LGBT community should now turn to fight against racism

By Kate Kendell in an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle

It is hard to imagine a year filled with more elation or more pain. Too often, both emotions collided within the same day. How can it be that a nation that gets it so right can also get it so wrong? How is it that we joyously celebrate a monumental U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming the humanity of same-sex couples in the morning, and by afternoon we are bereft as our president mourns the racist-fueled murder of nine African American church-goers, including his friend, Pastor Clementa Pinckney? How is it that on one evening our family dinner conversation exults at the gains made for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and the next we engage in a grim-faced discussion of the latest killing of a black man by a white police officer?

This dissonance is America. As an attorney and advocate for LGBT equality, including our freedom to marry, I am elated at the recent marriage victory. The arc of justice has bent our way a bit.

But as the wife of an African American woman, and a parent to two biracial children, a 19-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, I am reminded every day how the arc of the moral universe still has far to bend. Sandy and I have been a couple for 22 years, married for seven. Our kids, Julian and Ariana, are an endless source of joy and wonder, leavened of course, with moments of frustration and exasperation. We love our time together as a family and cherish what we have.

But the relentless killings of young African American men, finally gaining increased media attention this past year, have elevated a national conversation over how unequally our nation and culture mete out privilege. Love may have won, but we still struggle to convince people that black lives matter.

As a well-educated white woman from a middle-class family, I live with a lifetime of race privilege that my wife and children do not enjoy. After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., I asked Julian to write down his thoughts for a blog I was writing about the incident. What he wrote stopped my heart:

“When young black men can be shot for playing their music too loudly that scares me. … Seeing the same story flood Facebook and Twitter every three months scares me. ... It is obvious that the justice system is not set up to protect people that look like Michael and me. ... The story of Michael Brown’s death is tragic. Not only does it make me angry, it makes me sad. Because with every story like this I see my body lying in the street where Michael’s was.”

I knew Julian felt deeply about issues of race, racism and injustice. I did not fully appreciate how personally threatened he felt.

 My privilege does not protect my son. I glimpse into the futility felt by Sandy and all African American parents. And I know that as close as we are as a family, when it comes to the lived experience of a person of color in this culture, I am an outsider. But outsiders can be disruptive. Outsiders can be agitators. Outsiders can make change.

The LGBT movement just won. Big. But we did not get here by ourselves. We had the help of millions of Americans who stood with us, who shared our vision for a more perfect union. Millions, including millions in the African American, Latino and Asian American communities who saw the wrong in our being excluded from marriage and helped tip public opinion and momentum in our favor.

So now, we pay that forward. Many LGBT people are people of color. The plain fact that so many non-LGBT people of color had our back — well, now the moral charge is clear. We must pay forward and back the good that was done for us. We have just closed the chapter on the struggle to win the freedom to marry. This was a struggle that 20 years ago was thought impossible, fanciful, unattainable. The same has been said about ending racial bigotry, reforming our immigration system, improving economic opportunity and eliminating racism. It will not be easy, to be sure. There is a difference in tone, history and entrenchment between homophobia and racism. But just imagine if we thought we could win the struggle. Imagine if we wholly committed as a community and a nation to bending that arc yet again.

I wouldn’t bet against us.

Kate Kendell has been the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights for 21 years. She was co-counsel on the California marriage case and on one of the cases decided last month by the U.S. Supreme Court.