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Shams Cohen Soul Emergence
Healing, Counseling, Mediation, Ministry
Unsticking Obstacles, Supporting Transitions, and Celebrating Rites of Passage
 


My 7 Weeks in The Chapel of Love:

by Shams Cohen Portions of this article first appeared in "Alternatives Magazine" (www.alternativesmagazine.com) and are reprinted here by permission.

The spring of 2004 has been an amazing time for gay and lesbian activists,couples, and allies, with marriage equality rising and falling throughout various states like the tides. In Multnomah County, same-sex marriage licenses were issued from March 3rd through April 19th of this year. Couples who received those licenses are now legally married under Oregon law. What follows is a history, diary style, of my own activism around this issue, the stories of many couples who chose to get married, and the state of marriage equality in Oregon as we get close to publication, with a special emphasis on why civil unions do not create equality. Please visit www.basicrights.org for ongoing updates and ways that you can help support marriage equality for all Oregonians.

October 13, 1987 In Washington DC 600 people were arrested in an act of civil disobedience at the US Supreme Court to protest the Bowers v. Hardwick decision. This decision upheld the constitutionality of States rights to arrest people for how they make love as consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes. It was the largest number to participate in an act of civil disobedience since the Vietnam War. [found and modified 4/7/04 at http://www.365gay.com/lifestylechannel/intime/months/10-october/10october.htm]

October 13, 1987 I didnt think to NOT put my hands behind my back when the officer told me to, even though I was prepared to not walk when that command came. Now my hands are cuffed behind my back by a sharp plastic tie that cuts into my wrists, and my shoulder is being painfully wrenched as the police drag my civilly disobedient limp body, along with hundreds of others, into stuffy schoolbusses that will eventually cart us all off to a large gym.. Like many of the other women, I give the name Emma Goldman, and, after a day of solidarity, fear, tears, TV interviews, and song, I am eventually released. I then find the activist ally who was holding my wallet and ID, so I can return to my normal life.

March 2nd, 2004 Late Evening I hear from a message on a friends answering machine that Multnomah County is expected to follow in San Franciscos footsteps and begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses the next day. I have never been more proud to be a Portlander.

March 3rd I check with my ordaining institution to verify everything I need to know about how to perform legal weddings. I ask a few friends who have performed legal weddings all about how its done. Looking at news coverage for the first weddings, I realise that half of the first lesbian couple to get married is a woman who mediated my lesbian divorce in 1989. And the officiant, former State Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts, was part of a trip that my Mom and I took to Hawaii in 1995. This is turning out to be quite a family affair!

March 4th, 2004 I drive by the Multnomah County Building to take in history. The line of couples waiting to get marriage licenses is long, and rainbow flags are flying. I begin to let in what I have been expecting to witness: the excitement, the freedom, the beauty of gay and lesbian couples coming out, publicly choosing each other, letting their love be witnessed, filmed, spoken, and celebrated, the incredible magnitude of what is changing in all of our lives.

An ex-lover calls up on her cell to say Guess what I am doing? Marrying people? I answer. We decide to have brunch before both performing weddings the next day. It seems somehow quintessentially lesbian to be marrying people a few wedding stations down the hall from my former fiancé!

County Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey is quoted in The Oregonian: I just want to say to gay people that you are beautiful and you belong here. And Bonnie Tinker of Love Makes a Family has a great quote on the Oregonian editorial page: It is intolerable to ask another generation to endure life as outcasts while those with privilege debate the right time for justice. The right time for justice is always now. I have been swimming in this incredible energy and crying from the love all day.

March 5th, 2004 Early Afternoon As an ordained Minister of The Rock Foundation, I stand as officiant before my first about-to-be-legally-married lesbian couple. They have been together for 10 years, and it turns out that we have a mutual friend. They have chosen me out of the 20 or more officiants at Keller Auditorium that day because I am a Sufi, because I refer to The Divine as Beloved, because they read Rumi and Hafiz, and want their love celebrated and confirmed in that atmosphere of reverent delight. I, myself, am stunned at the grace and humor of The Beloveds plan, as I astonishingly hear myself speaking the words: By the Power vested in me by the State of Oregon, the County of Multnomah, The Rock Foundation Ministry and The Love that unites us all, I hereby declare you legally spouses for life.!! I put my signature on their paperwork. I write my title: Minister. I am an agent of legalization! I marvel that this is a much more fun and comfortable way to affirm love than by being dragged off by the cops!

March 5th, 2004 Early Evening After 8 weddings at Keller, I am an old hat and completely hooked on the excitement and joy. The love is overflowing. Couples, some newly together, most already partnered for 10 years or more, come with parents and children, friends and family. I kneel between one couple and their officiant and hold up a cell phone so that Mom can listen in from afar while they speak there vows. After they are pronounced, one woman takes the phone and asks, Mom, did you here all that? and we all here Mom cheering Yay, yay!! from across the miles. Keller closes at 4PM, and I head over to the county building. I marry 4 more couples there...14 yrs together...18 yrs together... one man born in Thailand, one lesbian couple with two young boys who shoot us with water pistols. The atmosphere is still celebrational, but also confrontational. There are some protesters, maybe 6 or so after 5PM, and the allies are singing Going to the Chapel to drown out the protesters during the ceremonies. Some big-hearted young adults in classic Portland Bohemian garb, dreadlocks and baggy patched pants, show up with a beautiful, giant, heart-shaped pink-icing cake, and we all marry and eat cake outside the county building.

March 5th, End of Day County staff report that theyve issued a record number of marriage licenses for any 3-day period in history. A total of 1237 licenses have been issued since Wednesday, which far exceeds the number issued last month in San Francisco. Interestingly, this brings $75,000 in unexpected revenue to the county. Ive married 12 couples, setting my first days longevity record at 18 years.

March 7th 2004 Seattle Mayor, Greg Nickels, announces that the city will recognize the legal marriages of all city employees, including gay and lesbian employees married in SF and Multnomah County.

March 8th 2004 A Multnomah County Circuit Court judge refused to temporarily halt the countys issuing of same-sex marriage licenses, saying that opponents failed to show that there would be irreparable harm from allowing the weddings to continue.

October 10, 1987 As part of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, the Reverend Troy Perry of MCC church, along with many others, organized a mass protest and celebration of gay relationships called simply, The Wedding. The Wedding was a creative protest against the church and state's denial of the validity of homosexual relationships and the tragic and cruel treatment gay couples endured because they were not legally married. The organizers had spelled out some demands in the pre-march pamphlet: "that gay and lesbian domestic partners be entitled to the same rights and privileges as married heterosexual couples." Reports estimate between 1000 and 4000 couples were ceremonially (but not legally) married that day. [I found one couples very moving account on 4/7/04 at http://www.mountainpridemedia.org/oitm/issues/1987/11nov1987/wedding.htm ]

October 10, 1987 Im on the sidewalk in Washington DC, outside the IRS building. There are chalk hearts with arrows and names in rainbow colors drawn everywhere. There are silver balloons. The crowd is massive. The street is full of couples gazing nervously and lovingly into each others eyes. The sidewalks are packed at least 6 deep with witnesses. A woman on the stage is sharing the gut-wrenching story of her separation from her long-term partner and her attempt to get legal guardianship after that partner became disabled and was put into the care of homophobic parents who prevent the two from spending time together. My friend Kelly, caught up in the spontaneous excitement of the day, draws me toward the street and says, Come on; lets get married. Im flattered and delighted, but I gently say no. I take this seriously. My lover is back home in Portland. I honor this occasion of real long-term couples with deep commitments to one another getting to speak their vows into the open air and having them witnessed by thousands of loving supporters. It is enough for me, that day, to be a witness.

March 9th 2004 As A Basic Rights Oregon Volunteer, I have been marrying couples full time for 3 days now. I have a comfortable, warm and speedy routine of pre-marital questions: How long have you been together? Have you had any previous commitment ceremonies? Do you have rings? Are you comfortable with these vows? Do you want to use spiritual language, and if so, what kind? Tell me about your family and your choice to legalize your commitment today. Do you have a camera, and do your witnesses know how to use it?

I meet Ann and Ann, from Eugene, my only couple so far with the same names. They have been together for 22 years. As we talk, it unfolds that their very first ceremony was in 1987. Yes...with the Rev. Troy Perry; yes...at the March on Washington. The first time they were married was not legal, in Washington DC, and I was there! 17 years later, I am able to marry them legally, right here in Oregon. I say a prayer of gratitude for changes in my lifetime, for being offered the opportunity to marry this particular couple who connect me so viscerally to my history.

March 10th, 2004 Multnomah County has issued 1,760 marriage licenses since March 3rd. Ive married 24 couples with a new longevity record of 24 years.

March 11th, 2004 Morning Aimee and Loret drive down from Seattle with their 2 yr old daughter, Aislin. Theyve been together for 11-1/2 yrs. Another family is in the car with them: Angelo and Teresa, whove been together 6-1/2 yrs and their 18 month old son Juliann. Aimee and Teresa are best friends. Angelo and Teresa become my first heterosexual couple! As Aimee wrote to me later: One reason that Teresa and Angelo did not get married earlier was that they did not believe their relationship was any more loving, valuable, or real than ours, and so they thought it was extremely unfair for them to be able to marry while we could not. Well, you can see how fast they got married as soon as we could! Thank you so much for being a perfect part of our perfect day.

I also perform a ceremony for Liz and Beth, who have brought their own vows and have been friends since junior high school.

March 11th, 2004 Afternoon News that SF has stopped issuing gay marriage licenses by California Supreme Court Order reaches Portland. Portland couples with licenses rush to Holocene to get married, fearing similar outcomes in Portland. I marry one lesbian couple, Laurie and Lana, who had wanted to wait for the Rabbi who performed their commitment ceremony 3 years ago, but now were afraid to wait. We say Jewish prayers as part of the service. I marry a gay male couple outside Holocene after the day has formally closed. They too are rushing, seeking full marriage equality after 8 years together, and are still in their work uniforms.

March 12th, 2004 Oregon State attorney general Hardy Meyers releases his legal opinion on same-sex marriage in Multnomah County. He basically says that state statutes prohibit granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but that these statutes are most likely in violation of the State Constitution. County Chair Diane Linn suspends the issuance of ALL marriage licenses while she considers the countys response to Meyers statement.

I get my first phone call from a couple who want to plan a ceremony in advance and actually invite guests! Theyre a lesbian couple whove been together for 30 years and are more comfortable calling it a ceremony than a marriage. We set a few planning dates, set the ceremony date for April 17th, and hope all will still be well and legal by then.

March 15th, 2004 After a half day of issuing no marriage licenses, Diane Linn announces that the county will continue issuing marriage licenses to all couples. Portland becomes the only major metropolitan area in the nation still performing same-sex marriage. Over 2000 weddings have been performed in the last two weeks. Ive married 35 couples.

March 17th, 2004 A local florists web site has collected $1000 in donations from anonymous supporters. $1000 worth of flowers are delivered to Holocene. We have exotic bouquets for the couples and buttoneers for the clergy!

March 18th, 2004 Governor Kulongoski orders state agencies to treat same-sex marriages as invalid. This sets the stage for lawsuits to quickly reach the state supreme court, which all sides of the issue say they want.

March 19th, 2004 A new longevity record: 32 years! I am surprised to find out that this lesbian couple from a rural Oregon town is closeted in their community. They tell me Everyone thinks were sisters. Its easier that way. I wonder what its been like for them to have chosen and to continue to choose that lifestyle, and to stand before us-- Basic Rights staff, volunteers and clergy-- on this day, openly declaring their love for one another, exchanging vows, and saying With this ring, I thee wed.

This Friday also starts what will become a trend, Fridays full of same-sex couples coming from all over the country and even Japan to get married.

March 21st, 2004 Portland Gay Mens Chorus and a host of other organizations sponsor a wedding recommitment ceremony at First Congregation UCC Church downtown. The chorus sings a great take off of a Sound of Music song: How do you thank a county like Multnomah? I share the altar with a group of clergy saying blessings as hundreds of couples of all orientations, including County Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey and her Husband, Dan, recommit to their relationships. Roey Thorpe from Basic Rights Oregon gives an incredibly moving speech, which is favorably reported in The Oregonian: We must hold on to this feeling, this moment, this love. Everything we do must be about keeping alive the love and magic of the last few weeks. This is a movement afloat on a sea of love, its sails filled by the winds of justice. Downstairs there are cakes from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), tiered layer cakes with chocolate covered strawberries and almonds on them, and cakes with the Chinese symbol for double happiness. County Commissioner Serena Cruz says, This just feels so right, as she ceremonially cuts the wedding cake. Servers move through the crowded, fruit-sculpture bedecked room with trays of cake and beverages. I chat with one of my couples who are in attendance, and also with a witness who is curious about Arabic mysticism.

