Melissa Harris Perry
updated 4/6/2013 5:48:28 PM ET 2013-04-06T21:48:28

Our fight for equality is incomplete and vain if we are only standing up for ourselves, writes filmmaker and activist Valarie Kaur. This is something the millennial generation understands.

As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two marriage equality cases last week, my partner and I watched the television set with bated breath. When the camera zoomed in on the steps of the Supreme Court, and LGBTQ Americans took the podium to tell their stories, we took one another’s hand and choked back tears.

We are a straight couple.

The Supreme Court’s decisions on Proposition 8 and DOMA will decide the fate not only of aboutnine million LGBTQ Americans and 14 million children with same-sex parents–but also millions of millennials, young people in their 20s and 30s. The millennial generation, including straight people like my husband and me, overwhelmingly supports marriage equality.Eighty-one percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 support marriage for same-sex couples, including more than 60% of evangelicals under 30.

In the coming months, as the Court deliberates legal questions of standing and scope of rights, millennials are asking a broader question: will the Court support our most basic understanding of equality under the law, or saddle us with the task of securing a right that nearly all of us, gay and straight, already understand as fundamental?

Like many straight millennials, my support for marriage equality formed over time. I grew up in a household that viewed homosexuality as an aberration and disease. When my best friend’s older brother came out as gay, I was confused. I knew he wasn’t a bad person, but I also was too afraid of the stigma to talk to him about it. Still, it was difficult to feel disgust for someone I knew and admired.

When I went to college, my world opened up, old beliefs fell away, and I found myself with friends of different faiths, colors, and orientations. These friendships began to change the minds of people in my family too. But I did not become an advocate for equality until after September 11th. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, I witnessed my Sikh community, many of whom wear turbans as a religious observance, targeted in hate crimes. For the next decade, I worked on films and campaigns against discrimination alongside my college friend J. Her race and sexual orientation were different from mine, but I wouldn’t understand what role this played in our work until a few years later.

After screening our film about hate crimes against Sikh Americans at a community gathering in Queens, a young man stood up in the audience and said, “Just as I fight for the right of gay people like me to come out of the closet, I understand now that I must fight for the right of Sikhs to wear their turbans.”

His words echoed inside me.

He was tying the LGBTQ and Sikh struggle together in one greater movement for human dignity. I realized that our fight for equality is incomplete and vain if we are only standing up for ourselves. J. knew this all along. She showed me that our communities, in particular, confront similar forms of discrimination.  Eight out of 10 students have been harassed in school for their sexual orientation, and up to three-quarters of all Sikh students have been bullied. Both are disproportionately targeted in hate crimes. Twenty percent of all hate crimes in 2011 were directed at LGBTQ people, and violence against Sikhs, such as the mass shooting at a Sikh house of worship in Wisconsin last August, suggests similar circumstances for the Sikh community–though these crimes are not even tracked by the federal government. Both communities have endured discrimination from the government, military, and employers. As legal scholar Kenji Yoshino explains, the law tends to permit discrimination against “mutable characteristics,” as if our religious identities or sexual orientations were things we could change in order to assimilate.

I’m not alone in making these connections. Millennials who understand that our struggles are tied up with one another are changing the face of movement building. The old way of fighting for separate communities and causes no longer makes sense, especially in a world where multiple identities often intersect in our own bodies–black and lesbian, Sikh and queer, gay and evangelical. In the Senate’s most recent hearing on hate crimes last fall, the room was filled not just with Sikh Americans but with people of every faith and color, including LGBTQ Americans. In the immigrant youth movement in recent years, DREAMers often came out twice—as gay and undocumented. And just last week,thousands made a pledge for marriage equality as a matter of moral conviction. Thousands more switched their profile photos on Facebook and Twitter to the red equality sign, including scores of my Sikh friends. Establishing marriage equality in all 50 states would bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice–not just for LGBTQ people but for all of us.

