It began with Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard

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What an exciting and rewarding day yesterday must have been for everyone who has been waiting and working for years to get marriage equality.To finally get the acknowledgement from our government that the LBGT community has equal protection and rights under our constitution as everyone else after years of set backs, conservative vitriol and partial rights never quite reaching the mark. I can only imagine the extreme joy that comes from such an acknowledgement. We are living history this week, but then it occurred to me to think of the long road that led to this point and all those who came before suffering from this discrimination.

To me, the changing attitude of many Americans started with the murders of Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard. Brandon Teena was an American trans gender man who was raped and murdered in 1993 because he had to keep his transformation secret to be accepted. Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die in Laramie Wyoming in 1998 because he showed interest in the wrong two males.

These two instance put hate crimes and inequality at the forefront of the American psyche. Before these two crimes, most Americans were content to whisper insults, make jokes and leave LBGT rights on the back burner. Seeing and hearing about the brutality of these two crimes changed many people’s attitudes and led to gradual acceptance over time of the need to live and let live. When I was a child, there was a great deal of hate speak in any social gathering including the evening meal. Hate speak against gays, African-Americans, anyone who was “different”. Such speech was common place prior to these two crimes. Jokes and whispers around these topics were pervasive. After the two murders, people were more careful what they said, began recognizing that speech can lead to hatred. Our children listen to what we say and copy that. The youngest generations in American are the ones creating this current sea change in attitudes and acceptance. Since 2001 Americans attitude toward gay marriage has flip-flopped according to the Pew Research Center. Such change does not occur on its own. Many people fought hard to change unfair laws and gain rights for all much like the civil rights movement,there were successes and failures.

We cannot forget the role leadership has played in this long-standing issue. President Bill Clinton tried to make change with the “Don’t ask don’t tell” policy in the U.S. military but such separate but equal type of policy was doomed to failure. President Barack Obama signed the Federal Hate Crimes legislation into law in 2009 almost 20 years after Brandon Teena’s death. The President also refuse to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the Supreme Court when the legislation was challenged as unconstitutional and eventually overturned by the Supreme Court. Over time the majority of Americans began to see that a fundamental right was being denied to many of its’ citizens and they could no longer accept such discrimination based on sexual orientation.

So, where do we go from here? The supreme courts decision yesterday was a fantastic beginning but it is just that a beginning like the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s was a great start. It takes all of us to fight, support, speak up and stand behind those who are not in the majority to get everyone the rights they deserve under our constitution. There are many candidates running for President right now who cannot support this basic tenet of our constitution and we will have to remain vigilant to preserve and defend these newly acquired rights for all. When our students ask, “Can a man and a man get married?” or a woman and a woman we can finally proudly say “Yes, that is a right protected under our constitution.”

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