Charlie Craig, one of the men that Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Colorado bakery, turned away because they are gay, said something about shopping for a wedding cake that stuck with me: “That day,” he said, “I really let my guard down.”
I knew exactly what Craig meant. Not just because he’s my client but because I keep my guard up most days, too — just like nearly every LGBT person I know.
Craig grew up in Wyoming and went to college in Laramie, the town where Matthew Shepard, a gay man, lived when he was killed. I grew up in a progressive New York City neighborhood. Those two places were worlds apart, yet Craig and I had something in common. I was 8 when I realized I was attracted to women. I didn’t have the vocabulary yet to name those feelings. What I did have was a sharp, painful sense that my feelings were wrong and had to be hidden.
That was 1989. I couldn’t have imagined that by 2015, the Supreme Court would rule that same-sex couples have the same freedom to marry as everyone else or that I’d be an LGBT rights lawyer. Those advances were simply unthinkable. But some things haven’t changed: While I’m out as a professional, in my day-to-day life it often remains possible — and feels safer — to stay hidden.
My spouse and I sometimes commute together. Do we kiss goodbye on a crowded subway car, risking a negative comment — or worse? Or do we wave goodbye as if we are just friends who happened to run into each other on the way? Some days involve just one or two decision points such as this, but other days require many, many more. I pick up two coffees, and a friendly barista asks which is for me and which is for my presumed husband. When I’m out with our kids, fellow parents refer in passing to their imagined dad. Is it really necessary to correct all of these people, I wonder? If I don’t, what will my children think of my casually erasing our family? And each time I let faulty assumptions slide, am I making them more likely the next time?
These calculations — weighing the risk of censure or even violence against the personal and political costs of invisibility — happen in a split second. But they exact a toll — a mental burden that can’t be quantified.
Of course, I’m privileged even to have invisibility as an option. As a woman of color, I can’t hide my gender or my race. But I can conceal my sexual orientation, at least sometimes. The ability to stay out of sight can mean the ability to stay safe, and many in our community don’t have a choice about whether to be out. That’s partly why LGBT people, particularly transgender women of color, experience disproportionate rates of violence and murder. Juxtaposed against this gruesome reality, life in my Brooklyn enclave feels fortunate indeed.
Yet I can’t help but think the two are related. We stay hidden because when we don’t — or can’t — we know there may be consequences, ranging from a disapproving look to being denied service, fired from a job, followed, harassed or even arrested.
Planning a wedding is one of those times we can’t hide who we are. Craig said that, before being turned away, it didn’t even occur to him to disclose that he and David Mullins were a same-sex couple. When I was planning my wedding, which coincidentally took place just a few weeks after Mullins and Craig’s, I took the opposite approach. Every email to a potential vendor worked in a casual but deliberate mention of my same-sex fiancee. I figured that if a vendor had a problem with that, I’d rather find out via a screen than face to face. Fortunately, no one did. But every transaction — shopping for a dress, registering for gifts, choosing flowers, checking into our honeymoon hotel — was a reminder that they might.
This is part of what I think about as we wait for the Supreme Court to decide whether Masterpiece Cakeshop has a constitutional right to hang a sign in its storefront essentially saying, “Your kind not served here.” Laws against discrimination can’t protect us from violence, but they can protect us from going about our daily lives in fear of being turned away from stores, banks and hotels simply because of who we are. I hope Craig will know that freedom.
Ria Tabacco Mar is counsel of record for Charlie Craig and David Mullins in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
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