Fifteen years ago, I came out to my mother in a shadowy corner booth at a Ruby Tuesday’s. Not entirely the most romantic location for a history-making personal conversation, but it was strategic: my mom loved their soup, and I figured that if I was about to throw her life a seemingly big curve ball, she might as well face it with a big bowl of broccoli cheddar.
Amidst the kitschy wall decorations for “American Graffiti” and the picked-over salad bar with its greens and pasta salad and vat of chocolate pudding (who doesn't love salad bar chocolate pudding?), I said three words that made it all very official: “Mom, I’m gay.”
Of the million ways for my mom to respond to that statement, from anger to fear to joy to apathy, what I got that night was a mix of relief coupled with sadness.
“It’s going to be okay, Mike,” she said. “If anything, I’m just a little sad that I won’t be able to see you get married or go to your wedding.”
Seven Britney Spears albums and eleven seasons of Family Guy later, the ground underneath the LGBT rights movement is almost in a different universe. We’ve gone from zero states recognizing marriage equality to 12 (plus the District of Columbia). We’ve seen openly LGBT public officials become members of the Senate, serve in senior positions at the White House, and even host the Oscars. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual women and men can serve openly in the U.S. Armed Services. And gay kids will soon be able to serve in the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that for decades has been synonymous with conservative family values.
All this progress in such a concentrated period of time. And now we’re at another breakthrough moment, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to weigh in with two monumental rulings on marriage equality that could very well become two of the most iconic rulings of Chief Justice John Roberts’ Court. One will rule on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and the other will assess whether California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, is constitutional.
While these two Supreme Court cases are groundbreaking, here’s what they are not: the final stop on the road to equality. Whatever the Supreme Court decides – whether to overturn DOMA and/or to make marriage legal in California or beyond – the reality facing LGBT Americans the day after the ruling will still be separate and unequal in many ways.
We know we've reached a tipping point in the U.S. in terms of public opinion on marriage equality. Millennials in large part have been the deciding factor in helping usher in a new reality where the majority of Americans support the freedom to marry. There will be no turning back.
But will the passionate support for marriage equality carry over to other obstacles on the road to full equality? In 29 states, you can still be fired for being gay (it’s 34 if you’re transgender). Scores of companies, from beloved brands like Trader Joe’s to mammoth corporate giants like Exxon-Mobil, still don’t offer partner benefits for LGBT employees. Students like Danielle Powell, who you might have seen getting engaged at a Macklemore concert, will still face bullying from school administrators just for being gay.
Assuming the news out of the Supreme Court pushes us forward and not backward, that might just be the test we face. How can we leverage significant progress to take us further down the path toward ending workplace discrimination and bullying, and not lull us into a place where we turn off the urgency of achieving full equality?
There is, of course, another significant layer to these marriage equality cases that will be incredibly hard to measure, but which could have a profound cultural impact that reverberates through history.
As the gay son of a mom who was once heartbroken that she wouldn’t see me get married, the news coming out of the Supreme Court is a chance to make sure that no mother or father ever has to think again, "My child won’t be allowed to have this."
And I can promise y'all that if and when I get married, I'll aim higher than a chain restaurant to cater the food. (But don't worry, mom: there'll be a special bowl of soup at your table.)
Michael Jones is a U.S. Campaign Director at Change.org and a writer and comedy storyteller in Boston.