March 22nd, 2004 After announcing that they would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Benton County Commissioners announce that they will not, due to pressure from the Governor and the State Attorney General.

I wish The Oregonian had included a picture of the gay-positive clergy from yesterdays celebration, but they do not. Was this a political choice on their part?

March 24th, 2004 Its a slow day marrying folks at Holocene, except for the big press conference scheduled for 1PM. Ministers and volunteers start getting to know each other, doing crossword puzzles together, sharing resources and stories. Charlie, one of the Holocene owners, feeds us fabulous meals! ACLU and BRO announce their marriage equality lawsuit with nine couples as plaintiffs. I meet the lesbian couple from Benton County who were planning to get married in Benton County today. Theyve been together for 5 years. They have decided not to get a license from Multnomah County, so that they can be part of this important case.

During the actual press conference, I am marrying Rosemary and Ellen, who have come up from Berkeley. They are 65 and 72. They are both doctors. Ellen is also a therapist and a poet. They recite Haiku to one another during the ceremony. They are so enamored of one another as they exchange their rings. Ellen keeps saying I never thought this day would come. I almost neglect to listen, Ive heard this said so many times. But then Ellen reveals more of her story, why this is so amazing to her, and Im glad that I slowed down long enough to hear. It turns out that Ellen was thrown out of medical school during the McCarthy Era for being a lesbian. She had to finish her medical studies in Europe before returning to The States. I never thought this day would come, she said again. And I tasted just the smallest nibble of what this day really means to her.

A film crew from Italian TV decides to hang around for awhile after the press conference. They end up filming a wedding that I perform for two young gay men whove been together for 6 years (ever since one of them was 18). We all joke that we will be stars of Italian TV!

March 25th, 2004 Sally and Cass from Whidbey Island have been together for 37 years! Im honored to have them be my 51st couple. Since I am single and yearning for my own beloved, Im especially heartened to notice that Cass, now 75, was my age when they first got together.

March 26th, 2004 Mary and Liz come from Washington with a crowd. Together they have raised 5 adopted daughters, mostly from Russia, two of whom stand with them today. Their previous ceremony, near Vancouver Island, was attended by 3 bald eagles.

Jean and Sandra have been together for 6 years and say they are each others Karmic reward. Their wedding party fills the back room at Holocene with beautiful mandolin and vocals that draw folks from the rest of the building near.

March 29th, 2004 Gerald and David have been together 19 years, and are coming down from Seattle with just a few days off from work. They arrange with me to get married at my house. The sun is out, the flowers in bloom. We marry them in broad daylight on the front lawn.

April 1st, 2004 When I arrive at Holocene, there is already a gay male couple waiting for me, handsome and well-dressed. They are patient while I set up my altar and desk. Richard and A have driven up from LA. They originally met in Thailand. A is here on a student visa, which expires soon. They already have a lawyer, and hope that legal marriage will help A be able to stay in the United States with his partner of 9 years. Basic Rights encourages them to get support from the ACLU.

April 2nd, 2004 Michael and Chuck are from Puyallup and in their early 60s. Theyve been together for 34 years as of yesterday (April 1st)! We quip, I guess it wasnt a joke, after all! Chuck speaks through a tracheotomy tube, which he presses with his hand to use. We plan together to shorten the vows to accommodate this ability. We decide that Michael will repeat all the vows after me, and then Chuck will gaze into Michaels eyes while I recite the vows, nodding his affirmation, raising his hand to his throat and speaking if and when he feels so moved. The ceremony begins. Michael repeats all the vows. I begin reciting the first sentence of vows that Chuck will dedicate to Michael. Chuck raises his hand to his throat. He says, I want to do it. Chuck repeats the full set of vows to his beloved: Before these witnesses, I vow to love and care for you, for as long as we both shall live. I take you, with your faults and strengths, as I offer myself to you with my faults and strengths. I promise to help you when you need help, and to turn to you when I need help. I choose you as the person with whom I will share my life."

