Editors' Note: Guest blogger Stephen I. Cohen is a Member of the House of Representatives for Tennessee's 9th District, roughly encompassing the City of Memphis. He serves on the Judiciary and Transportation committees where he is a fierce campaigner for civil liberties and human rights. Rep Cohen resides in Memphis with his cats and an enviable record collection.
Memphis is not the city that springs to mind when one thinks of gay rights. Blues, maybe, but gay rights are enshrined in places like Christopher Street and San Francisco. Memphis conjures up Martin Luther King Jr., striking sanitation workers, Elvis, Jim Crow, and blues. In my decades of crusading for civil rights, I never intended to join the front lines of the LGBT movement. I never meant to pick that fight. The weight of Memphis' history made fighting for racial equality a natural road to take, one that I have traveled over the years with pride. That road has led me many places, some familiar, some not so, but foremost it has led me to understand that basic human freedoms, those things taken for granted by most Americans, cannot be afforded only to a specific class of person.
I have always believed that a right recognized by a people must be extended to all people. No one can be a second-class citizen, or we are all bound to be such by living in a second-class society. America is not, nor do I believe that it will ever be, such a society, and as such it is imperative and inevitable that we will recognize the fundamental truth that all people are entitled to the same basic freedoms. To do less would be to chart for these United States, a course toward being something completely different than the entire weight of our history has destined for us.
American history is a study in the expansion of human freedoms. What began as equality for white, male landowners has over these centuries blossomed into a guarantee of civil rights for the poor, for women, for all races, creeds, and colors. It is the natural progression of this great expansion of freedom that equal rights now, without any further delay, are extended to the LGBT community.
During my tenure in the Tennessee state legislature I believed this so firmly that I led the fight where no one else would. Those years were lonely, but we won some victories. The placement of the words "sexual orientation" alongside "race" and "gender" into several major anti-discrimination statutes in Tennessee are the legacy of those long, lonely years as a voice in the wilderness. Now that my willingness to stand on principle rather than poll numbers has led me to Congress, I find myself much less lonely but no less driven to fight for change.
I have fought for ENDA and for the Hate Crimes Bill. I got state funds for a sensible HIV/AIDS policy in Tennessee, and I have continued that fight in Congress. The fact that these issues are not yet resolved saddens me, but it gives me a purpose. This American experiment is not yet complete. There are those who are still excluded from full participation in society. There are still poor. There are still marginalized people. There is still a fight that needs champions.
As a member of the House Judiciary Committee championing civil liberties legislation is part of my purview. Judiciary has never been a popular committee for freshman legislators. It provides few if any opportunities to bring money or jobs home to the district. Victories won on it may translate into justice, but justice doesn't win elections as readily as federal grant money and government contracts. However, from my first day running for Congress I aspired to serve on Judiciary. My reason was simple. Federal dollars may make people vote for me in the next election, but the next election is hardly my primary concern. The next generation is of significantly more import.
My vision for that generation is one of fully recognized freedoms for all individuals living in a nation where government helps those less fortunate to be a part of our great society. My vision is of one People, one Nation, one America. "E Pluribus Unum" is not merely some trademark stamped on the Great Seal as part of some American branding scheme. It is a vision of our world. It is a call to unity. It is, in and of itself, a sacred purpose.
As a society we do not gain the right to call ourselves unified or just if we are not. Just being American does prove us great and good. It is those things that Americans have done that has made America so, and America will continue to be great, to be good by continuing to expand civil liberties for all, by embracing all walks of life into one society, into one America.