Camilla Taylor, Lambda Legal Marriage Project director and legal counsel in the current lawsuit for marriage equality in Illinois, says there are more, far-reaching benefits from achieving marriage equality than the tangible benefits of legal marriage. Benefits, she adds, that could potentially alter the conversation around LGBT rights.
Taylor was lead counsel in Lambda Legal’s landmark Iowa marriage lawsuit, Varnum v. Brien, which resulted in the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to strike down the state’s same-sex marriage ban, making it the third state in the country to allow marriage equality. She was promoted to Lambda’s national marriage project director on the ruling’s two year anniversary in April 2011.
Now, Taylor has brought the legal challenge for marriage equality to Illinois in one of two lawsuits filed simultaneously by Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Illinois, which were recently combined into a single suit to be heard in court this Fall. Last week, Taylor was awarded for her efforts and high profile successes with the 2012 American Constitution Society Ruth Goldman Award, honoring women in the Chicago legal community, who have made specific contributions that advance women in the legal profession.
Taylor describes a holistic approach to equality as well as her passionate focus on marriage as it is rooted in the fact that the concerted opposition is based in a fear of what equality represents, not the specifics of the legal standing of marriage equality itself.
“If we achieve equality with respect to marriage, it’s an acknowledgment that the previous discrimination was shameful and a national embarrassment,” Taylor said. “They have a certain investment in not having to feel that way.”
There is a distinction to be made between the extremest opposition to marriage equality and the people who have not yet had the chance to think about the issue, she said. Taylor has had a keen focus on the legal conversation around LGBT rights since she arrived at Lambda Legal in 2002 right before the United States Supreme Court decided the landmark federal sodomy ban case, Lawrence v. Texas.
At that time, Taylor recalled the preparation for case consuming the office, while she worked on a consensual sodomy case in Missouri. When the SCOTUS ruling came through, her case disappeared along with all of the anti-sodomy laws in the country.
“Lawrence really changed the landscape nationally,” she said. “Once gay people were not presumptive criminals simply by identifying themselves as gay or lesbian, it became possible to advocate for all sorts of protections and for affirmative respect.”
For someone who originally came into the area of civil rights in a very different climate, the pace at which change is happening is flooring, she said.
“When I started here I remember someone asking me in my job interview, ‘We lose a lot. How do you pick yourself up and move on after you faced a really biased ruling and an unfair loss? Is this something that you feel constitutionally capable of?’”
“We haven’t lost as much,” Taylor said with a smile, while knocking on the table. “We’ve had some losses, but few relative to the successes we’ve had. There are some things we could never have conceived on 10 years ago.”
Recent progress encourages Taylor to keep up the fight in the legal arena, especially seeing as how these bigger cases pave the way to winning more rights and protections for all LGBT people.
“We have a number of cases, also, that concern relationship recognition but not actively seeking marriage necessarily,” she said. “But trying to prevent discriminatory consequences from constitutional amendments and other anti gay laws that were passed to try and exclude people from marriage.”
In 2005, when the suit was filed to challenge Iowa’s same-sex marriage ban, the state had no laws preventing workplace discrimination, preventing housing discrimination and no anti-bulling laws.
“All of these came after we sought marriage and one of the reasons I think our marriage work is relevant even to people who have no interest in marriage,” she said.
In this sense, it is the casual way in which people are denied rights that is at issue, not the specific institutions that get so much political play in the media.
“The exclusion from marriage operates to tell people they are inferior,” said Taylor, who grew up admiring the giants of civil rights and is aware of the impact beyond the technical intricacies — something that drives her forward as a parent herself. “When you remove them from marriage and force them into an alternative institution, children grow up with the understanding that there is something unworthy about them and about their families.”
In the cases of Brown v. Board of Education and Sweatt v. Painter, the courts explicitly acknowledged that children feel systematic inequality and exclusion form institutions in their hearts and minds — a series of cases and a struggle Taylor greatly admires.
“I think that’s what that case is about even more than the tangible things, it’s about our expression as a society to a group of people that they are intrinsically worth less,” she said.
While marriage itself is certainly a major concern for Taylor for reasons beyond its immediate impact, she made the point of mentioning that, in fact, the cases handled are extremely varied despite the political rhetoric centering around marriage. Those cases include free speech in schools, creation of Gay Straight Alliances, employment protections for transgender individuals and birth certificate parentage cases to name a few. These cases often concern the implicit way in which LGBT people are treated and dehumanized.
The disparity is so blatant for Taylor is so many of these cases.
“For a heterosexual couple, the state never questions whether the husband is the genetic father, the husband is always on the birth certificate, she said. “A vital record like that affects legal parentage and not biology.”
In the case of a student who wore a shirt that read “Jesus was not a homophobe” and was told that it was too sexual in nature, Taylor is concerned with the casual way sexual orientation is hyper-sexualized only in non-heterosexuals and the implications this has for freedom of expression.
What is even more encouraging for Taylor is the surprising places the LGBT community is seeing victories. Such is the case with a recent 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals victory, where a Georgia woman won a transgender employment discrimination case. However, in many ways, the powerful rhetoric of marriage that overshadows these other victories can be a blessing and a curse when it comes to resources.
For example, Lambda Legal’s budget is $11 million, but the Alliance Defense Fund, a well-funded, anti-equality group, has a budget of $30 million and has recently received a special grant of $20 million to fight non-discrimination policies in public universities.
“That gives you a sense of how well-funded the opposition is,” Taylor said, and went on to mention the fallout in Iowa after achieving marriage victory. “In 2009, The American Family Association and National Organization for Marriage, two separate organizations both with an awful lot of money, poured $1 million into Iowa from out of state in order to unseat those justices in the retention election.”
“We as a community have been out gunned,” she said.
Taylor, though, is appreciative of the changes that have occurred from when she started at Lambda Legal on its shoe string budget. Even in the face of the growing funding disparity, Taylor feels hopeful for real systemic changes to come, not just to marriage, but for the development of a national conversation for all of the country.
“What I’m talking about when I say our opponents are really invested — what I mean are these radical groups that I think have had a disproportionate impact so far on our ability to make progress,” said Taylor, who puts the most emphasis on fair an open conversation to change people’s minds. “I mean, there are many, many people who have not made up their minds, broad swaths of the country that haven’t had to consider [marriage equality].”
In the end, marriage has become a symbol but in many ways it is important to remember just that, as Taylor is quick to point out.
“The push for marriage is not the same in every place, nor is it an attempt to occupy the field of gay rights work, but it’s in many ways helpful to push a conversation along,” she said.