April 9th, 2004 We move the Friday chapel from Holocene to One with Heart. I perform my second heterosexual marriage. She is pregnant, and they dont have much money. The county told them where to get married today for free. Theyve been together for 3 years. Like many of the gay couples Ive counseled, they say theyve been though a lot together. They werent sure theyd make it. But now they feel ready to commit. She tells me that neither of them believe in divorce. Somehow, this soothes me.

I also marry a beautiful male couple from Warm Springs. They are both nervously sweaty and sweetly emotional during the ceremony. Theyve been together 5 years. One of the grooms is a member of the Warms Springs Tribe. He says they wanted to get married on the reservation, but even though their families are supportive, they couldnt find anyone out there to marry them. They become my 68th couple.

A gay male couple is in town from New York. Before all this legalized marriage, they had already planned to fly into Portland this week for the due date of their first born child. Today was the original due date, but she was born 3 days ago. One of the men was in the delivery room, one stayed home with the surrogate moms 5 yr old daughter. They come to One with Heart today, on the original due date of their daughters birth, to legalize their commitment. Their beautiful 3-day old daughter is the center of attention for most of us, laying in her tiny basket, or being held so gently in her Daddys arms and nursing on a wee little bottle. As the ceremony comes to a close, the newlywed Jewish men embrace, lift up their feet in unison, and smash the glass. We all look on with tears in our eyes and cheer.

April 14th, 2004 I volunteer at the annual Basic Rights Oregon business lunch. Over 550 people are in attendance, including many prominent politicians, and 4 of the Multnomah County Commissioners. A short film is shown covering many topics. Teen suicide and antidiscrimination work in school, job discrimination and safe work places, gay marriage. The film was made before same-sex weddings became legal here. A man in the film speaks of his wedding in Canada. How he was surprised to discover that he felt changed by having an entire country as large as Canada validate the legality of his marriage. In terms of facing discrimination or trying to squeeze his relationship into any too-small space, he says, It really makes me much less willing to put up with any shit. The commissioners all stand and receive a standing ovation from the gathered business community, as Does Roey Thorpe, Basic Rights Executive Director. Roey says this to the commissioners, and I feel it in my heart to be true: We know that you have risked a lot and are now engaged in struggles for doing what you knew was right. I want you to look around and see the faces standing here, as these are the people who will stand by you as you move forward. I am able to thank Maria Rojo de Steffey for her statement that gay people are beautiful and that they belong. I tell her how those words as Ive related them have moved many people to tears.

April 17th, 2004 Laurel and Tracy and I have been planning their wedding for more than a month. They have been together for 30 years. Today is the day. They have gathered friends, family, loved ones at their beautiful home at the North end of Forest Park. It is a typical pre-wedding tragi-comedy: the wedding and reception are planned for the outdoors starting at 11:30. It is downpouring at 9. A fire is made in the fireplace and the flue is still closed. The house fills with smoke that we have to air out. But as the time arrives, the sky clears, the hummingbirds are hovering at the feeders, the friends and family come outside and we pray to the four directions to join us and bless us and hold off the rain. There is much humor and love. The vows are exchanged. I share with those gathered that Laurel and Tracy still feel as though they are engaging in an act of civil disobedience by getting married, that that is a small part of why they chose me as their Minister. It is obvious, though, from the crowd gathered, lifelong friends from as far back as 4th grade, several generations of blood family, that Laurel and Tracy are getting married now because, after 30 years together, they finally can. One of the heterosexual cousins shares with me that she has been married for 23 years. She says, Laurel and Tracy are the rock. They are the role models for my marriage. As we gather to cut the cake and sign the legal paperwork, the sky has cleared. Everyone gathered is blowing bubbles that surround us and climb past the hummingbirds up to the blue sky. None of us can quite believe the perfection of this moment, this day, this time in history.

April 20th, 2004 There are 3 emails in my Soul Emergence inbox. 2 from basic right Oregon, and one from Cathy and Judy. Cathy and Judy write Hello, Our names are Cathy and Judy and we've been together now for nearly 9 years. We want to get married. They want to fly in from out of state, get their license and get married, preferably all within 2 days. No problem, I think.

