GW Forum Discusses Lessons from the Marriage Equality Fight

2017 LGBT Health Forum featured key players in the legal and legislative battles.

July 17, 2017


The panel at the 2017 LGBT Health Forum included key participants in marriage equality legal cases. (William Atkins/GW Today)


By B.L. Wilson

For the fifth annual George Washington University LGBT Health Forum, this year’s panel discussion, “Lessons from the Marriage Equality Fight,” was an opportunity to revisit the progress made in order to prepare for future challenges.

“What we face are things like state bathroom laws, House Bill 2 in North Carolina and other threats to transgender people all over the country,” said Stephen Forssell, director of the LGBT Health Policy and Practice Graduate Certificate Program.

He noted that the right of private businesses to refuse services to same sex couples on religious grounds, known as the Masterpiece Cake Shop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next session.

“We think about not only advancing the rights into public accommodation, employment and housing, but making sure to protect what we’ve already done,” Mr. Forssell said.

This year’s panel included many of the people at the center of legal cases and political campaigns that led to changes in laws and in public support for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.

As an advocate, Marty Rouse, the field director of the Human Rights Campaign, uses what he learned in the defense of a Massachusetts court ruling in favor of marriage equality 13 years ago and the current fight against North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” that limits transgender rights. 

“The movement has come far in a relatively short period of time,” he said, “by getting involved in legislative elections to make sure we elect friends and oppose our enemies and building the political muscle of the LGBT community. They have also been winning in the court of public opinion by bringing personal stories front and center to change the hearts and minds of Americans.”

The lead plaintiff in the 2015 landmark Supreme Court case that recognized the rights of same sex couples to marry, Jim Obergefell, said he just wanted to make sure that Ohio recognized his marriage and to be named as the spouse on his husband’s death certificate. But he became a symbol of the right of LGBT people to be treated like everyone else.

According to Walter Dellinger, the Douglas B. Maggs Professor of Law at Duke University and an expert on Supreme Court decisions, “The litigation had its own effect, created a national dialogue and generated its own momentum.” Once the Supreme Court decriminalized homosexual acts, there was no defense for the Defense of Marriage Act that banned same sex marriage. “It was the normative power of the actual when people saw it being done,” he said.

In Maryland, Luke Clippinger, one of six openly gay members of the House of Delegates, said they experienced setbacks, but ultimately turned the tide, won public opinion and support for same sex marriage by biding their time, knocking on doors and counting votes.

“We broke through and took another step in 2014 when we added identity expression,” he said. Maryland law now prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity, regardless of the gender assigned at birth.

As an openly transgender African American woman, Candis Cox has become an advocate for gender expression in her home state of North Carolina, nationally and around the world, speaking out and lecturing on gender and sexuality. It is not a role she sought and one with which even now she is not entirely comfortable.

“I’m someone who fits the mold of what you think is good and acceptable in America, someone that makes you feel comfortable. You see me as a white middle class American woman, ” she said, “while I’m just trying to be me and not what you think is right.”

That set up a challenge from audience member Dee Curry of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

She said none of the people on the panel looked like any of the gay and transgender people she knew, whose main concern is not same sex marriage. They are black, poor, unemployed, living on the street and are considered an embarrassment even by the LGBT community.

In the current political environment, Mr. Rouse questioned whether the LGBT community is setting the agenda. “Whether it’s climate change, Planned Parenthood or immigration reform, it is an LBTQ issue. We should speak to the issue of the day,” he said. “That’s how we have allies.”

The forum was held as 20 new students begin their studies under the GW LGBT Graduate Certificate Program.