Commentary Human Rights

For Marriage Equality Foes, It’s 1972

Sofia Resnick

For anti-same-sex-marriage leader Brian Brown, 2014 feels like the year before the U.S. Supreme Court recognized abortion as a constitutional right, in its 1973 decision Roe v. Wade.

“Inevitable” has become a nasty word in the religious right lexicon, particularly when it comes to same-sex marriage. At the conservative Christian conferences I’ve attended lately, I often hear the word dripping with contempt from activists’ mouths whenever they preach against something the rest of the country is steadily accepting: nationwide marriage equality.

“It’s 1972 for marriage,” anti-same-sex-marriage leader Brian Brown told a crowd of opponents of abortion and same-sex marriage gathered at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on May 2 for a conference co-sponsored by the Virginia-based nonprofit the Manhattan Declaration. “What would you do? What changes would you make?”

What Brown—who makes his living fighting marriage equality as the president of the National Organization for Marriage and travels in circles where abortion and same-sex relationships are seen as societal evils—was saying was that 2014 feels like the year before the U.S. Supreme Court recognized abortion as a constitutional right, in its 1973 decision Roe v. Wade.

And while he might have mocked “what the intelligentsia are saying about the inevitability of the demise for marriage” in his speech that night, I heard an element of fear in Brown’s voice.

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And for good reason.

Last year, the Supreme Court effectively ruled that the federal government must recognize valid same-sex marriages, when it struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The ruling doesn’t entirely ban all laws that discriminate against same-sex marriages, but it came close enough to give marriage equality opponents a hell of a fright.

Many Americans expect the Supreme Court to decide the broader question of whether same-sex marriage is protected by the U.S. Constitution sooner rather than later, and I think it’s fair to say that the general public perception is that the DOMA decision is the beginning of the end for legalized discrimination against same-sex couples, that it’s only a matter of time before most state bans on same-sex marriage fall, and that the Supreme Court will likely lean in the direction of equal marriage rights for same- and opposite-sex couples if the opportunity arises.

But based on my observations at right-wing conferences, I want to caution against complacency: Within religious right circles, the DOMA decision has become a rallying cry. This, they say, is the time to amp up their fight for the status quo, to “pray away” same-sex marriage.

For marriage-equality foes, it’s Hail Mary time, and the anti-equality camp has learned many important lessons from that other great “anti” movement to which it is closely aligned—the movement that continues, successfully, to fight against the other right that American society once thought was settled as a matter of justice and law: the anti-choice movement.

Brown’s questions about what they would “do differently” must resonate with anti-abortion activists, who are constantly fighting for a do-over: What would you have done differently to stop the Supreme Court from legalizing abortion in the United States?

Conservative Christian groups are hard at work carrying out a years-long legal and legislative strategy to stop same-sex marriage. The Christian right will likely continue to push back against marriage equality (and other LGBT issues) even if it is legalized countrywide. After all, just as social conservatives continue to reject the validity of Roe, they reject the idea that society will permanently accept marriage equality. The fight is far from over. In their eyes, the fight is never over.

Fundamentalist Christians as “Victims” of Marriage Equality

Brown used to go on television bragging about the winning streak of the 30-plus states that criminalized same-sex marriage through voter referenda. The narrative perpetuated by his organization was that perhaps “activist” judges were willing to “redefine” marriage, but given the choice, the mostly straight American people would always vote to keep same-sex couples from marrying.

The streak ended in 2012, when voters in Minnesota rejected a ban on same-sex marriage and voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington legalized it. At this point, 18 states and the District of Columbia provide marriage rights and benefits to both opposite- and same-sex couples.

In the few years leading up to the 2012 election, anti-equality activists saw the public opinion polls turning against them, and began rebranding themselves and their arguments, borrowing much of their strategy from the anti-choice movement. Since then, activists have pushed the strategy into high gear.

The idea is to gain the public’s sympathy with claims that same-sex marriage presents potential harms to children and threatens religious liberty, just as anti-choice groups have made false claims that abortion harms women, and have made demands to be exempted from federal health insurance laws on the basis of their so-called religious liberty.

And the movement has proven deft in its ability to change the frame of the argument. Groups like the emerging powerhouse the Alliance Defending Freedom—a well-funded Arizona legal nonprofit that fights court cases from a fundamentalist Christian perspective—have usurped LGBT activists’ language of discrimination and inequality: Now it is discrimination to force a business owner to treat a same-sex couple the same as a straight couple.

Many of the clients the Alliance defends are small business owners sued by same-sex couples after refusing service in the name of Christianity.

