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Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarks at the 14th Annual Lambda Legal Reception


United States

Thank you, Patrick [Menasco] and Sandy [Chamblee], for those kind words; for your friendship over the years; and for your tireless work in leading the legal profession towards greater diversity and inclusion.  It’s a pleasure to share the stage with you this evening. And it’s a great privilege to join dedicated leaders like Executive Director Kevin Cathcart – and trailblazers like my friend Paul Smith – in celebrating Lambda Legal’s remarkable record of achievement; in reflecting on the work that remains before us; and in reaffirming our commitment to build the more just and more equal society that everyone in this country deserves.

I’d like to thank the co-chairs of this event, Karen Dixon and Patrick Menasco, for making this celebration possible – and for the profound and historic role that you, your colleagues, and so many other advocates and citizens have played in advancing the fight for civil rights and LGBT equality.

Since this organization’s inception, more than 40 years ago – during a period of unrelenting discrimination, harassment, and prejudice; in an era marked by hostility, fear, and isolation; and in the wake of Stonewall – leading members of our nation’s legal community have had the courage to resist oppression, to stand up against injustice, and to come out for the rights that belong to all Americans.  For decades, their courage has helped to empower brave men and women from all backgrounds and walks of life – including current members of Lambda Legal – to turn a nascent, tumultuous awakening among the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community into a unified movement for dignity, for freedom, and for equality.

Today – alongside millions of pioneers, partners, and allies – you’re continuing to fight for the core ideals that have defined this nation since its earliest days.  And you’re helping this country to realize the promises first codified in our founding documents: the notion that all are created equal; the principle that all are entitled to the same protections;  and the fundamental truth that everyone among us possesses the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – no matter who they are or who they love.

Over the years – from our courthouses to our schools; from our health care centers to our homes; from our workplaces to our criminal justice system – thanks to Lambda Legal and many other groups, there’s no question that we’ve seen transformational, groundbreaking progress.  Today, this progress is woven into the lives of countless Americans – in critical actions taken to support LGBT individuals and assist people with HIV; in landmark Supreme Court decisions and vital changes to federal and state law; and in the legacy of once-unimaginable change that now stands as a testament to the power of collective action – and a challenge to successive generations. 

This ongoing work belongs to the proudest traditions of leadership and advocacy that this country has ever known – from abolitionists and suffragettes, to freedom riders, civil rights attorneys, and activists who, throughout history, have refused to accept an unjust status quo.  Through the actions of all who have devoted – and in too many cases given – their lives for the dignity and equality of every person.  We have extended the American Dream to include women, people of color, young people, Americans with disabilities, and so many others. Today – 45 long years after Stonewall – we can finally envision a day when the sun will rise on an America that sees LGBT individuals as full and equal citizens.

But that day has not yet arrived.  I firmly believe that the struggle to make it a reality constitutes a defining civil rights challenge of our time.  And that’s why President Obama and I are committed to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone who has the courage to reach for the values of equality and opportunity.

We come together tonight at an important juncture – in a moment defined by challenge, consequence, and great opportunity.  Remarkable achievements stretch behind us.  Important, life-changing work lies ahead.  And I want the American people to know that this Administration – and this Department of Justice and this Attorney General – will never be content to be bystanders to the march of history.  We will march, we will fight, and we will work alongside you to help shape it.

In just the last five years, we’ve seen significant progress.  With the adoption of the landmark Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2009, we strengthened our ability to achieve justice on behalf of those who are victimized simply because of their race, religion, color, or national origin – and, for the first time ever, their disability, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation.  With new transgender cultural competency training for law enforcement officers, we’re helping local authorities improve their interactions with transgender people.  With the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010 – an achievement that Lambda Legal helped make possible – we reaffirmed that love of country, not love of another, determines one’s fitness to serve.  And we ensured that, here at home and around the world, brave lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans can serve proudly, honestly, and openly – without fear of being discharged for who they are. 

More recently, with the signing of the newly-reauthorized Violence Against Women Act, we codified into law robust new provisions to ensure that LGBT survivors of domestic abuse can access the same services as other survivors of partner violence.  And with last year’s historic Supreme Court decision in the case of United States v. Windsor – a watershed moment for all who believe in equal protection under law – we helped bring about a major advancement in the cause of justice and a resounding victory for committed and loving couples from coast to coast. 

The Windsor decision marked the culmination of a lengthy court battle, supported by your litigation efforts and your work to educate society about LGBT individuals and families.  The impact of this singular ruling already has been, and will continue to be, both dramatic and far-reaching.  But it does not signify the end of our legal fight – a fight that began long before the President and I decided, in early 2011, that Justice Department lawyers would no longer defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.  Rather, Windsor marked the beginning of a new chapter.

After all, as we speak – fully 60 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education – the LGBT community is still waiting for its own unequivocal declaration that separate is inherently unequal.

I was just three years old in 1954, when Brown was decided.  Mine was the first generation to grow up in a world in which “separate but equal” was no longer the law of the land.  But, as anyone old enough to remember those tumultuous days can tell you, the words of Brown were not automatically translated into substantive change.  Discrimination and prejudice persisted then, and persist even today – imperiling progress, opportunity, and access for far too many Americans.

