Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Karen [Dixon] and Patrick [Menasco], for that kind introduction and for the extraordinary vision and unwavering commitment that you and your colleagues at Lambda Legal bring to some of the most critical issues facing our nation today. Under the steady hand of Executive Director [Kevin] Cathcart, your efforts have yielded spectacular results in the fight for the more just and more equal society that everyone in this country deserves – results that were unimaginable to so many for so long. It’s a privilege to share the stage with you tonight and it’s a pleasure to join so many talented advocates, dedicated leaders and good friends in toasting a year of rapid and remarkable progress.
We come together this evening at an electric moment in the evolution of this movement, in the story of this community and in the history of this nation. After decades of untold struggle, unyielding advocacy and unfathomable bravery, it is clear that we are in the midst of a national awakening. Tonight’s celebration is a commemoration of historic change that has already arrived and that will shape our country for years to come. And it is a tribute to the indomitable determination you displayed by standing up for yourselves and your community in the face of concerted opposition and immense challenge.
Trailblazers in this room and heroes far beyond it have devoted your lives and made countless personal sacrifices, to fight for what your hearts have always told you is right. Many of you joined the front lines at a time when a right to marriage for same-sex couples was unthinkable, when the fight was for nothing more – and nothing less – than your ability to exist, to be free and to love. You faced pervasive discrimination, prejudice and harassment that was sanctioned by your country and carried out by your fellow Americans. And you experienced, on a daily basis, evidence of bigotry, reminders of inequity and threats of violence. No reward for your efforts was ever guaranteed and you knew that change would happen slowly if it happened at all.
Still, you carried on. And thanks to your courage, your devotion and your tenacity, in recent years, the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality has reached an incredible crescendo. Through the vigorous campaigns of pioneers, activists and allies – many of whom emerged from the nation’s legal community – we have witnessed a profound national pivot away from hate and intolerance and toward acceptance, respect and understanding. And with a foundation laid by the arduous, grinding and enormously difficult work of individuals we are proud to celebrate – as well as by those who are no longer with us – we are finally witnessing the cascade of equality that they envisioned, that they set in motion and that will forever reshape this country.
Since the riots at Stonewall and for more than four decades, Lambda Legal has been at the forefront of this effort, empowering LGBT people across the country, from all backgrounds and walks of life, to come out from the shadows, to stand up against oppression and to insist on the respect, the freedom and the equal treatment that every American deserves. Like so many civil rights leaders before you, you have pushed relentlessly to challenge injustice and upend the status quo. In courts and in schools, in hospitals and in legislatures, you have taken critical steps to improve the lives of LGBT individuals. You have spoken out for fair treatment at work, supported those living with HIV and won stronger legal protections for some of our most vulnerable citizens. And you have worked tirelessly to realize the high ideals that have defined this nation since its founding, including the foundational right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – no matter who you are, where you come from, or whom you love.
Lambda Legal’s visionary activists and unstoppable advocates have made a mark so deep, so transformative and so permanent that no account of this movement – and no history of this nation – can be written without reference to your enduring contributions to the meaning of full and equal citizenship. And there is perhaps no greater measure of the extraordinary progress you have brought to fruition than the fact that, less than 30 years after this country cast LGBT individuals as both separate and unequal in Bowers v. Hardwick, you now have the enthusiastic partnership of the Department of Justice and the full and unwavering support of the President of the United States. President Obama and I are both passionate about this cause and deeply devoted to this mission, and this administration is committed to invigorating the values of equality and opportunity that you have long demanded for all Americans.
That commitment has been evident since the earliest days of the Obama Administration. We refused to defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, because we believed that the law ran counter to Americans’ right to equal protection. We worked with Lambda Legal and others to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” because we believe that no one should have to choose between the person they love and the country they love. We have strenuously enforced the landmark Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act; secured new protections for LGBT domestic violence survivors in the Violence Against Women Act; and late last year, in a watershed moment for the transgender community, announced our position that the landmark protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 apply to discrimination based on an individual’s gender identity, including transgender status.
Each of these individual strides is a significant achievement. Every step forward represents groundbreaking progress. And together, they send an unmistakable message to LGBT Americans from coast to coast: Your country stands proudly with you. Your fellow citizens are by your side. You are not alone – not now and never again. We will never stop working to spread a broader recognition of the support, consideration and compassion that all Americans should receive. And we will continue to ensure that this nation lives up to a pledge made to young people the world over: that they can look forward to new days filled with hope, with possibility, with tranquility and with joy, because over time and with the help of friends and allies growing more numerous by the day, it will get better.
Of course, even as we celebrate remarkable advances, it is clear that we still have more work to do. We have already seen some of the legislative strategies that opponents will use to undermine marriage equality. Difficult legal issues, from adoption to immigration, remain unresolved. And even today, in some states, LGBT individuals can be fired from their jobs for simply being who they are. This administration and this Department of Justice has long called on Congress to protect LGBT employees by passing an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act and I renew that call today.
The transgender community in particular is facing new and difficult legal issues that extend far beyond marriage – and here, too, the Department of Justice has provided support. In April, for example, we filed a statement of interest supporting Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman incarcerated in Georgia whose hormone treatment was cut off when she entered prison. We stated our position that the Eighth Amendment requires individualized assessment and care for gender dysphoria in prison just like any other medical condition.
Put simply, we understand that this nation’s ongoing fight for equality has many fronts, and we cannot afford to grow complacent when there is so much left to do. We must – and we will – keep working to bring about the more equal society, the more just future and the more perfect Union to which we must always aspire. You all know the challenges we face, but you also know what it takes to surmount them and to create positive, lasting change in this country – because you’ve done it, time and again, for more than four decades. And you have seen the amazing results.
Just two months ago, Donald Verrilli, the Solicitor General of the United States, told the Supreme Court forcefully and unequivocally that “Gay and lesbian people are equal. They deserve equal protection of the laws. And they deserve it now.” That simple declarative statement – made on behalf of the Justice Department, the Obama Administration and the United States of America – encapsulates lessons learned, minds opened and hearts touched. It represents the will of our country and the soul of our society. And it serves as one of many towering guideposts on what has been a hard-fought and hard-won road to justice.
Today, as we celebrate the victories of the past, let us also recommit ourselves to the fight for our future. Let us rededicate ourselves, right here, tonight, to moving forward together in the spirit of equality. Let us draw strength and inspiration from the long road we’ve traveled – and steel ourselves for the journey ahead.
I know that our work will not be easy. But as I look around this extraordinary gathering – of individuals motivated by faith in the promise of this country and determination to make that promise real – I am confident in what we can achieve together. I am excited to work alongside you to spread fairness, dignity and equality to every corner of this nation. And I cannot wait to celebrate all the victories that lie ahead as we continue to bend the arc of the moral universe decisively toward justice.
Thank you and keep up the great work.