The Alliance defended the movement’s cause célèbre, a case that involved a photographer in New Mexico who refused to document a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony and was successfully sued. The Alliance appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear it.

The Alliance has also defended public servants, such as Rose Marie Belforti, a town clerk in Ledyard, New York, who refused in the name of her religion to sign marriage licenses to same-sex couples shortly after the state legalized same-sex marriage in the summer of 2011. With the Alliance’s assistance, Belforti worked out a deal with the town to delegate the job duties she disliked to a deputy clerk.

At conferences I’ve attended, and in emails and mailings from groups on the Christian right, I’ve observed that these have become signal cases—evidence, in the minds of the Christian right, not of the evolution of laws that protect minorities against discrimination, but rather of religious (i.e., Christian) persecution.

Discussing these cases at the Manhattan Declaration conference in Philadelphia, Alliance President Alan Sears outlined a brave new world, where Christians will be persecuted for what they see as their righteousness.

“Can you imagine a Muslim caterer being ordered to serve bacon for a Christian wedding?” Sears asked. “Or can you imagine a Jewish bookseller being forced to sell Ku Klux Klan promotional materials? Can you imagine a Black Baptist painter being required to paint a mural celebrating and upholding slavery?”

Audience members gasped; they shook their heads.

Comparing same-sex couples in love to Klansmen is usually the fastest way to lose the debate, which could have something to do with the movement pivoting to arguments that present a friendlier, more compassionate visage.

After Sears’ fiery speech, movement leader Robert P. George—one of the original drafters of the 2009 Manhattan Declaration manifesto that grew into the eponymous nonprofit—and millennials Sherif Girgis, who is studying law at Yale University, and Ryan T. Anderson, who is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, discussed how to frame opposition to same-sex marriage for a younger, secular audience. The trio wrote 2012’s What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense.

On the panel, Anderson explained their reasoning behind opposing marriage equality.

“The reason the government’s in the bedroom is that a certain type of relationship can produce a child, and children deserve a mother and a father,” Anderson said. “It’s based on an anthropological truth that men and women are distinctly complementary. It’s based on the biological fact that reproduction requires a man and a woman and a social fact that children deserve a mother and a father.”

To bolster the claim of sociological evidence that children do best with opposite-sex couples, Anderson alluded to University of Texas sociology professor Mark Regnerus, whose 2012 national random study purported to show that kids raised by their biological parents, who stayed married throughout their childhoods, excelled in a variety of social and economic indicators over children raised in “same-sex families.”

But what were labeled same-sex families in the study were actually children raised in mostly broken homes wherein one parent at some point in the child’s life had a “same-sex romantic relationship.”

Regnerus’ deceptive phrasing has allowed marriage-equality foes to wield this study—funded primarily by the conservative Witherspoon Institute that George co-founded—in state legislatures and in courts. When Regnerus’ study was brought up later during the conference, speakers omitted the fundamental methodological flaws that led to the study’s widespread condemnation, most recently by a federal judge in Michigan.

The move to argue evidence of harm over ideology has similarly played out in the anti-abortion movement. Anti-abortion advocates also lean on unproven—and sometimes disproven—claims that fetuses feel pain when aborted at 20 weeks’ gestation, that abortion causes breast cancer, and that abortion leads to increased rates of suicide among women.

Which is why I caution those of us who are interested in the expansion of rights against complacency when it comes to the fight for marriage equality. While the majority of Americans now support these rights, there is a growing and defiant push against it from the extreme right, and they have more than 40 years of experience in the anti-choice world to draw on. One need only look at the onslaught of clever anti-choice laws in recent years to see how determined and coordinated foes can eviscerate rights that seemed unassailable.

Battling the Bigot Label (While Fighting Equality)

One thing I’ve come to realize attending anti-marriage-equality rallies is the desire among religious right activists to feel that they are on the right side of history, fighting the good fight. That’s why organizations like the Family Research Council have tried to distance themselves from arguments that same-sex marriage would lead to a rise in man-horse marriages and instead focus on perceived harms to children. (There are still some notable exceptions, such as South Dakota state Rep. Steve Hickey [R-Sioux Falls], whose arguments are still rooted in the fear of anal sex among men.)

The main difference I’ve seen is the attempt at a kinder tone, as well as the obvious desperation not to be portrayed as backward bigots stubbornly standing on the wrong side of history.

Take the National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown. He can talk until he’s blue in the face about fighting this fight in the name of protecting children and strengthening families. But at the end of the day, Brown supports breaking up families, as long as they are families he disapproves of.