Today, we wage a different struggle to combat different forms of discrimination.  But combating the denial of dignity – and the inability of many to avail themselves of basic rights – remains our common cause. When I was a child during the Civil Rights Era – thanks to my parents’ protection, love, and devotion, and despite the turmoil that raged across the nation – I knew that my home would always provide a refuge of inviolable safety, solace, and support.  Tragically, as some in this room know – and have even experienced firsthand – far too many LGBT youth and adults don’t have access to the same kind of refuge.  Far too many don’t have the benefit of the support of their families and the safe haven that home can provide.  And although millions of Americans have stood together to remind these young men and women that “it gets better,” too many others continue to hold beliefs and perpetuate stereotypes that LGBT citizens are somehow inferior.  That their love is somehow less worthy.  And that who they are – at their very core – is somehow less legitimate than their peers.

These pernicious ideas and poisonous notions can rend families apart, dividing parents from children and siblings from one another.  And the consequences for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth can be devastating – and, all too often, deadly – with suicide rates among lesbian, gay, and bisexual young people four times higher than their heterosexual peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

As a nation, we cannot abide such an unjust status quo.  As a people, we must demand far better.  And as a legal community, we must continue to call out – and actively challenge – animus-driven and discriminatory rules and policies wherever they are found.

In the wake of the Windsor decision, my Justice Department colleagues and I, in partnership with other agencies across the government, have moved rapidly to fulfill this charge by ensuring the swift implementation of this important ruling – in both letter and spirit. We’ve already extended significant benefits and protections to Americans in same-sex marriages – including health insurance and other key benefits for federal employees and their families; a uniform policy ensuring that all same-sex married couples are recognized for federal tax purposes; and a policy dictating that – for purposes of immigration law – same-sex and opposite-sex marriages will be treated exactly the same.  We’ve worked with the Defense Department to determine that members of the military who are in same-sex marriages will receive the same benefits available to opposite sex couples.  And, as a variety of marriage cases and appeals have proceeded across the nation, we’ve seen a string of court decisions striking down state laws precluding same-sex marriages – including as recently as this past Friday, in Wisconsin.  In response, we have taken appropriate action to ensure that the federal government will recognize all same-sex marriages that are lawful and valid under state law.

Beyond these efforts, in February, I announced a new policy memorandum that – for the first time in history – directs all Justice Department employees to give lawful same-sex marriages full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent possible under the law.  This means that, in every courthouse, in every proceeding, and in every place where a member of the Department of Justice stands on behalf of the United States – we will strive to ensure that same-sex marriages receive the same privileges, protections, and rights as opposite-sex marriages under federal law.

All of these changes will have profoundly positive, real-world implications for many throughout the nation.  Every step forward is laudatory, and every marker of progress worth celebrating.  But, as you know as well as anyone, this is no time to be complacent.  Our pursuit of a more perfect Union must go on.  The work of extending opportunity and preserving liberty is both vast and unending.  And there remains a great deal to be done.

Even as we speak, LGBT workers in too many states can be fired just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  As the President said in his Pride Month Proclamation, it’s past time for Congress to correct this injustice by passing an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

In America’s health care system, far too many LGBT individuals continue to face unjust and unwarranted health disparities.  The Obama Administration will keep working to address these disparities through implementation of the Affordable Care Act.  And we’ll keep moving forward with our cutting-edge National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which is focused on improving care while decreasing HIV transmission rates among communities most at risk.

And in far too many organizations, policies and practices that discriminate against LGBT individuals remain persistent concerns. Lambda Legal is among the groups that have led efforts to address these conditions – for instance, through your work in 1992, in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, to challenge the termination of an Assistant Scoutmaster when the organization found out he was gay.  Unfortunately, the continuation of a policy that discriminates against gay adult leaders – by an iconic American institution – only preserves and perpetuates the worst kind of stereotypes.  Like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it’s a relic of an age of prejudice and insufficient understanding.  Today, courageous lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals routinely put their lives on the line as members of America’s armed services.  They inspire us, they protect us, and they defend us.  And if these men and women are fit for military service, then surely they are fit to mentor, to teach, and to serve as role models for the leaders of future generations.

Throughout history, America’s highest ideals – realized in the expanding inclusiveness of our laws and a succession of historic Supreme Court rulings, from Brown to Zablocki, from Romer to Lawrence, from Loving to Windsor – have lit a clear path forward.  A path to equality and fullness of life for every man and every woman.  A path to healing for tired minds and overburdened spirits.  And a path along which we have made tremendous strides, thanks to leaders and advocates in and far beyond this room.

Yet our journey still stretches beyond the horizon. And that’s why, until we reach our destination, this Department of Justice will never back down.  We will never give up.  And we will never stop working to provide LGBT individuals – and all Americans – with the security and the essential protections to which they are entitled.

The progress we’ve achieved is truly worth celebrating.  But, on its own, it’s not enough – not until every individual, every family, and every worker is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

It’s not enough until every parent can fully support, and recognize the worth, of their lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender child.

It’s not enough until every student feels safe from harassment in the classroom and on the playground.
And it’s not enough until the circle of opportunity and equality is so wide – and so accessible – that the American Dream is available to everyone with the heart to dream it.

 This evening, as we renew our commitment to move forward together – with confidence in the efforts of our allies, and with deep and abiding faith in the American people – I cannot help but feel optimistic that we can, and will, seize the opportunities now before us.  But never forget that positive change is not inevitable. We must stand together, and work together, and sacrifice together, to see that justice is done.  We must strengthen and extend our nation’s long tradition of increasing inclusion.  And thanks to the leadership, the determination, and the persistence of legal advocates and courageous citizens alike, I am confident that we will ultimately be successful in our enduring pursuit of a more equal, more just, and more perfect Union.

  Thank you.

Updated August 18, 2015