Last Friday night, a man was shot and killed in Greenwich Village, Manhattan because he was gay. According to police, Mark Carson was murdered by a man who shouted anti-gay slurs at Carson and his male companion. This is not an isolated incident. In the past few weeks, five gay men have been attacked in New York City, a place one would reflexively think of as gay-friendly. The FBI’s annual hate crime report for 2011 identified more than 1,000 hate crimes nationwide based on sexual orientation bias.
In the coming weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court will have the opportunity to decide two cases involving the question of marriage equality for same-sex couples, one involving Proposition 8, an amendment to the California constitution that bars marriage in that state for same-sex couples, the other a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA, part of which denies federal rights and benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married in a state that recognizes marriage equality.
On the surface, the cases pending before the Court may seem disconnected from violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans. In fact, the issues are intimately connected. When we decide whether LGBT people have equal rights—to marry, to be free from discrimination in the workplace, to adopt children—we are in fact deciding whether they are normal. These are basic rights that most of us take for granted. The only rationale for denying these rights to LGBT people is if there is something that distinguishes them from the rest of us, something that makes it legitimate to deny them equality under the law.
Opponents of equality for LGBT people, including some Supreme Court justices, understand this. In the 1996 Romer v. Evans case, Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas and the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, declared that opponents of equality are “entitled to be hostile toward homosexual conduct” (the emphasis was Justice Scalia’s). Justice Scalia compared LGB people to murderers, arguing that there is nothing that prohibits the expression of animus against either. One may consider either kind of conduct reprehensible—whether it is murder or consensual gay sex (never mind that most people who discriminate against LGBT people don’t actually know whether their targets are sexually active). In a 2003 dissent, again joined by Thomas and Rehnquist, Justice Scalia suggested that Americans have the right to “[protect] themselves and their families from a [homosexual] lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive.” This is not invidious discrimination, Justice Scalia insisted–it is simply a moral judgment the majority is entitled to make.
What does it mean to express animus against LGBT people? It may mean denying equal rights under the law, as in the cases before the Supreme Court. It may mean using insulting language and slurs to demean LGBT people. It may mean physical violence. Of course, Justice Scalia and his two colleagues did not mean to condone violence, but once one accepts that LGBT people are different in a way that is immoral and perhaps even dangerous, it is not hard to see the connection. This is what is at stake in the cases currently pending before the Court—whether the Court will declare gay and lesbian people to be normal, or whether it will continue to permit them to be treated, under the law and by society, as aberrant and not deserving of equality.
These questions may seem like abstractions, especially to those of us who are straight. How can the right to marry have anything to do with physical safety? As a straight man who worked at an LGBT civil rights organization where nearly all of my colleagues were LGBT, I came to understand the connection. For LGBT people who live their lives openly, each day requires tremendous courage. Consider the choices LGBT people must make. Do I put a picture of my partner on my desk at work? Do I dare to use a public restroom? Do I hold my partner’s hand when I walk down the street? As a straight man, I have never had to think twice about any of these things. For LGBT people, these can literally be questions of life and death, as the rest of us were reminded by the murder in Greenwich Village on Friday night. When the Supreme Court decides what to do with the marriage cases pending before it, it will not only be deciding whether same-sex couples can receive the equal rights they are entitled to as Americans. The Court will have the opportunity to make clear that gay and lesbian people are perfectly normal and living their lives should not require daily acts of personal courage.
Chris Edelson is an assistant professor in American University’s School of Public Affairs, Department of Government, where he teaches classes on constitutional law. He’s also a lawyer and has published writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Lawyer, Common Dreams, firedoglake.com, and Metroland (Albany, NY). From 2007-2009 he was state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT civil rights organization.