful, monthly marches against President Trump’s threats. And within a week of the inauguration, against a backdrop of spontaneous and heartfelt demonstrations against the Muslim travel ban, the ACLU and our allies took President Trump to court, and judges began consistently and forcefully saying no.
We have many similar fights ahead to defend fundamental rights and liberties, but we have been here before. Just as dogged work for marriage equality — even and especially when things looked worst — led to a comeback victory, we can work today with real hope. Today’s resistance will either convince elected officials to back off from attacks and show more respect for civil rights and liberties, or it will pave the way for those who will.
Chris Ott is executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. He served in the early 2000s as executive director of Fair Wisconsin, and worked as communications director for the ACLU of Massachusetts from 2007-2017.
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