This past week at City Hall in Newton, Massachusetts, there was a flag-raising ceremony on the front lawn to commemorate ten years of gay marriage here in the commonwealth. Speakers included Ellen Wade and Maureen Brodoff, who were among the handful of same-sex couples who wed on the very day it became legal in May of 2004. With June being Gay Pride Month, the flag hoisted at the conclusion of the event was striped not in red and white, but in the six colors of the rainbow.
Another speaker, noting that this year marks the first such appearance of the gay pride flag on the City Hall grounds, dryly recalled the moment a few months back when such an idea was proposed, and someone else in the room piped in, “You mean we don’t do that already?”
Yup, even in über-liberal Newton—the highly-affluent city immediately west of Boston—no one had thought to fly the unofficial symbol of all things gay until now. Even though City Hall itself was the site of Wade’s and Brodoff’s wedding. Even though neighboring Boston has done so for years. Even though Newton, flag or not, has long been about as gay-friendly as a medium-sized metropolis can possibly be, even by New England standards.
For all this, the notion of formally flaunting the city’s inclusiveness with a rainbow banner had somehow gotten lost in the shuffle—even though such an act, as this speaker put it, is “something you’d just expect us to do.”
Obviously, on the menu of demands by the gay rights movement, the securing of a rainbow flag on government grounds is extremely small potatoes. The flag is but a symbol, and its presence is thereby strictly symbolic.
However, we would do well to take the point about what is “expected” of the government by the people, and how things that come to be taken for granted did not magically appear overnight.
Quite to the contrary. The gap between what our representatives ought to accomplish and what they actually accomplish is often so great as to warrant outrage and despair, and the realization that even the would-be no-brainers of public policy require real effort and perseverance is enough to eviscerate one’s faith in the whole concept of working for the public good.
That Alabama took until 2000 to officially remove its anti-miscegenation laws from the books. That the U.S. Congress did not truly enforce the fundamental right to vote, as guaranteed by the 15th Amendment, until 1965. That the Department of Veterans Affairs has been so slow to computerize its files that a floor of one VA office nearly buckled under the weight of all the paperwork.
These are not shining examples of American ingenuity at work. Indeed, they are embarrassments. And we are entitled to ask, how could these problems possibly have gone unfixed for as long as they did? What was everyone thinking? Indeed, were they thinking anything at all?
But that’s all in the past, and thus only confronts half of the question. The other half concerns the present and the future, and all the supposedly obvious things that we, the people, have yet to get done on our own behalf.
As observed by yet another speaker at the shindig in Newton, for all the legal protections now afforded gays and lesbians, the rights for transgender people are miles behind. As of now, 16 states and the District of Columbia explicitly prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity. This means that if you live in one of the remaining 34 states, you can lose your job for no reason except that you were born male and now consider yourself female (or vice versa), and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Soon enough this will change, either through passage of the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act or, like gay marriage, through continued and exhaustive advocacy on a state-by-state basis. In any case, these basic legal protections, when they come, will elicit nothing so much as a shrug and the query, “Those laws didn’t exist already?”
The takeaway message in all of this—particularly unfortunate to preternaturally lazy folks like me—is never to assume that someone else will come up with all the good ideas. It just may be up to you.
This, in turn, underlines both the power and importance of imagination when doing the people’s business. The need, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, to “dream things that never were and […] say, ‘Why not?’”
Not everything is as easy as flying a flag.