Have you ever noticed that it's easy to see work that lies ahead of you and often hard to remember work that you've done? For this reason, I welcome anniversaries as a time to take stock and to seek inspiration to keep moving forward.
This year marks two such milestones. One is the 40th anniversary of the Pride parade for LGBT equality in Boston this Saturday. The second is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization dedicated to realizing the principles set forth in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, namely: liberty, equality, and justice for all.
Love it or hate it, you have to admit the ACLU is both uniquely American and deeply patriotic. Where else in the world do you have an organization that defends the rights of everyone, even people who dissent from their government, espouse unpopular views, or happen to be gay? You might ask your friends in places like Iran or Zimbabwe what it's like to live in a country where there are no groups as strong as the ACLU to defend freedom of speech and equal rights under the law. My guess is, you'll choose freedom.
Of course, it's not easy defending the rights of people with whom you don't agree. It's what my hero, Tony Lewis, calls ensuring "Freedom for the Thought That We Hate." But experience shows that standing on such principles is the right thing to do.
Early in its history, the ACLU defended the right of suffragettes, birth control advocates, and anti-war dissenters to speak on the Boston Common. By defending the right of these groups to be heard, the ACLU paved the way for voting rights for women and people of color, as well as free speech rights for all subsequent protests movements -- defending your right to march for (or against) racial justice, peace, undue corporate influence, or to save the Earth.
Of course, enabling voices of dissent to be heard doesn't always help the cause of those speaking. Often, free speech works as a disinfectant. That's what happened in 1977, when the ACLU defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois. Letting them parade in public exposed the brown-shirts as ignorant bigots deserving of public scorn and ridicule. That's the beauty of free speech.
The Pride march for LGBT equality, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, also shows the power of free speech to bring righteous causes out of the shadows. For too long, too many people in this country were forced to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity. Today, by marching with Pride for equality in Boston and throughout the nation, gay and straight people together will show publicly their support for the principle that all people are created equal and are entitled to equal protection of the law. What could be more patriotic?
Not surprisingly, the ACLU was defending equal rights for LGBT people long before it became socially acceptable -- even stylish!! -- to do so. In 1936, the ACLU took its first gay rights case in Massachusetts when Boston's public censor banned Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour because of its "lesbian content." In 1974, the ACLU of Massachusetts filed suit on behalf of two lesbians who were discharged from the military, and in 1986 the ACLU filed a historic case challenging regulations that prevented gay and lesbian people from being foster parents. Since then, the ACLU of Massachusetts and its coalition partners were instrumental in achieving equal civil marriage rights for all people in Massachusetts. These days, the ACLU is working to extend those rights to people throughout the nation and to achieve equality for trans people and their families as well.
None of this is possible without freedom of speech.
The duty to defend liberty never ends and the road is long. But as we march, shoulder to shoulder, let's remind ourselves of how far we have come in the last century on the road of freedom, and then continue to march until we realize fully the dream of equal rights for all.
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