During my first year in law school, I attended a conference on social justice. The keynote speaker was a brilliant and inspiring law professor who, as I recall, also held the distinction of being the first transgender tenured professor at a top school.
As he spoke about systemic oppression in all its forms, one idea struck me powerfully. Oppression, he explained, was not merely an abstract concept. Oppression could was a measurable phenomenon, marked by “a significantly reduced life expectancy.” Marginalized communities are marked by death — increase vulnerability to violence of all kinds, lack of access to adequate health care, and numerous other systemic issues mean that vulnerable populations face higher rates of death than privileged classes. (Did you know that the average life expectancy for a black transgender woman is 35 years?) Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, ableism, and other forms of systemic oppression literally lead to dead bodies.
That people who are different from me might trigger feelings of discomfort or even threaten my perceptions of myself or cultural identities pales in comparison to the cost of contributing to systems of oppression that literally threaten their lives. In that moment, I committed myself to leaning into discomfort when it comes to issues of oppression and social justice.
This week, the Supreme Court of the United States announced rulings in several key cases, upholding key provisions of the Affordable Care Act that has extended health insurance and access to health care to millions of Americans, protecting a key tool in fighting housing discrimination, and today and perhaps most notably, granting nation-wide recognition of same-sex marriages. (Following on the heels of the Mexican Supreme Court earlier this month.)
For so many who have fought for equality and opportunity, this is truly a day of celebration. I join that celebration — not simply because the outcomes aligned with some of my personal political and legal opinions and not just because these changes will have a profound affect on the happiness and dignity of friends and family members — but because the systems of oppression that place lives in risk are just a little bit weaker than they were before.
The horrific violence of the shooting at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, SC is still poignantly fresh and I continue to read stories about violence and oppression and exploitation of so many marginalized groups. These continuing realities weigh on my heart and mind, even as I scroll through my news feed and join with the happiness so many are expressing today. I hope we can embrace the complexity of those emotions. I hope that we allow the celebration to rejuvenate us, to fill us up and alleviate some of our battle fatigue, and to inspire us to continue listening, learning, speaking, advocating, succoring, mourning and fighting because the very lives of so many members of our human family continue to stand in the balance.