By Eric Rader
The evolution of President Obama is complete. After months of speculation about his position on same-sex marriage, the president announced last Wednesday that he does indeed support the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry. Earlier in his political career, Obama supported equal marriage rights, but then backed away from this view when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004. Now he is once more squarely in the equal marriage rights camp, and we in the LGBT community should welcome the president back to our side of this important issue of equality.
Of course, the president’s decision to come out in favor of equal marriage rights doesn’t change the current legal status of gay people. In most states in this country, it is illegal, either by statute or constitutional amendment, for two people of the same gender to marry each other. Presidents cannot alter existing laws through executive orders, but they can direct their executive powers toward bringing about change. Several years ago, Obama asked Congress to repeal the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act.” Since congressional action has not been forthcoming, his administration stopped defending the law in court when LGBT citizens brought legal challenges against it. Ultimately, achieving marriage equality nationally will require a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning anti-gay marriage laws and declaring them to be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The need for federal court review of the constitutionality of these laws became even more critical last week. On Tuesday, voters in the state of North Carolina enshrined anti-gay bigotry in their state constitution by approving an amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, civil unions, and even domestic partnerships.
What’s most important about Obama’s statement last week is its historical significance. In the struggle for civil rights in the early to mid-20th Century, presidents were reluctant to give a full-throated endorsement to the quest for equal rights for African Americans. Over time, our leaders became stronger in their opposition to the Jim Crow system in the American South. But it took a long time before presidents announced their support for full legal desegregation in this country.
On the issue of gay civil rights, the country has actually moved far pretty quickly. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, while that same year, then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom began marrying same sex couples in his city, even though no law permitted it; California courts quickly stopped the mayor. Later that year, a number of anti-gay marriage amendments were passed in several states, including Michigan. Many, if not all, of these amendments were initiated by groups and people close to President George W. Bush, whose campaign saw this as a wedge issue that could divide the Democrats. Less than a decade later, we now have a president who supports the right of gay people to get married. Barack Obama has brought equal marriage rights into the political mainstream of the United States.
What happens next? Many leaders in our community pushed the president hard to change his position on gay marriage. Now that he has “evolved,” it’s our responsibility to work hard to ensure that the president’s decision is not a lonely one. We should all recognize how courageous the president is for taking this issue on during a contentious election year. It appears that the contest between President Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will be very close. On the same day the president came out for marriage equality, his Republican opponent once again stated his unequivocal opposition to changing the definition of “traditional marriage” to include same-sex couples, and even stated that he opposes civil unions and domestic partnerships. While the economy remains the number one concern of most voters, we in the LGBT community should consider the candidates’ positions on LGBT equality very carefully. Last week the president took a strong moral stand in favor of equal rights for all of us. A lot more work needs to be done on equal rights, and it will take cooperation between the LGBT community and our political leaders to accomplish it. President Obama showed last week that he is more than willing to work with us, and we should return the favor.
Thank President Obama for endorsing equal marriage rights: