Just hours earlier, the United States Supreme Court had announced a monumental decision, striking down laws banning sodomy--and sparking celebrations across the country for gay-rights activists. The decision was a watershed for gays, whose private sex lives were previously criminalized in 13 states.
Decriminalizing sodomy will hopefully have a tangible effect on gay rights outside the bedroom, too. Though the sodomy laws themselves were rarely enforced, they created an atmosphere in which gays were presumed criminals (at least in some states), without equal rights to child custody or fair employment and housing.
In Washington State--where Governor Gary Locke and several state representatives, including Seattle's gay lawmakers Ed Murray and Joe McDermott, joined the courthouse party--the celebration may have seemed meaningless. After all, the state's sodomy laws were tossed out in 1976. But the rally was more than symbolic--it ushered in what many hoped would be a renewed fight for gay rights in Washington, invigorated by the positive ruling.
Locke, Murray, and McDermott were mindful of that when they spoke on the courthouse steps. Instead of merely applauding the Supreme Court's decision, the trio pointed out that Washington State, despite overturning its sodomy laws 27 years ago, is behind in gay rights. "Tomorrow we must go to work," Murray told the crowd. "This is just the side of the mountain, not the top." It was a sentiment echoed by the signs handed out to the rallygoers: "Supreme Court victory today, organize for full GLBT equality tomorrow."
Murray is right: There's plenty to work on. For starters, Washington still hasn't passed a civil rights bill that would add sexual orientation to the state's anti-discrimination law and protect gays from discrimination in areas like housing and employment. "In a perfect world, I'd be signing this legislation tonight as part of this celebration," said Locke. The bill's been floating around Olympia since 1977, and made it through the state house this year. But in the Republican-controlled state senate, it never made it out of committee, despite support from a majority of senators. Next year, the bill will have to start over, and pass through the house all over again.
Secondly, Washington is one of the 37 states that explicitly oppose same-sex marriage. In 1998, despite a Locke veto, Washington passed a law limiting marriage to a man and woman. There hasn't been a movement yet to axe Washington's anti-gay-marriage law. With Canada set to legalize gay marriage, the law stands in the way of Washington's same-sex couples skipping across the border to get hitched. Their Canadian unions are not likely to be recognized in Washington.
This year, Murray, McDermott, and the state house's two other openly gay legislators--Dave Upthegrove and Jim Moeller--introduced a bill that would legalize same-sex civil unions. It's not marriage, but it would afford same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities. The bill, with 13 house co-sponsors and seven senate sponsors, didn't go anywhere.
At the courthouse on Thursday, Murray stressed that the laws won't be changed simply because Washington has four gay legislators. "We need to organize ourselves, and gear up a grassroots movement," he said. The Supreme Court decision, largely a self-esteem boost for Washington gays, could provide the momentum for that organizing. "It invigorates the community."