My Lessons From the Notorious RBG: The Fight for Tolerance and LGBTQ Rights

My Lessons From the Notorious RBG: The Fight for Tolerance and LGBTQ Rights

Last Sunday, I marched with a group of volunteers at Denver’s PrideFest Parade. It was an inspiring show of support for equality.

The battle for equality and social justice is a fundamental part of the American experience.  It’s also the path of the law in our country. During my time working for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), I had the privilege of witnessing that path firsthand.  And I continue to be inspired by her example.

Pride and the Legacy of RBG’s Career

During my clerkship with RBG, the Supreme Court issued two landmark decisions in this country’s longstanding battle for equality for all: Romer v. Evans and U.S. v. Virginia. In Romer, the Court declared illegal Colorado’s anti-homosexual ballot measure (Amendment 2) that barred localities from protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.  Significantly, the Romer case set the stage for later rulings on marriage equality and expanded civil rights protections for gays and lesbians.   In U.S. v. Virginia, RBG authored the opinion invalidating the Virginia Military Institute’s (VMI) ban on admitting women. For Justice Ginsburg, the VMI case represented a significant accomplishment in her life’s work—the fight for equal treatment of men and women.

As our nation continues to fight for equality and acceptance for all citizens, RBG’s lifelong battle for equality inspires me. She also remains a very important mentor. RBG’s leadership embodies a core message: we cannot get complacent as we fight for equality, including the rights of LGBTQ individuals and women. Now, more than ever, we need activated citizens and leaders to protect and build on decisions like Romer v. Evans. What I saw at PrideFest is that Colorado is up for the challenge.

RBG’s Personal Life: Civil Rights and Civility

When I reflect on our society’s current challenges, PrideFest’s focus on tolerance reminds me of an example from RBG’s personal life: her friendship with Justice Scalia. Their relationship was a rare “example of warmth and professionalism across traditional divides,” as the author of the Notorious RBG put it. To be sure, RBG and Scalia often disagreed, including on the US v. Virginia case, where Justice Scalia was the sole dissenter. In that case, RBG reported, Scalia “absolutely ruined my weekend, but my opinion is ever so much better because of his stinging dissent.”

RBG’s willingness to learn from an opposing viewpoint is a quality that is in short supply today. As one commentator remarked recently, “We have often dehumanized the leaders who result from our free choices — men and women, on the whole, of public spirit, with a talent for friendship and persuasion.” This dehumanization runs against the standard set by Justice Ginsburg; even when she disagreed with Justice Scalia, she still believed that she could learn from him.

RBG’s friendship with Scalia echoes what our former Governor Roy Romer often preached: “all truth is partial.” Romer told me that he lived his political career according to this maxim. When he disagreed with someone he asked, “What part of the truth are they seeing that I am not?” He was hesitant to judge and demonize others, viewing disagreements as a chance to learn and sharpen his thinking.

During a time when our society is growing more tolerant in general, it is a painful irony that acceptance for those who hold different political views is at an all-time low, with more people than ever viewing those who hold different viewpoints as evil. Indeed, one commentator has concluded that animosity based on party identity is one of the few socially acceptable forms of discrimination.

The current level of polarization and the demonization of other points of view is a threat to our country’s—and Colorado’s—future. When Roy Romer spoke to Coloradans in the wake of the passage of the discriminatory Amendment 2, he called on Coloradans to “learn together and appreciate our diversity as a people.” Those words still ring true today. This call—and RBG’s lifelong battle for equality—inspire me to be an Attorney General for Colorado who fights for a more inclusive society and protect the civil rights of all Coloradans.