If someone told me 10 years ago the gay-rights movement would face a fight over baked goods, I would have laughed at them.
As someone who has fought for LGBT equality for the past dozen years, I have seen and heard some of the ugliest, most disgraceful acts of hatred committed against people simply because of who they are, or who they love.
I’ve heard firsthand accounts of people who have been beaten in the streets, fired from their jobs, turned away from emergency medical care, denied a legal relationship with their own child, refused the chance to say goodbye to their dying partner of 50 years. They’ve been made to feel low, shameful, and less than human—all because they liked girls instead of boys or boys instead of girls, or their gender identity didn’t match the one they were assigned at birth.
We’ve come a long way since the days when being gay meant a life of complete and utter rejection and social isolation. We can wave rainbow flags and see ourselves represented on television. We can even get married in all 50 states.
We are increasingly seen as human beings with parents and babies and jobs and retirement savings and vacation plans and plaque-fighting toothpaste and all of the hopes and dreams and normalcies as everyone else.
Except we’re not the same.
When we’re denied services related to our weddings, we don’t have full marriage recognition. Being told by the government clerk to go to the next town over to obtain our marriage licenses because she won’t issue them to same-sex couples means we don’t have full marriage equality. Being told by a public-serving business, including a wedding venue, a baker, or a florist, that they won’t provide services for weddings of same-sex couples is another form of marriage discrimination, where same-sex couples continue to get singled out for discrimination.
If someone told me 10 years ago the gay-rights movement would be fighting over the right to get wedding cakes, I would have laughed because the right to marry seemed so far away. Now it is here. The cakes may sound trivial, but the freedom to marry is anything but. And that freedom isn’t fully realized until we can obtain marriage licenses like everyone else. It isn’t real until we can walk into any business that serves the public with confidence that we won’t face the humiliation and stigma of being turned away simply because of who we are.
We need the law on our side. We need the public to understand that while there may be other bakeries that would be willing to serve, fear of discrimination shouldn’t be one of the ingredients you have to consider when you choose your wedding cake. The psychological and societal damage that is done when you are denied service that everyone else is free to access—simply because of who you are—is significant. We’ve said time and again throughout history that we are not a country that condones hate and intolerance, especially against those groups that are marginalized. This no different.
The moments of societal rejection from clerks and businesses are part of the constellation of discrimination that continues to pervade our society. The baker who denies the gay couple their wedding cake. The florist who claims she can’t provide flowers for a lesbian marriage. The doctor who turns away a baby with two moms. The emergency room nurse who refuses to treat a transgender person. They all boil down to the same equation: singling someone out because of who they are and denying them service that you would offer to everyone else. In other words, discrimination—pure and simple.
Of course, business owners, just like everyone else in America, have religious freedom; they are free to believe whatever they want, and act on those beliefs. The Constitution always has and always will protect that right. What they cannot do is impose those beliefs on others or use religion to break the law and harm others.
Core religious institutions, on the other hand, remain free to operate according to their religious beliefs. Priests or ministers do not have to marry same-sex couples, just as they don’t have to marry previously divorced people if it violates the teachings of their faith. Churches do not have to host any religious marriages to which they object, including marriages of gay couples. The Constitution rightly protects their religious freedom.
But we are now seeing government officials and business owners asserting the right to refuse to follow the law based on their beliefs. That’s not religious freedom, that’s discrimination—and we should not accept it.
LGBT people are not yet treated the same under the law and in our everyday lives. Many of us are still fired from our jobs for being LGBT, and we lack express protections against such discrimination in nearly two-thirds of the states and at the federal level. Landlords still refuse to rent apartments to gay or transgender people, yet we have little recourse in many states. And a couple filled with elation that they can finally realize the same legal rights as their opposite-sex counterparts can walk into a bakery to order their wedding cake and be told, “We don’t serve your kind here.”
The fact remains that we’re not there yet.
Until the laws catch up and protect us, and the fear dwindles into nothing more than a footnote in a history book, we’ll have our work cut out for us.