This piece was originally published for the Juneau Empire, June 26, 2016.
But I feel like it belongs here, too.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my phone buzz on my desk, the message previewing: “love won” in all caps, accompanied with an unreasonable amount of exclamation marks. I was mid-sentence in an email at work and tried to ignore my phone.
The minutes passed, a few more emails were read, written and sent, and then my phone buzzed again; an incessant reminder that I’d received a text that I kept forgetting to change the setting on. Hitting the home button on my phone, the black screen lit up showing the message was from Caitlin, a friend of mine from when I was attending the University of South Dakota (USD). A friend who I’d made grandiose promises to about staying in touch when I moved back home to Juneau and had spectacularly failed at because flights were expensive and we both found ourselves busy with adult jobs and, well, life.
I unlocked my phone to see if the message said anything else but it was just the declaration that love had won.
Confused, I texted back: “Huh?”
I put my phone down and was about to return to work when my phone quivered on my desk.
“Gay marriage passed,” she replied back, again in all caps and an irrational amount of exclamation marks.
“Passed where?” I replied. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the best about staying on top of current events and hadn’t heard of any state trying to pass gay marriage. In the sparse news that I was up to date on but was well aware of the fact that Alaska had passed gay marriage on October 12, 2014.
“Does your igloo not have cable or Wi-Fi?”
“Cait, that’s almost offensive. The penguins that live here try very hard to give us stable Wi-Fi signals, it’s not their fault that they have flippers and holding metal poles is hard for them.” I laughed at our inside joke, and continued. I was pretty sure Caitlin knew we didn’t have penguins. “But seriously, where did gay marriage pass?”
I had barely pressed the send button when my phone buzzed in my hand.
“EVERYWHERE!” quickly followed by “GAY MARRIAGE IS NOW LEGAL IN ALL 50 STATES!”
I stared at my phone, unmoving, my throat forgetting how to take in air for my lungs. She had to be joking. There was no way that it was true. I always thought I would be well into my later years before the LGBTQ+ community finally won the right to marry whomever they loved. I was resigned to the fact that it wasn’t going to be until my generation started seriously getting into politics before we’d win the rights we felt we shouldn’t have had to fight for in the first place.
“Are you serious?!”
“Seriously! How did you not know about this? The Supreme Court passed their ruling five to four! Turn on the news!”
“I’m at work, Cait. It’s barely passed 2 p.m. here.”
“You have internet access at work, right?”
“Well yeah,” I responded, eyeing the new emails queuing in my inbox.
“Then look it up! It’s everywhere!”
Before I put my phone down, I felt it buzz a few more times. Friends and acquaintances from USD were starting to message me; people who I’d worked with while I was the president of USD’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) on my college campus. Silencing my phone completely, I turned back to my computer screen. I could respond to all of the incoming text messages after I was off of work — or at least after I’d read a few articles about the Supreme Court’s decision. Because seriously, who could focus on work when such great news befell your ears?
As I read the haphazardly thrown together articles about the ruling on legalizing gay marriage, I could feel the muscles in my cheeks start to ache from the smile that wouldn’t leave my face. I wasn’t going to have to wait until I was full of gray, brittle hair and delicate, spotted skin before I could say “I do” to the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, even though I hadn’t met her yet. Reading the various articles flooding the internet, it felt like the culmination of all the work I’d done advocating for equal rights for LGBTQ+ students in South Dakota had made a difference.
Growing up in Juneau I never felt like I’d experienced discrimination for being a lesbian. Sure, my coming out at the age of 16 hadn’t been the best experience and was met with a lot of “it’s just a phase” from people despite my knowing I’d liked girls since the third grade.
I can only recall one instance when a derogatory slur was yelled at me in high school. It was during a gym class the spring semester of my junior year at Juneau-Douglas High School. We had walked up to Cope Park to use the space behind the baseball field to play ultimate Frisbee — this was before the small soccer field had been built in front of JDHS and Marie Drake, and before Thunder Mountain High School had even broken ground. My team had several out individuals of the LGBTQ+ spectrum and we were ahead in points. A student on the opposing team yelled the slur, aimed at no one in particular for no better reason other than they were frustrated that their team was losing. The gym teacher heard and made the student run laps, saying that if they had time to vocalize their poor sportsmanship, they weren’t running hard enough.
Other than that instance, I found Juneau had always been accepting. I never once feared for my wellbeing as an openly gay teen, even though Alaska was the first state to declare in our constitution that marriage was between one man and one woman in 1998. I never once thought twice about walking hand in hand or kissing my girlfriend in public when I was a teenager, or even after I returned to Juneau at the age of 23. Juneau had always felt safe to me.
It wasn’t until I’d been exposed to how queer students were treated at my college that I realized I had grown up in such an accepting community. USD is in the heart of the tri-state area (South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa) and smack dab in the middle of farm country; homophobia ran rampant, derogatory terms were thrown out as casually as chewing tobacco-spit, and queer students were so legitimately afraid of being openly gay that the GSA met off campus for fear of being targeted of hate crimes, as they had in the past.
When I finally became active in the GSA, I was determined to try and make school life better for queer students on campus. I wanted to help them find their voice to speak out against hateful things they were subjected to. I wanted them to know what their resources were on and off campus. I wanted them to have a community of support and love, much like I’d grown up with in Juneau.
After several months of subtle changes, our group rallied our members, new and old, and moved our meeting site back on campus. We held “guess my orientation panels” in an attempt to teach about how stereotypes are harmful and not always accurate and affect more than just queer students. We were asked to come to a human sexuality class to help facilitate a discussion when they began their section on homosexuality. We helped students write letters to senators, urging them to vote to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We partnered up with the largest Christian group on campus for a few events to try and overcome the blatant animosity that had grown between our groups and were successful in making new friends and allies. We even held the university’s first drag show. Our GSA and its members had found their voice, and we’d created a community — a community that, after I left, was able to affect change on the school policy by adding protections for queer students into their anti-bullying and housing policies. And, as far as I’m aware, the drag shows became an annual event that still occur.
A year ago today, I was ecstatic because this was proof that it gets better. In my adulthood I’ve seen the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, DOMA being found unconstitutional, 35 states across the country legalize same-sex marriage and finally the sweeping rule that made same-sex marriage legal all across the U.S. on June 26, 2015.
Although I was ecstatic that day, I know today, exactly a year later, the legalization of gay marriage was another crucial step towards our fight for equality. We still have states, Alaska included, that don’t have state laws that protect individuals against discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identities, or gender expression. Some southern states are trying to pass anti-LGBTQ+ laws allowing businesses to refuse services to someone based on their sexual orientation. Gay men are still not allowed to donate blood because of a stigma that was generated from the 1980’s AIDS epidemic. Transgender individuals are subjected to ridiculous bathroom laws. Young LGBTQ+ individuals who are kicked out of their homes for their family’s inability to accept them don’t have established shelters to turn to. And so much more.
Love won a year ago today. And it still has a lot of winning left to do.