Justice and equality for all

The ideal on which the US is built – that all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – is hard to resist

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Twenty years ago, same-sex marriage was a long way from the mainstream. Traditionalists regarded it as outlandish; liberals saw it as a distant dream. Andrew Sullivan, the British blogger who had moved to the United States and was arguing for it, found that even most gay rights activists disdained him. Why, they argued, would lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people want to adopt a “conservative” institution such as marriage?

Even 10 years ago, when civil partnerships were enacted in British law, and the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and the liberal state of Massachusetts had legalised same-sex marriage, most people did not see the point. In Britain, the legal differences in status had been more or less eliminated by the Civil Partnership Act 2004, and that was widely seen as the end of the matter. In America, the question had become locked into the culture wars of right and left, and even in 2008 the “liberal” Barack Obama  opposed same-sex marriage.

But then the dam started to crumble surprisingly quickly. Public opinion in Britain and the US underwent one of those big changes, as it had done on divorce, capital punishment (in Britain anyway), abortion and legalising homosexuality. As a liberal Conservative prime minister, David Cameron overcame strongly felt opposition from a large minority of his own party to legislate for gay marriage, an Act that came into effect last year. At a time when he was under siege from Ukip, which was mobilising socially conservative activists and voters against pragmatic Europeanism, wind turbines and gay equality, this required some bravery.

The struggle took another form in the US, because of its different constitution. Despite politicians contending over symbols of liberalism and conservatism, the question was ultimately resolved, as so many political questions there are, in the US Supreme Court. In the end, it was the way five of the nine justices of that court interpreted the 14th amendment of the constitution that decided it. That amendment, passed to guarantee equal treatment under the law for all US citizens, including former slaves after the civil war, has driven many of the country’s great steps towards social justice since 1868.

The method, however, was the same. Social progress requires a vanguard, such as Mr Sullivan, to argue the case, to mobilise campaigns and to start to change public opinion. Then it needs a different kind of leadership from those in political office. It was the decisions of state leaders in the US that created the cases which finally led to the Supreme Court ruling. Last week’s judgment started when James Obergefell petitioned to ask the state of Ohio to recognise his marriage in another state, Maryland.

The story of equal marriage should give heart to all those causes for which the argument is strong, and the opposition to which is primarily built on unfamiliarity. Last week’s decision in the richest country in the world at one end of the spectrum of gay equality may act as a beacon for LGBT people in many poorer countries struggling for legal rights. The ideal on which the US is built – that all people have the equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – is a universal principle that is hard to resist the world over.

On Friday, Mr Sullivan reactivated his blog, The Daily Dish, which had ceased publication early this year, to welcome the Supreme Court’s ruling. “I never believed this would happen in my lifetime,” he wrote, recalling the book he wrote in 1995 arguing for equal marriage. “I never, for a millisecond, thought I would live to be married myself. Or that it would be possible for everyone, everyone in America.”

But it was. Let last week’s decision give hope to all those fighting for equality and justice the world over.