A few weeks ago in Phoenix I heard a passionate plea for LGBT equality and it stuck in my craw, left me bursting with frustration at the definition of equality that formed the unspoken, unquestioned bedrock of the plea: an underlying presumption that equality could and would be attained through particular legal changes.
The prophetic voice in my heart shouted that any movement that focuses on the pursuit of rights and equality through the legal system leaves behind all of the people who do not have equal access to that system and its protections—those people who live on the margins, the undocumented, incarcerated, homeless, children and youth, disabled, economically dispossessed. Those who are criminalized and oppressed by the criminal legal system itself.
I thought to myself: Are we so quick to forget our history? That long history we’ve had of criminalization and oppression by the criminal legal system because of our gender expressions or the gender of the people we love and partner with? It’s only recently that some of us have begun to be able to access the legal system and its protections. Not all of us have access. Many of us are still criminalized and oppressed by the system. For those who are, employment non-discrimination legislation will do little to alleviate the struggle. Hate crimes legislation will only exacerbate the struggle. And extending the charmed circle of those who can get legally married will ultimately fall short of equality.
I was fired up and vindicated in my own personal dispassion for legislative advocacy work. But the universe was not content for me to stay in that place, because not two days later I heard another passionate plea—this one explicitly speaking to our collective ability to make real change through the legal arena. In the context of migrant rights, the speaker called forward the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preaching to a crowd of Unitarian Universalists in 1966: “It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.”
I found myself chastened. What faith in the legal system could anyone under the steel-toed boot of Jim Crow have possibly had? And yet faith was exactly what King called on and called forward.
I considered another fight for equality—suffrage. When the women’s rights movement fought for the right to vote, the movement centered the experiences and needs of white women in its struggle. White, able-bodied, heterosexual, English-speaking, educated women with economic advantage and U.S. citizenship. There were other women present in the movement, but choices were made about what battles were most winnable, and the experiences and needs of women of color were sidelined. In 1920, all women did not win the ability to vote. For huge numbers of women of color, access to that right only came 45 years later.
So what does true equality look like? A movement toward true equality constantly asks itself whose voice is unheard, what perspective is invisible, and how that voice can be served by the movement. Such a movement is built on solidarity, accountability, and camaraderie. Such a movement asks how it can serve the needs of those who won’t survive the oppression of criminal legal systems without immediate help while always centering the vision of the better world the movement is working toward. If we imagine this world of full, true equality, does it include borders? Does it include prisons? Or can we believe a world is possible where all are liberated, where all people thrive, where the Beloved Community is real, is here, is now?
I wouldn’t want humanity to lose a single ounce of passion or yearning toward a better, more just and balanced world. I simply hold the dearest hope that my passion and hard work will serve to extend visibility more and more, always stretching the conversation and the struggle to be inclusive of one more person, then another, and another. Equality for some is not equality. So let’s dream big and imagine what our laws could create in service of full, true equality. May it be so!