"Rally, times square @ 6!" read the enthusiastic text from my boyfriend Joel. In response to my message expressing frustration about the failure of New York's Marriage Equality Act, Joel had responded with his characteristic "let's do something about it" attitude.
After getting his text, I planned to attend the rally, but I had a busy day at work, and other things came up. So, even though my office is less than two blocks away from Times Square, Joel went to the rally on his own. A few minutes after 6 p.m., Joel sent me an update: "Here right now, kinda small and sad."
I was disheartened by his text. I wanted to see huge rallies in the street. I wanted New York City’s large gay population to fight back, to show the country that, in our state, we will not be denied equal rights quietly. I wanted outrage, and I could not understand, where was the outrage? As I sat at my desk angry over the situation, I realized that I was sitting at my desk angry over the situation. I had found better and more important things to do than attend the rally, and apparently so did most gay men and lesbians in the city. How could I be upset at others for not rallying in the streets, when I could not find the time to do so myself?
That night, Joel and I lay in bed discussing the situation. Why is it that we don't do more to fight for marriage equality? We both have very strong feelings about the issue, but aside from the occasional rally (like the march on Washington, D.C. earlier this year) or writing an occasional check (to support the fight against California's Proposition 8), we never take any action to support the cause. We rarely even make it a point to talk to our straight friends and family about the issue. We never tell them how important marriage equality is to us.
Why don't we get out there and fight for our rights?
Waiting for Change
As we discussed this, we realized that we don't fight because, deep down, we don't feel it is necessary for us to do so. We feel a sense of inevitability, a sense that history is on our side. After all, polls consistently show a generational gap in the support of marriage equality. A recent New York Times poll showed that 57 percent of people under the age of 40 support marriage equality, while only 35 percent of people over that age support it. If we're patient, it seems, marriage equality will come. Public opinion will eventually be on our side. When our generation is in control, we will have equal rights. We can wait.
This view is pervasive in the gay community, especially among the younger generation. A Forbes Magazine article earlier this year by Bernard Whitman entitled " Marriage Equality is Inevitable" articulates the generational argument. Whitman points to the generational divide regarding marriage equality as evidence that opposition, in both political parties, will begin to erode as younger -- and increasingly accepting -- generations come of age. Whitman writes, "Marriage equality is going to happen in this country. It's only a matter of time."
A Need for Outrage
While it's possible that this view is prescient, I believe that it is dangerous and poses a serious threat to the marriage equality movement. It is this sense of inevitability that keeps individuals in the gay community from getting outraged and taking action in their own lives to advance the cause.
This movement needs more than activists. Many well-organized LGBT groups are leading the battle for marriage equality in the legislatures and courts around the country. But, although necessary, legal and legislative battles alone have never been sufficient to create a successful civil rights movement.
The success of the marriage equality movement â€“ like all past civil rights movements â€“ depends on individuals. Think of the Montgomery bus boycott, or the Million Man March. It is the collective sum of individual action that eventually forces change in our laws. If the larger gay community passively waits to be granted equal rights, we should expect to wait well beyond this generation -- or the next.
For me, and for Joel, the New York State Senate vote shattered that sense of inevitability in a way that the vote in Maine, the Prop 8 vote in California and other earlier votes on same sex marriage failed to do. Having marriage equality affirmatively voted down in our home state shook us, especially because we have always viewed New York as a friendly environment for homosexuals. In that sense, the State Senate vote has had a positive effect. It broke us of our apathy and made us realize how dangerous this sense of inevitability can be.
I hope the State Senate vote will have a similar impact on other gay men and lesbians in New York. Marriage equality will not be reconsidered in the upcoming legislative session, but the legislature will take up the issue again at some point. To achieve a different outcome, individuals must begin to act now. Sustained effort by individuals in their own communities will open minds, shift public opinion and ultimately lead to the necessary pressure on or changes in the legislature to secure victory. Absent such efforts, the gay community will lose again in New York.
Marriage equality is not inevitable. For those of us who care about this issue, but have relied on others to fight for our rights, now is the time to step forward. We cannot attain equal rights without self-sacrifice. If we do not shed this sense of inevitability and take individual action, there is a real danger that marriage equality will never be achieved. As Martin Luther King said, "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
I started small. Last week, I sent an e-mail to my parents and sisters telling them how important marriage equality is to me. This week, I wrote a letter to the eight Democratic state senators who voted against the Marriage Equality Act. And, next time Joel texts me to go to a rally, I will be there. I hope others will join me.
Michael P. Robotti is an attorney practicing in New York City.