OutPower

The Road After Roe – Jennifer Zhang

OUT ON THE HILL is the official blog of the Victory Congressional Interns. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of LGBTQ Victory Institute. Learn more about the internship at victoryinstitute.org/vci

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I pass the Supreme Court every morning on my commute to work. I take the metro to the Capitol South stop, emerge from the icy wind tunnels of a brutalist subway station into moist DC heat that immediately draws sweat through my shirt, and squint through the blazing sunlight at the waves of staffers and interns swarming across Independence Avenue. The Library of Congress and the Capitol d  ome glow a radiant white against azure blue skies and idyllic clouds. As do the marble frieze and columns of the Supreme Court—from behind a line of black metal fencing that rises ten feet into the air.

I am used to hurrying by the courthouse while fumbling with my congressional ID, blending in with the streams of other suit-clad individuals second-guessing how long it will take to get through Capitol Hill security. Supporting, whether I intend to or not, the subdued professional ambiance that suggests the ominous black fencing, which sticks out against the ivory marble like a leach on pale skin, is quite normal. Not an omen that the Court will soon issue a ruling that 8 in 10 Americans disagree with. On June 24th, I shed the suit for sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt to join thousands of people in protesting the overturning of Roe v. Wade. I watched the avenue normally prowled by legislative aides and their aspirants fill with people chanting, singing, and crying, ringed by police in riot gear and surveilled by snipers on the courthouse roof.

I remembered how on the first day of my internship, my supervisor told us to be sensitive with asking staffers about January 6th. Where was the security then, as white supremacists stormed the buildings where we now work?

I remembered attending the March for Our Lives rally earlier this June on the slopes of the Washington Monument, where a shooting threat sent me and my friends sprinting and hitting the ground, wondering for a frenzied minute whether we would be shot or trampled by the crowd. Why are there more rights for gun ownership than control over your own body? How do politicians claiming to be “pro-life” and in the same breath offering only thoughts and prayers to 19 murdered children in Uvalde not choke on their own hypocrisy?

We are told there is a general order to social change: first comes the legal recognition of personhood or rights, then comes their actual fulfillment through institutions and social practices. Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights Act did not end racism. Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges did not end homophobia. I began this internship focusing on the social and representational implications of being out on the Hill when LGBTQ+ people were barred from government service only a few decades ago. I thought primarily of furthering the representational changes intrinsic to realizing equality once the courts have clarified that you cannot be incarcerated for who you love. I once thought it fortunate that those rulings, while quite recent in the historical span of time, were issued years ago and long before I was out, even to myself. But Justice Thomas’s concurrence painted a target upon the legalization of same-sex intercourse and marriage, and even contraception access. Fundamental rights once guaranteed by settled law are all in question.

In search of consolation, I turned to the LGBTQ Victory Institute’s motto: “Representation is power.” I also turned to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s refrain that the Court “should never be influenced by the weather of the day but inevitably they will be influenced by the climate of the era.” Revisionist legal decisions may turn back the clock on the recognition of rights and people, but they cannot undo the decades of connection, organizing, and love that transformed our society to increasingly accept and at times even welcome the queer community. They cannot undo the social changes that have driven most Americans to support abortion access and the right to love whom you love. They can cause unspeakable harm, alienation, and even death, but they cannot erase us.

Women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people have always been part of the fabric of this country. We are still here. We are in Congress as elected officials, staffers, and interns. We are in state houses, governorships, and judge’s chambers. We fought for centuries for seats at the table, and we are not giving them up now.