Fight for gay rights must continue

Young LGBT people who live in an Atlanta shelter say the road to equality could be long.

Story highlights

  • The U.S. Supreme Court rules on two same-sex marriage cases
  • John Sutter: Fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality is far from over
  • He waits for news on court's rulings with a group of homeless LGBT people
  • A 24-year-old: "They expect people to lie down and take this and give up?"

Like pretty much every gay American with an Internet connection, I'd gotten sick of staring at Tweetdeck and SCOTUSblog all month, waiting for the day the Supreme Court would rule on same-sex marriage.

"COME ON, SCOTUS. I GOT ESSAYS TO WRITE, MEN TO MARRY, HAVOC TO WREAK," one Twitter user, @theferocity, wrote Monday.

Amen, brother.

So on Wednesday morning, with the court sure to issue opinions on cases involving Proposition 8, California's same-sex marriage ban, and the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, the federal law prohibiting married same-sex couples from collecting federal marriage benefits, I decided to find real-life people -- off the Internet -- to share the potentially historic moment. After making a few calls, I arranged to meet a group of five homeless LGBT young people at a coffee shop in Atlanta's gayborhood.

I was hoping the court would send them a positive, affirming message -- that they matter, that they exist, and that they're fully equal under the law.

John D. Sutter

And I wondered what they thought about the national debate.

The news that the court struck down DOMA and balked on Prop 8 led teary-eyed crowds to cheer, hug and hold rainbow-colored flags in other parts of the country.

But the news rang hollow here.

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"It doesn't really matter. It doesn't affect anything," Rob Pittman, 23, said of the court's decisions. Pittman left home at 12, he said, because his parents didn't accept the fact that he's gay. "Regardless, people are still going to hate us."

"When same-sex marriage becomes legal, and we're able to get married, there's going to be a lot more people (coming) out of the closet, which means there's going to be a lot more hate crimes. That's how I look at it," said Kaylee Campbell, 20.

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Rick Westbrook, the 50-year-old who manages the six-bedroom Atlanta shelter named Lost-n-Found Youth, read updates from SCOTUSblog (it's short for Supreme Court of the United States, for the uninitiated) from his iPhone.

"DOMA is unconstitutional ...," he told the group.

Hooray, right?

Layla Wright, 24, initially was the only person who clapped.

"Come on, clap!" she implored.

Most didn't. Instead, they left to go on a smoke break.

Maybe such indifference comes off as smug or ungrateful at a time when many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people -- and our supporters -- are celebrating. But it shouldn't -- not if you take a hard look at what it's like to be an openly LGBT young person in many parts of the country. According to one survey, 40% of homeless kids are LGBT. That's no coincidence. They live in societies and in families that discriminate against them.

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That's true whether or not DOMA exists.

Most states don't sanction same-sex marriage (can we start calling it simply "marriage," by the way?). Most allow people to be fired for being gay -- legally.

This is a fight that's far from over.

"Today's DOMA ruling is a historic step forward for #MarriageEquality. #LoveIsLove," the @BarackObama Twitter feed posted.

It is a huge step forward. And that should be recognized and lauded. I'm thrilled for same-sex couples in California who likely will be able to marry in coming weeks because of the court's opinion. But I feel for the couples in many other states who still can't -- and for kids like those who live at Lost-n-Found in Atlanta, who have grown up being taught they are less than human.

Watch all the "Glee" you want. That's still the reality.

Campbell, a young woman with a bright smile and a red-sequined shirt, told me her parents kicked her out of her home at 15 because she's a lesbian.

"It wasn't good," she said. "They're really, really, really religious. Very religious."

That was in Alabama. She lived with friends or slept behind dumpsters before moving to Maine to try living with her grandmother, who also rejected her.

She landed at the homeless shelter in Atlanta a year and a half ago.

When people have treated her so poorly -- simply because of who she is -- how could you blame her for being less than enthusiastic about the state of gay America?

Wright, a transgender woman, the one who clapped when DOMA fell, took a sunnier point of view. "It's not going to end the fight," she said. "They expect people to lie down and take this and give up? Uh-uh, honey! You've got another thing coming!"

What's next for gay rights movement?

I could tell Westbrook, the shelter leader, was thrilled to hear this. Which was how I felt, too. Westbrook has been with his partner for 19 years. DOMA and Prop 8 matter to him very personally. And when he was the age of these young people, he said he never could have imagined a national conversation about same-sex marriage -- much less it being legal for some. "It's one step in the right direction," he said. "It'll happen."

But when? That's my question. And it's one that does matter. Legalizing marriage across the country not only would have immediate benefits for same-sex couples and their children -- but it also would help change the society these young people inhabit.

Slowly, it would make the world safer for them.

Their speaking up will help, too, of course.

As the conversation wound down, Wright proudly announced her latest Facebook status update.

"Illegalizing love should be illegal," she said, reading from her phone. She quoted Wanda Sykes and then wrote, "Haters need to get over their cheap selves now."

"Ten exclamation points!" she said.

Let's hope plenty of state legislators follow her on Facebook.

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