By Amy Cotton, NCJW senior policy manager
In April, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, a case which could change civil rights history. The justices could agree to grant equal access to marriage to all loving, committed couples, regardless of each partner’s gender or identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). I was honored to speak on behalf of NCJW to the hundreds rallying for equality near the Court steps, and I had four thrilling and terrifying minutes to deliver my message.
Taking a deep breath, and with my partner by my side, I spoke of being shocked by Matthew Shepherd’s murder when I was a high school freshman. While he was brutally killed in Laramie, Wyoming — 500 miles from where I lived in Omaha, Nebraska — it felt like next door. Shortly thereafter, the tragic death of Brandon Teena, a young transgender man from Lincoln, Nebraska, was depicted in the movie Boys Don’t Cry. The final punch in the gut moment was when Nebraska voters approved a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage across the state.
Taken together, these events clearly communicated that LGBT individuals and families didn’t have rights worth protecting. They resonated with me as a Jew, whose cultural history illustrated discrimination taken to its worst possible extreme. As with the 6 million Jews and 7 million others whose lives were cut short during the Holocaust, I was aghast that Matthew and Brandon were killed just for being who they were. These messages had a chilling effect on my journey discovering and accepting that I could fall in love with a woman.
But I was lucky to have many adults around me who took a stand against these injustices. Individuals who, like so many NCJW leaders do in their communities today, encourage younger leaders to channel their passion for justice into creating social change. The folks who volunteered long days to teach teens a social justice leadership curriculum; the guidance counselors who agreed to advise the Gay Straight Alliance I established; and local artists who used drama to empower LGBT and ally youth to share their stories were critical in nurturing my strength. From volunteers who mobilized voters against Nebraska’s ban on same-sex marriage, to my parents who, despite political differences, both stood up for my efforts to create a safe space for all students — they were critical in fueling my hope.
Further, despite conservatives who would have you believe that people of faith stand universally opposed to LGBT equality, many religious people in my life prove them wrong. My Catholic best friend knew just the right thing to say when I came out. My hometown rabbi lovingly offered to officiate my wedding to whomever I chose to marry. Like millions of people of faith across the country, they delivered a message that affirmed my humanity. Like so many other diverse clergy and lay people in every community, they understand that extending civil rights to LGBT people is simply about ensuring equal treatment under the law.
This must be the message delivered to today’s young people. The nine justices who sit on the US Supreme Court will make a decision impacting all aspects of our lives. It won’t just be about our right to marry who we love and access critical federal protections that marriage confers. The ruling will signal to LGBT individuals and families whether or not their lives hold just as much worth as any other in the eyes of the law. No matter the outcome of this case, we must keep speaking out, mobilizing our neighbors, and welcoming rising leaders in our quest to achieve fair treatment for all.
Click here to watch Amy Cotton, Senior Policy Manager, speak on behalf of NCJW at the Supreme Court rally for marriage equality. Below are Amy’s remarks as prepared for the rally held April 28.
“My name is Amy Cotton and I’m Senior Policy Manager at the National Council of Jewish Women. This is what a queer, Jewish woman looks like!
My family moved to Omaha, Nebraska when I was 11. In my freshman year of high school, Matthew Shepherd was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, 500 miles from where I lived. Then, the movie Boys Don’t Cry hit theaters, about Brandon Teena, a trans man from Lincoln, Nebraska — also murdered. And in my sophomore year, Nebraska voters approved a ban against same sex marriage — a ban which still stands today. A ban that tells LGBT people our lives aren’t valued; our rights aren’t worth protecting.
These were the messages I received growing up in the Midwest. But come June, we are going to change that, right?!
In June, the justices inside that court will make a decision that will impact all aspects of our lives. The question at stake may be about our basic right to marry who we love. But the ruling will go far beyond the issue of marriage. It will be the message we send to today’s high school students about the value and worth of their lives.
The court must advance marriage equality because it’s not OK for queer students to be bullied at school. It’s not OK for LGBT people to be fired because of who we are. It’s not OK for our transgender brothers and sisters of color to be killed in the street.
The court must advance marriage equality so today’s young people hear that their lives are worthy of fair treatment! And for the next generation, the children I hope to have someday with the woman I love and hope to marry? Our children must – from day one – know that in the eyes of the law, our family is as equal, as protected as anyone else’s’.
Even AFTER we WIN in June, some in the faith community will still try to use religion to discriminate. But millions more people of faith across this country believe in equality. If you’re one of them here today – let me hear you!
Jews believe in the principle of b’tselem Elohim: that we are all created in the image of God. We are all of equal worth. We all deserve fair treatment under the law.
Jews are also called to fight for tzedek, or justice – justice for all. And we will not stop fighting until LGBT, queer, or questioning young people in Omaha, and across the country, have NO need to question their worth in this world. This June’s headlines WILL send them a clear message: the US Constitution means exactly what it says. Everyone deserves equal treatment. Everyone has a right to pursue happiness. Everyone counts.
And by speaking out, pushing for progress together, we WILL achieve justice! Thank you.”