As part of the We Belong Together delegation, I am going to Georgia to try to channel Eleanor Roosevelt. This is a tall order, but if there is ever a moment when her wisdom, passion and commitment was needed, this is it. A pioneer for human rights in her time, Eleanor was a principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first document to spell out a set of rights that attach to all people. The horrors of the Holocaust had recently shown what can happen when a state assigns rights based on distinctions like race, political opinion, sexuality or nationality. The Universal Declaration captured a new global consensus that certain rights are so fundamental to our humanity that no government should have the power to grant or take them away.
The Declaration enshrined two concepts that have filtered down, 63 years later, into state and national constitutions (even Georgia’s!), laws and policies, and consequently the way we think of and talk about rights. First, the Declaration recognizes that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. Note the absence of language linking rights to citizenship. Eleanor sought to ensure that everyone had basic rights regardless of nationality, this highlighted her deep concern for the plight of refugees post-World War II. Second, the Declaration recognizes the family as the “natural and fundamental group unit of society.” Today, protecting families lies at the heart of national debates around issues like immigration, healthcare reform, and reproductive rights. At the core of these issues are questions about which individuals and families are considered worthy of rights protection, and who gets to decide.
This question is deeply personal, as I have been on both sides of the fence when it comes to legal protection for my family. Prior to June 24, my partner and I were barred from securing the many benefits that heterosexual New Yorkers could obtain through marriage. The passage of New York’s marriage equality bill changed this, giving legal – and symbolic – recognition to our family. When we married earlier this month, we acknowledged the sheer luck of our timing. Not so long ago, LGBT couples were invisible or reviled, while today we are recognized as legitimate family makers and even, in some places, celebrated for doing so. But our civil rights victory will not be complete until families of immigrants, like those in Arizona and potentially now Georgia, stop being torn apart. Until parents and children are free from the threat of separation from detention or deportation. Until all families are treated with respect because they have human rights, not because they have political power.
What would Eleanor Roosevelt say if she were joining us in Georgia? I think she would be appalled at how far we have strayed from the foundational concept that rights are universal. I also bet she would remind us that the struggle for human rights is not about recognizing the rights of those who already have them; our modern day equivalents of the post-war refugees are the immigrant families in Georgia and Arizona. Finally, she would tell us to get to work. “Human rights begin”, she said when the Universal Declaration was adopted, “in small places, close to home.” This was a call to work towards the realization of dignity, equality and other human rights not only in state legislatures, but also in our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.
I go to Georgia to better understand what is happening in these spaces, so that I can speak out against injustice. I go to honor women and their families whose work our nation thrives on, but whose rights it fails to acknowledge. I go to make connections with other rights-based movements in order to build our collective power. And finally, mindful of a great woman’s legacy, I go to Georgia to help turn the promising, hopeful, universal language of human rights into reality.