February 17, 2011
Sitting in the White House last night for a truly “once in a lifetime moment”—a movie screening of “Thurgood” with President Barack Obama—I was moved by how far justice and equality has really come in our nation, and how much further we have to go to finish the promise of “equality and justice for all.”
Just a few feet from me, President Obama sat in one of the plush, red seats in the White House’s movie theater to watch the biopic about Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney and key architect in the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education, the first Black Supreme Court justice, and a transformative civil rights leader, who brilliantly used the law to achieve justice.
It wasn’t long ago that the color of my skin would have been enough to prevent me from getting a special invitation to the White House, not to mention a one-on-one discussion with the leader of the free world about our need for his support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality.
After telling President Obama that I’m the federal policy attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, I thanked him for the leadership he and his administration have shown in advancing the rights of LGBT people. Notwithstanding the advances, I impressed upon President Obama that there is much more to be done to even come close to fully protecting LGBT people under the law.
We both noted wryly that the march toward equality is often tortured, but he was confident that we would get there—a parallel to the story of hope and justice told in “Thurgood.”
We know this story well. It is the story of all historically minority communities who struggle for equality and justice. When “equal protection of the law” seemed like a punch line rather than a promise. Recounting how he transformed that punch line into a phrase with resonance and meaning was what made “Thurgood,” and the man himself, so inspiring.
Marshall believed in the law. He was a lawyer who wanted to use the law to achieve justice. Faith in and fidelity to the law survived in those for whom the law failed to live up to its noblest guarantees of equality. The ability to maintain such faith is a poignant reminder of the strength, complexity, and capacity of the human spirit. We need that spirit because the road to justice has never been an easy one and the toll the journey takes can be painful and dispiriting.
Many of our most significant victories for equality in the LGBT community have come from the courts. This is not unique to our community. Virtually every early victory in any civil rights movement begins with the courts, often because the people aren’t ready or willing to expand their notions of fairness and equality. It is a romantic notion that civil rights can be won at the hands of the people. History shows otherwise. While sometimes people’s minds change and that leads to a change in the law, it often works the other way around.
Earlier this year, President Obama said that his views on marriage for same-sex couples were “evolving.” His comments came in the midst of legal battles all over the country over marriage equality. Sometimes it is the law that changes first and leads people to reexamine their attitudes and beliefs. “Thurgood” reminds us that, at its most transformative, that is the role of the law. It challenges us to live up to the highest ideals of America, to become our own best selves.
In an evening of a number of moving moments, perhaps the most poignant came at the end of the film when, somehow, during the course of a one-man show with no camera breaks or movie magic, Lawrence Fishbourne as Marshall actually made himself age. All of a sudden, the arduous slowness with which racial justice inched toward the mainstream was laid bare. And then the movie ended, and there was President Obama.
Racism has not ended because we elected President Obama, nor will the next big victory for the LGBT movement mark the end of homophobia or transphobia. But it will certainly inch us toward equality, and that is the lesson of every civil rights struggle. When there is as much work to do as there is it is impossible not to become disenchanted, angry, and frustrated with the pace. But big victories are always surrounded by the smaller moments, and it was nice to be reminded that as legal and legislative battles are fought across the country, our history is shared with many other movements. Up against very tall odds Thurgood Marshall never lost hope. The least we can do is follow his lead.