Marco Roberts, Class of 1986, was president of Gay Student Services, now LGBTQ Aggies, when its U.S. Supreme Court case — Gay Student Services vs. Texas A&M — was decided on April 1, 1985.
Thirty years ago from this April, I stood facing Rudder fountain on a beautiful spring day, with a microphone at my lips, talking about free speech for the student organization I led, and that for years had been denied the speech rights that came with formal university recognition. As I spoke, the news spread on campus of the Supreme Court decision that decided the fate of my organization’s future, and that of free speech at Texas A&M. Gay Student Services vs. Texas A&M University was now settled law.
In 1985, at Texas A&M there were almost no openly gay people. But, to be an officer of GSS, it was a requirement, in order to comply with the rules to which we expected we would be eventually subject under Texas A&M. For me, because of the court case, it also required being on television (the closest thing to the Internet then) quite frequently. I promise you, no one fought me for that limelight. In a campus of 38,000 people, and a metro of around 90,000, I was “the gay,” with all the consequences you might imagine that entailed. Aggies in school today might not realize just how much the campus was roiled by the controversy of GSS on campus.
Still, it may surprise you to know that while I was the leader of GSS, though I did encounter a few angry religious fundamentalists now and then, most Christians who engaged me were cordial to me in their opposition to what I stood for. And, those who treated me with the highest respect and cordiality were, if you can believe it, members of the Corps of Cadets. The really angry and strident opposition that began to cut at me almost daily, and intimidated my closest allies, came from within my own organization. The internal radical opposition was so relentless I finally offered my resignation the very day GSS first met on campus. But, something unexpected happened: Two-thirds of the membership signed a petition asking me to stay as the president of GSS, and so I did. I inadvertently led the whole group to re-assess what it really wanted. I learned two huge lessons: 1) hardliners by default have a louder voice; and 2) no one has a monopoly on virtue by virtue of who they are.
It may also surprise you to know that in the years since, I have been called by members of what is now called the GBLTQA community (just how long is that acronym going to get?) terms like “gay Nazi” and “self-loather,” and been told I am “afraid to be openly gay” (of course, by those ignorant of my background). You see, I refuse to go along with the idea that anyone who opposes gay marriage is automatically a monster, or that people should be forced from their jobs because they gave money to a legal organization that opposes gay marriage, or that mom and pop shops should be forced to participate in gay weddings or face thousands of dollars in fines or have their businesses shut down.
On this last point, it is important to keep the distinction between public accommodations, as clearly defined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, such as the proverbial lunch counter or emergency services, and those that are specific to an event or effort that directly endorse or advance a very specific cause or belief. In the former, as in renting a car or selling groceries, the rendering of a service or product requires neither knowledge of one’s beliefs nor participation in them, and they are included in the definition of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But, in the latter, services like printing flyers for the KKK, or baking a cake that says “NO Gay Marriage” for the Family Research Council, both knowledge and active advance of those beliefs is required, and are not services previously understood in law as “public accommodations.”
It is the difference between having the right to buy an existing product, and having the right to compel others to make one according to one’s wishes. Maybe it is time to expand what we mean by “public accommodations”; but if so, let’s do so with a rigorous debate, free of intimidation, so we are all clear on the long-term consequences. Unfortunately, religious conservatives are over-reacting with ill-advised new laws that actually hurt their cause in the long run (as happened in Arizona, is happening in Indiana, and is about to happen in Texas with SJR10), because their arguments are tailored to religious objections, instead of addressing the more broad-based and fundamental questions I just mentioned.
This is not about being pro or against gays. It is about the fundamental concept of the freedom of speech, the most fundamental of all political rights; and the right of each citizen to not be forced into labor that directly contradicts their own beliefs — our own opinions of those beliefs irrelevant.
I once went to a local printer to get pamphlets printed for GSS. The printer declined the job, saying their beliefs did not allow them to print them. I went to a different printer and got my pamphlets. They looked great.
Many of my GLBT compatriots tell me that those who oppose gay marriage are trying to “hurt us” and thus have “no right” to their views. Well I say that no one has a right to come into the public space and demand fundamental change to everyone’s laws without arguing their case and subjecting it to debate. That was how we advanced gay rights, and how in the last 150 years we have achieved a new ascending national consensus of what American liberty and civic equality should mean.
To this day I remember those fellow Aggies who told me personally that they totally opposed what I believed, but would stand up for my right to say it —and they did. I intend to forever return the favor.
Marco Roberts, Class of 1986