Back in August 2012, the New York Times’ religious columnist Mark Oppenheimer moderated an after-dinner debate about same-sex marriage and the Bible between Brown and writer and LGBT rights activist Dan Savage in Savage’s home in Seattle. The debate sprung out of a public challenge Brown lobbed at Savage after the syndicated sex- and relationship-advice columnist delivered controversial remarks about the Bible at a journalism convention for Christian high school students. (Savage tried to make a point that some Christians use passages in the Bible to condemn the LGBT community while ignoring “bullshit in the Bible,” such as the Bible’s acceptance of slavery. According to Savage and other media accounts, about two dozen out of 2,800-plus students walked out during these remarks. Savage later apologized for calling those who walked out “pansy-assed.”)

Only an hour of the spirited debate is preserved on YouTube—Savage argues using religious beliefs to discriminate against a class of people amounts to “religious tyranny,” not religious liberty; Brown argues, in a loop, that opposite-sex marriage is “special” and “unique,” and that letting same-sex couples marry would ruin that. He doesn’t want to be labeled a bigot. Sure, Savage had the home court advantage, but he came to the table more prepared than Brown, who kept making Savage’s points for him. For example, when Oppenheimer asked why the National Organization for Marriage has never lobbied against so-called no-fault divorce, Brown replied, “Because you believe something is wrong does not mean you make it illegal.”

The debate should have ended there.

Naturally, we didn’t see what happened after the cameras shuttered. As Savage recounts in his 2013 book American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights: On Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics, the back-and-forth continued for at least a couple more hours. Another bottle of wine was opened, the camera crew packed up and left, but Oppenheimer, Savage, and Brown remained at the dinner table arguing. According to Savage’s version of what happened, his husband, Terry Miller, was pissed that Savage invited Brown into their home without asking.

And as the debate lingered on, rage built up inside of Miller until, suddenly, he snapped at Brown.

“Do you think our son should be taken away from us?” Miller asked, referring to the couple’s teenage son, D.J., whom they adopted at birth.

As Savage tells it, Brown “made an effort to look pained” at the question and then responded, “You shouldn’t ask me a question when you know you won’t like the answer.”

To which Miller retorted, “Get the fuck out of my house.”

The following summer found Brown in Russia endorsing the country’s recent proliferation of extreme anti-LGBT laws, which began with a law that criminalizes advocacy for LGBT rights and escalated to a proposal to rip children from the homes of their existing same-sex parents (the latter proposal failed). Brown’s visit timed with a debate in Russia’s parliament over a proposed law—which eventually passed—to ban the adoption of Russian children to same-sex couples in other countries.

At the time, Brown told a Russian TV interviewer, “Right now you’re having the fight about adoption, but the adoption issue is indivisible from the marriage issue. If you don’t defend your values now, I’m afraid we’re going to see very negative developments all over the world,” according to the liberal People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch.

In the days, months, even years that remain before marriage equality in the United States is realized, activists against same-sex marriage will continue their attacks. And if the abortion fight is any indication, these attacks likely won’t cease after U.S. same-sex couples are offered full marriage benefits. Thus, five, ten years down the road, when religious right activists are still lobbying state lawmakers to create conscience clauses for people who disagree with marriage equality or trying to regulate same-sex marriages and adoptions, it would behoove us to remember their unveiled disdain for LGBT families.

Despite their protests, perhaps the creators of the Manhattan Declaration manifesto and its 545,000-plus signers will wind up on the other side of history, the side that will be downplayed decades down the road, along with slavery, segregation, Japanese internment camps, the genocide of Native Americans, (ongoing) racial and sexual discrimination, and other shameful moments in the United States’ history. But, if the American public allows it, the narrative marriage-equality foes are weaving could slow their crossover for a few years yet.

Until then, they will keep scoffing at the term “inevitable” and making light of the expansion of civil rights they are trying to curtail.

“I’m happy to see all of my friends from the other side of history,” joked Manhattan Declaration Executive Director Eric Teetsel that Friday night as he greeted conference-goers.

The audience laughed.

Commentary Politics

On Immigration, Major Political Parties Can’t Seem to Agree on What’s ‘Un-American’

Tina Vasquez

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.

It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.  

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“No Business Being in This Country”

For context, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence are the decidedly anti-immigrant ticket. From the beginning, Trump’s campaign has been overrun by anti-immigrant rhetoric, from calling Mexicans “rapists” and “killers” to calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. And as of July 24, Trump’s proposed ban now includes people from countries “compromised by terrorism” who will not be allowed to enter the United States, including anyone from France.

So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymorenow they’re murderers, too.”

Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”

Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”

It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of originconditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”

There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.

Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.

“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”

Broadly, the takeaway from the RNC and the GOP nominee himself is that undocumented immigrants are terrorists who are taking American jobs and lives. “Trump leaned on a tragic story of a young woman’s murder to prop up a generalized depiction of immigrants as menacing, homicidal animals ‘roaming freely to threaten peaceful citizens,’” Hing wrote for the Nation.

When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.

“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

“The Border Crossed Us”

From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.

“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”

Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positiveillustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoricat the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.

Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”

Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?

At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.

“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.

The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativist Donald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.

Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:

There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.

But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.

If Democrats were being honest at their convention, we would have heard about their failure to end family detention, and they would have addressed that they too have a history of criminalizing undocumented immigrants.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.

In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.

In addition, President Obama is called by immigrant rights advocates “deporter in chief,” having put into place a “deportation machine” that has sent more than two million migrants back to their country of origin, more than any president in history. New arrivals to the United States, such as the Central American asylum seekers coming to our border escaping gender-based violence, are treated with the same level of prioritization for removal as threats to our national security. The country’s approach to this humanitarian crisis has been raiding homes in the middle of the night and placing migrants in detention centers, which despite being rife with allegations of human rights abuses, are making private prison corporations millions in revenue.

How Are We Defining “Un-American”?

When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”

This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.

During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.

Commentary Human Rights

The Democratic National Convention Was a Remarkable Victory for Disabled People

s.e. smith

This year's convention included disabled people every evening, as part of a larger inclusive policy that made 2016 a banner year for disability rights activists.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

On Thursday night, Hillary Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Her speech included many of the elements one expects from a nominee, but there were some standout moments—like when she mentioned disability rights, which she did repeatedly.

Clinton integrated disability into her discussion of her record, talking about her work to ensure that disabled children have the right to go to school and bringing up the health-care needs of disabled youth. Her commentary reinforced the fact that she has always cared about disability issues, particularly in the context of children’s rights.

But she did more than that. She referenced shortages of mental health beds. She explicitly called out disability rights as necessary to defend. And at one point, she did not mention disability, which in itself was radical. When she outlined her plans for gun reform and clearly stated that she wanted to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, she referenced people with criminal histories and terrorists, but not mentally ill people, who have been fighting a surge in stigma thanks to perennial (and wildly incorrect) assertions that mental illness causes violence. That omission was clearly deliberate, given the meticulous level of crafting that goes into writing one of the most important speeches of a presidential candidate’s career.

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The nominee’s speech would have been remarkable on its own, but what made it truly outstanding is that it was far from the first appearance of disability at this year’s Democratic National Convention (DNC). The convention included disabled people every evening as part of a larger inclusive policy that made 2016 a banner year for disability rights activists, who are used to being invisible. These kinds of appearances normalized disability, presenting it as a part of some people’s lives and a source of pride, not shame or misery.

On Monday, for example, disability rights activist Anastasia Somoza rolled out to give a sharp, compelling speech that didn’t cast disability in a tragic or exceptional light. She wasn’t the only wheelchair user to appear on the DNC stage—Paralympic athlete Mallory Weggemann led the pledge of allegiance on a different evening. Dynah Haubert, an attorney for Disability Rights Pennsylvania, took the stage on Tuesday. Nor were wheelchair users the only disabled people represented. Ryan Moore, a longtime friend of Clinton’s, spoke about health care and his experiences as a man with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenital syndrome, a form of dwarfism. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy talked about his learning disabilities. Musician Demi Lovato, who has bipolar disorder, took on mental health.

Former Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, a nondisabled man who played an instrumental role in the push to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, taught the crowd sign language during a lively speech about the fight for disability rights on Tuesday, the 26th anniversary of the landmark legislation.

On Wednesday night, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) strode out onto the DNC stage in Philadelphia, smiling and waving at the crowd, to make a few short remarks. “Speaking is difficult for me,” she concluded, “but come January 2017 I want to say these two words: ‘Madam President.'” Her speech was about gun violence—a subject with which she’s intimately familiar after being shot in the head in 2011.

This level of representation is unprecedented. Some speakers, like Somoza, explicitly talked about disability rights, putting the subject in the spotlight in a way it’s never been at previous conventions. Others, like Giffords, came up on stage to talk about something else entirely—and happened to represent disability while they were at it. Similarly, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a decorated combat veteran and double amputee, talked about military policy.

This is a striking contrast from the treatment of disability at previous Democratic National Conventions: When disabled people have appeared, it’s often been in the form of a lackluster performance that objectifies disability, rather than celebrating it, as in 1996 when former actor Christopher Reeve framed disability as a medical tragedy.

