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Capehart: LBJ’s legacy for gay rights
First Published Apr 13 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Apr 13 2014 01:01 am

In his speech Thursday commemorating the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Barack Obama talked about the enduring power of one of President Lyndon Johnson’s signature accomplishments.

"Because of the civil rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody, not all at once, but they swung open. Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos and Asians and Native Americans and gay Americans and Americans with a disability."

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This isn’t the first time Obama has linked the push for civil rights by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans to the movement that made the 1964 law a reality. At his second inaugural, the president put under the same historic umbrella the Selma marches for African American equality and the Stonewall riots that ushered in the modern LGBT rights movement.

And in a February speech, Attorney General Eric Holder noted: "Just as our forebears came together to overcome tremendous adversity - and to forge the more just and more equal societies in which we now live - so, too, must the current generation rise to the causes that have become the struggles of our day; the defining civil rights challenges of our time. I believe one of these struggles is the fight for equality for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender - or LGBT - citizens."

Meanwhile, federal judges across the country have ruled that state bans on marriage equality violate the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. On Thursday, a federal judge in Indiana ruled that the marriage of a lesbian couple wed in Massachusetts last year must be recognized by the Hoosier State immediately.

Knowing all this, it is easy to forget that not so long ago our federal government casually dismissed the concerns of LGBT Americans, if it acknowledged them at all. Consider this passage from a June 9, 1965, letter to Frank Kameny, a founding father of the LGBT civil rights movement, from Vice President Hubert Humphrey: "Neither the Federal Executive Orders on fair employment nor the Civil Rights Act which constitute the authority for this program of non-discrimination are relevant to the problems of homosexuals."

Time would change views on gay rights. Slowly, at first, and then with a speed in recent years that has amazed proponents and opponents of LGBT equality alike.

As Obama said Thursday, "The laws LBJ passed are now as fundamental to our conception of ourselves and our democracy as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are foundational, an essential piece of the American character. . . . Our rights, our freedoms - they are not given. They must be won. They must be nurtured through struggle and discipline and persistence and faith."

From Kameny’s persistence in the face of official rejection in 1965 to those same-sex couples pushing for marriage equality today, LGBT Americans are fighting to win. Marriage equality and the fairness that would flow from it nationwide are coming. It’s just a matter of when.

Johnathan Capehart is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.


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