As the country celebrates Independence Day, we should recall those important phrases near the beginning of the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men” — and that should read “people” — “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We try to, and do, live up to those lofty sentiments, but not always. The belief in those self-evident truths makes this country great, but we’re not perfect and neither is our nation. Ever since a small group of brave men put their names, and in no small measure their lives, on the line in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July, 1776, we have endorsed by action or silence many legal roadblocks raised to deny or repress the fundamental rights of huge swaths of Americans — women, African-Americans, the developmentally disabled, gays and lesbians.
So it’s quite fitting that the landmark Supreme Court decision striking down as unconstitutional a key component of the federal Defense of Marriage Act — the law barring the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages legalized by the states — comes so close to the July Fourth holiday.
The court’s decision marks another chapter in the USA’s 337-year quest toward fulfilling the bold statement that all of us are created, and continue to be, equal.
None of this country’s greatest achievements have come easily.
The Founding Fathers were just the first of many brave men and women who’ve taken a stand against such oppression. They were followed by abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, who was born into slavery in New York and later gave hope to so many as a preacher. Newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison came under constant attack for his published opinions against slavery. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought for women’s rights long before the term “feminism” arose.
Two notable names in the gay rights movement include Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold public office in the U.S., who was later assassinated; and Larry Kramer, founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, now the largest private group in the world helping people living with AIDS.
The fight for equal rights and opportunity continues in all these movements, here and elsewhere.
In this region there are groups such as the Long Island GLBT Services network, a nonprofit umbrella association of five nonprofits that work to end homophobia on Long Island. The association, which includes the East End Gay Organization, not only advocates for civil rights and equality, but strives to provide “a home and safe space for the GLBT community.”
The Long Island GLBT Services is making major progress on the East End as it prepares this month to open the region’s first center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender East Enders — with a focus on youth — in Sag Harbor.
Civil rights and federal benefits are important, but confidence, personal security and societal acceptance are key if the promise to uphold the right to pursue happiness for all Americans is to be fulfilled. For the most part, this all starts with us, far away from D.C., in our schools, parks and businesses, where all people should be not just tolerated, but accepted and embraced.