This June, Rainbow Pride of West Virginia will stage its 18th Pride March and Celebration in Charleston. Every June these events, which take place in nearly every state and many countries, focus attention on the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered community and the fact that we remain second class citizens in this country, and in many countries of the world. In some countries, we are legally imprisoned or murdered.
The movement for full civil rights began at a tiny club named Stonewall in New York City in June, 45 years ago. Patrons of this club, mostly drag queens and people who were perceived to be gay, had been constantly harassed by the New York City Police Department. That night they decided they were not going to take it anymore. They struck back, and the movement to attain full civil rights for the GLBT community was born.
A true worldwide gay community has since emerged and has gradually coalesced into a political and social force that has changed, and will continue to change, the face of society.
We are a diverse community, a legitimate subculture, composed of men and women who are black, yellow, white, brown, red, and all the other colors that make up the struggle to attain full citizenship.
Within the GLBT community, men and women express themselves in a variety of ways. Some men and women are “indistinguishable,” like your son, brother, children, sister, mom or dad. The media generally gravitates to the extreme sides of our community — leather boys and drag queens. Nevertheless, there are plenty of “indistinguishable” people in your community, maybe working or living right next to you.
Despite living in a democratic republic, where all people are “equal,” there are thousands of people who cannot be openly gay. They live in fear that they will be fired from their jobs, rejected by their families, denied housing, or be physically and mentally abused.
Congress, in fear that we would be given the civil right to marry, passed the Defense of Marriage Act. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of DOMA. Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the 5-4 majority, said DOMA was unconstitutional because it violated the right to liberty and to equal protection for gay couples. Since then, a number of state DOMA laws have been struck down. In our state, a case is currently before U.S. District Judge Charles Chambers.
Certainly there have been changes over the years. In 19 states and the District of Columbia, Canada, Spain, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, South Africa and the Netherlands it is presently legal for same-gender couples to be married. In many states, civil unions allow same-gender couples some marriage rights, though not any of the 1,000 federal benefits that are provided with heterosexual marriage.
The California Supreme Court legalized it, and it was promptly reversed by Proposition 8. The Supreme Court held that The National Organization for Marriage did not have standing, and the Ninth Circuit lifted its stay enabling Gov. Jerry Brown to order equal marriage ceremonies to resume.
Even so, people who are perceived as being GLBT continue to be fired from their jobs, are denied housing, are physically and mentally abused, and are denigrated by Congress, many organized religions and society in general. In this state, the Legislature has failed to protect lesbian and gay men and women by refusing to allow the Employment and Housing Non-Discrimination Act (EHNDA) to be brought up for a vote.
Conditions are better because we march, and because we hold Pride Celebrations. They are better because we have decided that we are not second-class citizens. They are better because we have made our presence known.
We do not ask for special rights. We ask for the same civil rights that all citizens enjoy. We ask for the right to marry, the right not to be discriminated against in employment or housing, the right to be protected from people who commit hate crimes.
We also hold these events so that gay teenagers know that they are not alone. The suicide rate among gay teenagers is higher than any other group in our society. It is higher because most gay teenagers have low self-esteem, they are lonely and frightened, and they have little or no support.
These are some of the reasons why we march and hold Pride Celebrations, and I want to invite all of you who believe in social justice and equal rights for all citizens to join us at our March and Pride Celebration on Sunday, June 8, 2014. In fact, I invite you to join us this year and every year after that, because we will continue to march and hold these celebrations until we enjoy the same civil rights as the rest of citizens of this country do.
The statewide Rainbow Pride Festival and March will be held in Charleston through June 8. For a complete listing of events, visit, facebook.com/RainbowPrideWV.
Bruce Severino is a commissioner for the Charleston Human Rights Commission.