But the email from Basic Rights has good news and bad news. The first round of the ACLU lawsuit has been decided. The marriage statutes are ruled to be in violation of the Oregon State Constitution. The over 3000 same-sex couples already married (including the 67 couples married by me) must be legally recognized by the state! Oregon become the first state in the nation to confer marriage rights to gays and lesbians! There is a victory party scheduled for this evening.

But my heart is heavy with the down side. No new same-sex marriage licenses will be issued until 90 days after the next Oregon legislative session convenes. The legislature is charged with bringing the marriage laws and the State Constitution into alignment. Who knows what they will come up with, or what they will try? Some think civil unions, which so far are not capable of granting the over 1500 state and federal rights and privileges granted to heterosexual couples when they marry.

My heart breaks as I email Cathy and Judy: I am feeling sad tonight for couples like you who are ready and now have to wait. And sad for myself to have to wait months to marry another g/l couple, even as I can continue to marry heterosexuals. It has been so much joy to celebrate everyone's love and commitment! So, let's keep celebrating that even as we hope for more opportunities to confer extended legal rights. I'm sure your love and commitment is beautiful. I try to encourage them to have some form of commitment ceremony if they havent already, but I can feel what thin consolation that is. It is simply not the same.

I begin to feel into the fact that heterosexual couples may ask me to marry them. I already have a mixed-gender marriage scheduled in August. How do I feel about this? So far, I have only legally married heterosexual couples (3 so far) during this short period that it has been legal also for lesbians and gays. I used to not even GO to straight weddings, due to my sense of unfairness about the privileges. What changed my mind about that in the past was that I am a big believer in community, in Unity, and in Love. I realized I was separating myself from community and from the celebration of love by choosing not to attend the heterosexual weddings of my friends, loved ones, and colleagues. I want to show up for more love in the world.

April 21st, 2004 When I marry people, it is as a minister of The Rock Foundation, a very liberal interfaith collection of spiritual folks based in the Portland Metro area. Within my primary spiritual community, a particular branch of the Sufi community, I am not authorized to officiate any marriages, and same-sex marriages are not performed at all. So, I am one of the community members, by virtue of the simple daily details of my life, whose presence brings the issue of same-sex relationships, love, and marriage into visibility and contemplation. I no longer think of it as activism, but simply being who I am.

I am speaking with one of my spiritual mentors about my heavy heart now that same-sex marriage licenses are not being granted and I wont have those weddings to perform. I say that Im not sure how I feel about officiating heterosexual weddings during this time of limbo. She seems a bit surprised and asks, As some kind of protest? I have to think about this. Protest feels like the wrong word.

The image that comes to me later is this scenario: What if black people still had to sit at the back of the bus, and white people sat at the front, and this was the law? And any one of us was white, and the bus pulled up, and we stepped on. And we looked at all the faces and felt into all the hearts of the people sitting there. Where would we choose to sit, and why?

To my mind, it is not a protest so much as a matter of letting what you know is right in your heart triumph over the flawed laws of man. So why do gays and lesbians even want to get entangled with those laws? For those 1500 rights and privileges solidifying couples and their commitment as they move through the world each day. We want to raise our children as acknowledged families with full legal rights. We want to visit our partners in the hospital without a hassle. We want to share with each other the benefits we earn at work and by paying into systems like social security. In times of loss and hardship, we want any struggle to come from within the inherent spiritual challenges of lifes transitions, NOT from hospitals, police, insurance companies, family of origin members with more legal rights than we have who resist recognizing the primacy of our unions, or any other authority other than the ultimate authority of The Divine.

The authority of the Divine manifests through the circumstances of our lives. In the absence of a theocracy and in the presence of the separation of church and state, it is not our governments place to interpret or legislate what God wants for any two people. Civil rights must be conferred equally. As a minister, I want the right to legally marry any couple who is ready to make a commitment to one another. I want any discrimination about who I marry, personally or professionally, to come from the guidance in my own heart, and not from the laws of man. I just pray that this can manifest by continuing to stand at the altar in celebration of love. As the legislature and courts consider the arguments and decisions, it feels important turn our attention back to Bonnie Tinkers moving cry for equlaity: It is intolerable to ask another generation to endure life as outcasts while those with privilege debate the right time for justice. The right time for justice is always now.