CROSSING THE FINISH LINE

April 9th, 2013

Last night, I had the opportunity to speak to about 200 University of Delaware students who gathered on campus for a rally in support of marriage equality in Delaware.  Here is what I told them about the unique moment in history we are living through.

A few weeks ago, I was meeting with some people who did not agree with me about marriage equality.  They gave me their reasons for being against it, I explained why I was for it.  I’m not going to bore you with that part of the discussion, the fact that you are here tonight suggests that you don’t need to be convinced.   But during our talk, one of the people I was meeting with said “of course we don’t support discrimination based on sexual orientation, no one supports that.”   And I said “hold on.”

Because I chaired the Delaware State Senate debate in 2009 when we finally passed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.  And the reason it wasn’t passed before 2009 wasn’t for lack of trying.  It took eight years to pass that bill.  As late as 2008, just five years ago, we couldn’t even convince a majority of our state legislators that denying a job or insurance to gay and lesbian Delawareans was wrong.  And now five years later, people ask how anyone could have ever thought differently.

Everything has changed.  And I want to use the little time I have to talk about why, and what it means for marriage equality.  I think things changed in large part for one basic reason.  More and more gay and lesbian Delawareans began to proudly tell people that they were gay and lesbian Delawareans.  They told their families.  They told their friends.  They told their co workers and their bosses.  And suddenly we weren’t talking about abstractions any more.  We were talking about real people, people who we knew and respected and loved.

No one should understate how difficult, and in many cases courageous, it was for gay and lesbian Delawareans to tell others who they were.  They risked their jobs, in many cases they feared risking the love of their families, because they were proud of who they were and did not want to hide it.  The story of equal rights for gay and lesbian Delawareans may not have a singular hero or moment; it is the culmination of thousands of moments of individual will and determination.  It is a story with a legion of heroes, some of whom are in this room tonight.  And make no mistake, it was young people who led the way.

So now here we are.  And in spite of all the changes, in spite of the cascade of elected officials changing their positions on marriage equality, we are not quite there yet.  We’ll get there, and five years from now people will wonder once again how it could have been an issue, but we’re not quite there.  I believe strongly that we will cross the finish line the same way we got so close – by humanizing the issue.  I’m a lawyer, I’m all about logical arguments, but in the end we will win because you talk to legislators about yourselves, your friends, your families, and tell them politely but passionately what this means in human terms with names and faces.

Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet who often wrote about her partner of 40 years Molly Malone Cook, famously said “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  In the next few weeks, you have the opportunity to change your state for the better, and write a chapter of your young life that you will look back on proudly.  Seize the moment, help us make this a better state.