Giant step for freedom

February 21, 2014 5:52PM

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Updated: March 24, 2014 6:37AM

How do barriers to freedom fall?

Sometimes by force. It took a civil war to end slavery.

Sometimes by force of law. It took federal edicts, backed up by the National Guard, to kill Jim Crow.

And first and always by changing hearts and minds, the most effective means of all, but one that often requires physical and moral courage. We are in a happier place today — on Friday a federal judge ruled that same-sex marriages can be performed beginning immediately in Cook County — thanks to a gay rights movement that refused to be silenced or denied.

As an editorial page, we are proud of our relatively early and evolving support for gay rights. We first called for legalizing same-sex marriage on June 25, 2003. For a major Midwestern newspaper, that put us out in front.

But we know where the great credit rightly goes for this sea change in law and tolerance — to a sizable army of gay rights activists, working in the trenches for more than four decades, who frankly made it easier for the rest of us to do the right thing. They schooled us, pushed us and shamed us.

Thank you, Rick Garcia (to name just one effective activist among many) for all those insistent phone calls.

The earliest mention of “gay marriage” in a Sun-Times editorial was on Feb. 10, 1992, when we defended the University of Chicago’s refusal to give gay students’ partners the same access to campus facilities that spouses had. As for the larger issue of whether gay couples should be allowed to get married, we wrote then, let’s leave that up to the state Legislature, “where fashion can have its day.”

Fashion?

We signaled a bit more respect for the idea five weeks later when, in a March 22, 1993, editorial, we attacked a proposed law to explicitly ban same-sex marriages. That was just “gay-bashing,” we wrote, “pure and simple.”

But another three years would pass before we took a really big step toward the right side of history and fairness. In a June 6, 1996 editorial, we ripped into a proposed federal law that would allow the other 49 states to ignore same-sex marriages performed in Hawaii.

Then finally, in 2003, we got fully right on the matter, calling for the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country. A time will come, we wrote, when prohibitions against gay marriage will look as perplexingly backward as laws against women’s suffrage and interracial marriage.

Now, 11 years after that editorial, same-sex marriage is legal in Cook County and will be legal throughout the state come June 1. Were it not for the snow, we might be dancing in the streets.

But the struggle for gay rights in America has so much further to go.

Discrimination continues in the workplace and in housing. Gay boys and girls continue to be bullied. A football player’s recent announcement that he is gay has the NFL in an uproar. Thirty-three couples, including many same-sex couples, were married by Queen Latifah during the Grammy Award ceremony last month, which we found stirring, but millions of viewers were furious, which we found disheartening.

And same-sex marriage remains illegal in 33 states.

The gay rights movement will continue to transform hearts and minds, of this we have no doubt. More Americans and institutions, including media companies, will listen and learn and come around. They may even rush to the front of the line.

Only by following do we learn to lead.

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