To be sure, the Court may wish to avoid a sweeping decision altogether, punting the responsibility to other political avenues. As evidenced by hours of oral argument about whether these cases have standing in the first place, the Court may be poised to throw out at least one of these two historic cases, in an effort to avoid a backlash. Justice Samuel Alito even asked whether the Court should issue a decision on a practice that is “newer than cell phones and the Internet.” But most millennials have known LGBTQ people and committed couples long before we ever held a cell phone. We understand that centuries of persecution are long enough for a community to wait for equal protection under the law. In fact, the evidence shows that a sweeping decision would not result in a national backlash but rather vindicate the values of the public. Today, a clear majority of Americans support marriage equality, up from 27% one decade ago. The Court would not be stepping out in front of the people; it would be catching up to the people, especially young people.

Anti-gay advocates are right about one thing: the upcoming decisions on marriage equality will change the institution of marriage for millions of straight people. Just not in the way they imagine. For my husband and me, the decisions would strengthen marriage as a democratic institution, an institution that does not discriminate or denigrate people for the ones they love.

Most importantly, it would allow our generation to move on to much more challenging problems—the poverty, homelessness, chronic disease, and violence disproportionately experienced by transgendered people and people of color, communities often marginalized within the LGBTQ movement.

So go ahead, Justices. We know that striking down DOMA and Proposition 8 would require a sweeping decision on marriage equality. But you need not be afraid. An entire generation will have your back.

Valarie Kaur is an award-winning filmmaker, civil rights advocate, and interfaith leader. She is Senior Fellow at Auburn Seminary, where she founded Groundswell to help mobilize faith communities in social action. Kaur studied religion and law at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale Law School, where she founded the Yale Visual Law Project. You can find her at her blog and @valariekaur.

Deep Singh and Tara Dominic, volunteers at Groundswell, contributed to this piece. You can see last weekend’s  MHP discussion about millennials (in a different context) below.

Video: How to be a good ally

  1. Closed captioning of: How to be a good ally

    >>> this morning my question. why are so many people working so hard and still barely making it. mr. plus, the dozens of men starving to death on purpose. and what you don't know about political icon angela davis . but first, are you a good ally? good morning. i'm melissa harris perry. 48 years ago this month americans watched as video of the day that would become known as bloody sunday was broadcast live to television screens across the country. on march 7th 650 people attempted a protest march to the state capitol building to advocate for voting rights . as the cameras rolled the peaceful protesters, just six blocks into their march were stopped at the bridge and violently attacked by alabama state troopers. the televised images of american citizens tear gassed and beaten with clubs sparked outrage as viewers watched in horror. among those was a woman who did more than just watch. and joining the people who answered the call was a married mother of five from michigan. this 39-year-old teamster's wife divided her time between raising children, attended classes and being an activist. she worked to bring attention to education and economic justice issues. but only days before she arrived in selma, a boston minister was beaten to death by a group of men armed with clubs, but stilt viola came, joining thousands of others who knead the four-day walk escorted by the national guard from selma to montgomery. during the march viola volunteered as a driver for the southern christian leadership conference , shuttling marchers back and forth between the two cities. one night she was driving accompanied by a young black lcsc activist when she was spotted by a group of kkk members. they pulled up next to her and shot her in the head, killing her instantly. this monday was the 48th anniversary of viola east death.

