When my friend Robin Tyler told me a few years ago that she was suing the state of California to let her marry, I thought she was nuts. Don’t get me wrong. Robin is great. She’s a tireless advocate for the civil rights of gays and lesbians, as I learned first-hand when she organized 34 simultaneous protests across the U.S. and Canada for our StopDrLaura.com campaign. But suing for marriage? Good luck with that.
Well, I was wrong. Robin sued, and Robin won. She and her partner, Diane Olson, were married in an official government ceremony at the Beverly Hills courthouse on June 16.
I’ve learned in politics, especially working in civil rights politics, that sometimes you’re convinced something can’t be done, and it can. By erring on the side of caution, we sometimes miss huge victories. So why not always “go for it”? Because sometimes we won’t win, and losing can be a huge setback.
In politics, unlike love, it’s not always better to have tried and lost. Legislative, legal and electoral defeats can sometimes set a movement back for years, if not decades. Politicians are a skittish bunch. When you ask them to stick their necks out for you, and then you lose, they’re less likely to help you the next time around. It’s not nice, it’s not fair – it’s just a political fact. And any lawyer can tell you, a lost court battle can establish a horrible legal precedent that might not get overturned for decades (see Bowers v. Hardwick).
Sometimes, oddly, defeat can also come in the form of victory.
I spoke on a panel in San Francisco a few years back, and the very pro-gay audience was all fired up about winning marriage in California. That’s great, I told them. I absolutely support letting gay couples marry, and would love to get married myself some day. But I asked the audience, what’s your plan for making sure your future California gay marriage victory isn’t overturned by a federal constitutional amendment (or a state amendment, for that matter)? Silence. It seemed a lot of thought had been given to how to secure marriage in California, but not as much to how to keep it.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for marriage, nor that we shouldn’t take risks in that battle. It simply means that whether the battle is marriage, or any other progressive cause, it’s important to think of what comes next, lest the victory be short-lived, or the defeat set us back even further.
So what should you do? Join state-based efforts to support equal marriage rights where you live, and support national organizations that are working to stop the Federal Marriage Amendment and provide federal benefits for all married couples.
Let’s win our equal rights, then fight like hell to keep them.