Del Martin, a founding member of the gay rights movement in America, died recently at the age of 87. She is survived by her partner of 55 years and spouse since June 16, Phyllis Lyon.
As a new widow, Lyon faces a difficult period of mourning. However, that she and Martin were able to experience the life of a married couple they had so long desired before death parted them must provide her with at least some amount of solace. But because marriage equality for gays and lesbians only became politically feasible recently and because Martin's health had been declining for some time, these women's ability to spend any time together as spouses was never a certainty.
Martin herself summed up the issue perfectly.
"We're not getting younger," she told the San Francisco Chronicle, expressing her appreciation that the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality earlier this year.
Thankfully, Martin was able to live long enough for her and Lyon to get married. But if California law had changed even a few months later, that never would have been possible. And not every couple is as fortunate as Martin and Lyon.
Of the 50 states, only Massachusetts and California have yet granted full marriage equality to gays and lesbians. Several other states provide official legal protections for such couples, basically allowing same-sex marriage without calling it by that name. However, most states, including Iowa, do not provide any such legal protections. This must change as soon as possible.
Though right-wing activist groups such as the Iowa Christian Alliance fight ferociously in their war against gay rights, an honest assessment of public opinion trends suggests that they do so quixotically. Support for gay rights, including marriage equality, has grown steadily over the years. Progress in this direction is no doubt due in significant part to increases in the general public's understanding of gays and lesbians and identification with them as ordinary people. But there is also a strong generational component to this ongoing shift.
Opinion polls, such as the one conducted by the Pew Research Center last May, show that a strong majority of those under the age of 30 support full marriage equality. The only reason this group of people doesn't tip the balance of general public opinion decidedly in that direction is that a majority of those over 60 oppose marriage equality with equal fervor. However, the end resultthis disparity will have is quite clear. In fewer than 30 years, most of those against allowing gays and lesbians to marry the people whom they love will be dead.
Any notion that today's young people will become less tolerant as they age is highly dubious. After growing up alongside openly gay friends, relatives, and acquaintances, Americans under 30 simply get it. They understand that homosexuality is a normal part of life, that a small percentage of people are naturally sexually attracted primarily to members of their own sex. The thought of denying such people the right to marry those they love doesn't make sense to most young people - and it never will.
Even though marriage equality will likely come to all 50 states in the next 30 years, people today cannot afford to be complacent in the struggle to make that happen. It's not for the sake of the young that progressives must work to end discrimination against gays and lesbians, but for the sake of the old. Most Americans now under 30 will still be alive in 30 years. But most of those currently over 60 will not be.
Loving couples such as Martin and Lyon don't deserve to suffer because too many of their peers are unable to overcome their traditional prejudices. That's why granting legal recognition to ga marriages all across America is driven by what a certain 47-year-old presidential candidate calls the fierce urgency of now. Elderly gays and lesbians have done the hard work of creating a society in which people are accepted for who they are. Those fortunate enough to come of age in that society owe it to them to finish the job.