Disability rights activists have spent decades fighting for this kind of representation. In 1992, two years after the passage of the ADA, the platform included just three mentions of disability. This year, the subject comes up in 36 instances, woven throughout the platform for an integrated approach to disability as a part of society, rather than as something that needs to be walled off into a tiny section of the platform, tokenized, and then dismissed.

In the intervening years, disabled people in the United States have fought for the enforcement of the ADA, and taken the right to independent living to court in 1999’s Olmsted v. L.C., which was namechecked in the 2000 platform and then forgotten. Disabled people advocated to have their rights in school codified with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, pushed for inclusion in 2010’s Affordable Care Act, and are fighting to pass the Community Choice Act and Disability Integration Act (DIA). Disability rights in the United States has come a long way since 1990’s infamous Capitol Crawl, in which disability rights activists dragged themselves up the steps of the U.S. Capitol, pleading with Congress to pass the ADA.

And as activists have pushed for progress in the courts and in Congress, disability rights have slowly become more prominent in the Democratic party platform. The ADA has been a consistent theme, appearing in every platform since 1992 alongside brief references to civil rights; historically, however, the focus has been on disability as a medical issue. The 1996 platform introduced Medicare, and health care in general, as issues important to the disability community, a refrain that was reiterated in years to come. In numerous years, Democrats addressed concerns about long-term care, in some cases positioning disabled people as objects of care rather than independent people. Disabled veterans have also played a recurring role in the platform’s discussion of military issues. But beyond these topics—again, often approached from a dehumanizing angle—and the occasional lip service to concerns about discrimination and equal rights, until the 2000s, education was the only really consistent disability issue.

In 2000, however, the Democrats went big, building on eight years under President Bill Clinton, and the influence of his then-first lady. For the first time, disability wasn’t simply lumped under “civil rights.” The platform explicitly called out the need for protection from disability hate crimes, but it also began to introduce the idea that there were other issues of relevance to the disability with a discussion of the digital divide and the obstacles that held disabled people back. Almost 30 years after the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which barred disability discrimination by government agencies and contractors, the Democrats were starting to embrace issues like accessibility and independent living, which also played a prominent role in 2000.

It was a hint that the party was starting to think about disability issues in a serious way, especially when in 2008, the Democrats discussed the shameful delay on ratification of the United Nations’ Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, took on the Community Choice Act, talked about the need to enforce IDEA, and, again for the first time, explicitly addressed voting rights issues. By 2012, they were also calling out discriminatory voter ID laws and their disproportionate effect on the disabled community.

That’s tremendous, though incremental, progress.

And this week, the efforts of a generation of disability rights activists are on display everywhere in Philadelphia, where Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky observed that accessibility is a top priority across the city. The DNC is providing expanded accessible seating, wheelchair charging stations, service dog relief areas, Braille materials, closed captioning, American Sign Language interpreters, medication refrigerators, and more. That’s radical inclusion at work, and the result of incredible efforts by disability rights organizers—including the 400 delegates who disclosed disabilities.

Those same organizers have been hounding the presidential candidates, holding them accountable on disability over and over again. They’ve brought up concerns about independent living, wage disparities, education, access to services, accessibility, hate crimes, reproductive rights, the “marriage penalty” and government benefits, and casual disablism in campaign rhetoric and practices. Advocates leaned on the Clinton campaign until it began captioning its content, for example. RespectAbility sent journalists out on the trail, #CriptheVote organized Twitter, and Rev Up encouraged people to register to vote and get involved. The disability community may be more explicitly politically active this year than ever before, and the DNC has been responding accordingly.

Clearly in consultation with disability rights activists, the Democrats have brought a host of new issues into this year’s platform, acknowledging that disabled people are part of U.S. society. Some of the many issues unique to this year’s platform include: abolition of the subminimum wage, concerns about economic opportunities with an explicitly intersectional discussion of the racial wealth gap, affordable housing, accessibility at the polls, the role of disability in the school-to-prison pipeline, and the need for more accurate Census data.

Notably, in a platform that has loudly called for a Hyde Amendment repeal and pushed for other abortion rights, the Democrats have also reinforced the need for access to reproductive health for disabled people, a revolutionary clause that’s gone virtually unnoticed.

This is a platform—and convention—of aggressive inclusion, and it reflects a victory for disabled people in the United States. It does still lack some components the disability community would like to see, like a shoutout to the DIA, which Clinton supports. This is, however, the start of what looks like a robust and real relationship between the Democrats and the disability rights community.