    >> she went to alabama to serve the struggles for justice. she was murdered by the enemies of justice who for decades have used the rope and if gun and the tar and the feathers o terrorize their neighbors. people who could otherwise remain wrapped in the security of their privilege but instead choose to align themselveses with no such haven. a coalition who includes those who are not the primary focus by moving frit the margin to the mainstream. they can be forgiven for not rolling out the rainbow carpet for rob portman when he announced his shift from adversary to ally. he already knew for two years ability the sexual orientation of his son who inspired his evolution. which makes democrats jumping on the bandwagon especially late to the party. both hillary and bill clinton waited until the winds of popular support were at their backs. at times a challenge of controversy, but the shift in the idea of marriage equality from radical extreme to ordinary acceptance may have less to do with what brings an ally to a table to what they do once they get there. first shlgs don't demand those you are supporting produce proof of the quality. do recognize the shield of your privilege may blind you to the others of injustice. don't offer up your relationship as evidence of your understanding. expand your consciousness by listening more and talking less. and don't see yourself as the kevin costner as dances with the wolves . you are not the savior riding to the rescue on a white horse . do realize the only requirement you need is a commitment to justice and human equality . and remember the example of viola who most enduring was not that she gave her life but the way that she lived it. a friend warned her against the danger and in response she said schismly i want to be a part of it. the professor of political science at columbia university and publisher of color michael is the political director to hip hop pioneer russell simmons . and dave is sports editor for the nation. this is the work that you do. what is your rule for being a good ally?

    >> my first ennumber one rule is to remember the last thing that you said that the job of a good ally is not to save anybody but to create the conditions to assert and grow their own power. that means making room for the voices of people. and it means defending those people when they decide to assert the power and draw down the backlash that any assertion of power by an oppressed group of people draws down. there is one exception to the rule, which is that if you are encountering someone in grave physical danger or under the attack that needs to be sblupted in the moment, that may be a saving moment. otherwise generally you're just making space, really. and providing defense. it's about being the flank rather than getting in front.

    >> this point about space. when president obama at the inauguration uses the long waj of talking about gay brothers and sisters , to me this is a making space moment. let's take a listen to that. skbl our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law. for if we are truly created equal then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. zh you have this amazing moment when the president is making space. you eni were talking about your dear friend who i am so impressed with.

    >> yeah, bren don and i go back to our ucla day kids when we were young kids. i've watched his tremendous growth as an ally to the lbgt community. the rights you take for granted are not valid unless you fight for the same rights for others. when i stood up for trayvon a year ago, if i can put my hand out a tax key cab will not pass me by. no one will ask me to pay before i eat at a restaurant. if i walk through my neighborhood with a hoodie on, then i have to fight for those young black and brown young men to have the same rights that i have.

    >> that is about a recognition that you do exist. she would say the perfect trifecta. the straight white guy. so i got privilege. i got to do something with it.

    >> this question of bren don and those in the league, it looks like to me that part of where we need to go for our gay brothers and sisters is when folks who sort of represent the most normative, you know, straight white men or very masculine black men that we see in sports, for example, when they're acting as allies and we have seen this before, right?

    >> absolutely. that makes it so important when athletes submit a brief to the supreme court saying we stand for lgbt marriage equality . the role that brendan played in the state of maryland . conspira conspiracy? i don't know. sorts is one of the ways that masculinity is socialized. when you have people who say wait a minute, my definition is not hetero normative, then that has a tremendous power, and it speaks to this what i think is very important when we talk ability what it means to be a good ally. part of it also has to be saying to people you're not doing this out of pity. you're not doing this out of charity. you have to see it as also self interest. we have a better society if young black children in chicago can have a good education and go to schools. we are a better society if our lgbt brothers can live in peace. if our sisters, daughters, mothers can feel safe.

    >> it feels to me like part of what will sometimes happen in the question of being a good ally is when other movements are called onto be allies. so we've seen, for example, some resistance in racial civil rights movement to align with lgbt movements . then we see the president making space, a lot of folks coming on board. then all right hrc. all right, glad. you guys now have to make that a res recipricol relationship. how do we make the calls?

    >> it's a simple principle. an injury to one is an injury to all. if we imagine ourself in any situation thinking of that one rule, what can i do in the situation to be in solidarity with someone who is being injured? whether through oppression or through an individual human action , what is my responsibility as a human being to insure that another human being 's dignity is not looked down upon.

    >> yeah, a good union principle. we love having you here. stay right there. when we come back, there is somebody working on that. the pastor who made marriage equality his mission when we're back. hi,


Discussion comments