I left North Carolina when I was 19 years old, bound for college in Ohio. During my sophomore year in the middle of the Midwestern cornfields, I was lucky to be selected for a prestigious summer internship program, landing me in Chicago that summer. I worked at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund – a nonprofit litigation firm tackling discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
It was the summer of 2003, and part of my work at Lambda was organizing our float for the annual Chicago Pride Parade. Since Lambda is a legal advocacy organization, I arranged a float shaped like a courtroom. Nine “justices” in black robes braved the summer heat, complete with inflatable mallets representing the law-making gavels of the Supreme Court.
Then on June 26, three days before the parade, the real Supreme Court Justices decided Lawrence v. Texas, decriminalizing consensual adult sexual activity in a private setting. As our pride float glided down the streets of the Windy City, the crowd stood still. The reactions were overwhelming: reverent applause, silent admiration, tears of appreciation. Just three days prior, we had been at risk of criminal sanction in 13 states.
From Lambda Legal’s float, a 22- year-old North Carolinian saw thousands of people who, for the first time, could say anywhere in the United States of America: “I am not an outlaw.”
I immediately looked at how this decision affected my own life. I discovered that, unknowingly, I had violated a law in my home state. I simultaneously felt the shame of criminal sanction while celebrating the removal of that sanction. More importantly, I realized that I would be an activist for life.
Now, 10 years later, I am working for an international organization based in Brussels. At IGLYO (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer Youth and Student Organisation), I represent the needs and interests of LGBTQ young people in Europe. This summer, I was invited to participate in Baltic Pride in Vilnius, Lithuania. I marched in the second ever Pride there. The police protection outnumbered the marchers, and the counter-protesters outnumbered the police.
I marched by skinheads with homophobic signs calling for my death, past old women shouting at the top of their lungs about the decay of society, and past children silently standing with two thumbs turned down. I also marched past families clapping in support, marched with hundreds of gay and lesbian Lithuanians celebrating their identity, and marched next to a young Lithuanian man who could not get any of his friends to come to the parade – but he marched anyway.
Right now, I’m back in North Carolina, visiting family and friends. I don’t walk past people who spit at me or throw eggs. The southern form of homophobia is much more subtle.
Last year, North Carolina passed one of the most far-reaching, discriminatory marriage amendments in the United States. The amendment was an unnecessary legal measure; there was already a state law in place banning same-sex marriage. The outcome of the referendum was disappointing, but not surprising.
Of course, North Carolina is not the only place with legislation of this kind. In Russia, laws have been passed banning so-called “gay propaganda.” These vague and imprecise laws make it illegal merely to exist as a gay person, and enthusiasm for these laws is spreading west in countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and Lithuania. International attention is on the Russian situation, as the laws have sparked violence to escalate against lesbian, gay and transgender people.
It is not difficult to see how legal stigma justifies bigoted behavior. And it is also not difficult to see how the homophobic laws in Russia come from the same place as the unnecessary and extreme marriage amendment in North Carolina. Denying a class of citizens access to a civil institution is nothing less than discrimination, no more and no less than denying a class of citizens the right to freedom of expression and assembly.
North Carolinians have not resorted to violence; that does not mean that this amendment comes from a place any less hurtful.
This weekend Charlotte Pride will host annual festivities that have taken place since the 1970s. Charlotte Pride 2013 marks a historic day: on Sunday, the first gay pride parade since 1994 will take place uptown.
It has been 10 years since the Supreme Court declared that lesbian and gay people cannot be sanctioned criminals for private, consensual activity. In those 10 years, 13 states and the District of Columbia have recognized the right of gay and lesbian people not to be treated as second-class citizens by recognizing marriage equality. North Carolina has done all it can to entrench discrimination as deeply as possible in its law.
Having been away more than 10 years, and having lived in Europe for five of those years, I am proud to call myself a North Carolinian wherever I am. I am also proud to be a gay man. I hope that one day, those prides won’t exist in the tension that they do now. I hope that soon, I can be proud of all North Carolinians for how they treat all people with dignity, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Jordan Long was raised in Matthews. He is a 2001 Providence Day School graduate. He received his JD from the University of Michigan Law School. In 2010, he received a Fulbright research grant from the U.S. State Department.
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