Five Minutes With
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton is a force of nature. In her youth she was an organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement. She received her undergraduate degree from Antioch College, a master's from Yale University, and a law degree from Yale Law School. She served as a lawyer on the infamous 1970 Newsweek sex discrimination case, and President Jimmy Carter appointed Norton to be the first woman to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There she worked to advance the status of women in the workplace. Since 1991, she’s served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Washington, D.C., fighting tirelessly for, among other things, D.C. voting rights in Congress.
A longtime supporter of LGBT rights who worked hard to finally bring same-sex marriage to the district, Norton recently spoke at a Campus Progress-sponsored event at Howard University entitled Legalized Gay: A Dialogue on Race, Faith, and Marriage Equality. Norton stressed the importance of young people in the fight for LGBT rights and the need for people of color to use their experiences to empathize with other oppressed people.
You have been involved in many liberation movements over the years, from civil rights to women’s rights. How do you understand the fight for marriage equality and LGBT rights in the larger historical context?
Well there have been great movements—at least in the 20th century—the 20th century was more about great movements: the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s rights movement. They all began as hated minorities; they all triumphed by winning over the country. It was a struggle. The GBLT community needs to understand that everything in this world is a struggle; that white ethnic groups who came to this country had to win their way into the country. You know, “No Irish Need Apply.” You can just find the ethnic group, you’ll find the epithet. So that encourages me to be optimistic. Along with the gorgeous statistics that show rapid generational acceptance for equality for the GBLT community in every respect, now even including marriage.
There is a history of collaboration on civil rights and social justice issues with the faith community. Do you see a future for this kind of collaboration again when it comes to gay rights?
Well frankly I would be more critical than complimentary of the faith community. I think particularly for Christians, who have a strong doctrine that should enable them to embrace the GBLT community, there should be greater leadership. The Episcopal Church has done well. Some of the churches are beginning to do well. But the church has not had the functional equivalent of the black church in the civil rights movement, which led the way. And indeed, the black church has needed to be pulled along. Some of them are more out front, but far too few of them, because doctrinally some of them have lagged behind. Even if you do lag behind, there’s no reason not to embrace the GBLT community. We’ve had a hard enough time getting them to do that, much less marriage. But if it is in their doctrine that there is freedom of religion, then that doesn’t have anything to do with who the state can marry. So it seems to me you could adhere to your own religion and allow that, in the interest of a diversity of religious views, the state could recognize people who were of the same sex in marriage.
Once D.C.'s Mayor Adrian Fenty signed the gay marriage law last December, there was a waiting period of 30 congressional days in which Congress could overturn the law. Were you afraid during that time that the bill would be overturned?
Marriage is a local matter. So I didn’t have the slightest doubt that we could withstand that. But I knew it would be a fight. It was a fight before and it’s a fight after. And it’s not been the toughest fight I’ve had to make, I’m pleased to say.
In your remarks [at the Howard event], you mentioned that young Americans embrace LGBT rights and gay marriage at much higher rates than older generations. What would you say to young people in the movement going forward?
Well I think they’re already doing it. I’m not going to give advice to young people who are already leading the way. I pointed out the statistics of young people who are already overwhelmingly in favor of gay marriage. All we have to do is follow in their footsteps.
Pema Levy is a staff writer for Campus Progress.