When Keith Olbermann shocked us all the other night by announcing Countdown was finished, I immediately thought of one Special Comment in particular. His career has seen many devastating Special Comments, of course, but this one was especially meaningful to me. It was the Special Comment right after the passage of Prop 8, in which he emotionally laid out the case for extending marriage equality to gays and lesbians.
When I first watched it, I cried. I’ve watched it many times since. I’ve shared it with countless people. It is one of the most passionate pleas for marriage equality I’ve ever seen – and perhaps ever will see. So when Olbermann announced his departure from MSNBC, I thought of it not just as the loss of a progressive icon (although that most certainly describes him), but also as the loss of an unwavering voice for my equality.
How important it is to have these powerful voices making the case publicly for equality and human rights for all.
But how much more important it is when the voice is that of the President of the United States.
Dan Savage, creator of the It Gets Better Project, wrote an op-ed for yesterday’s New York Times in which he makes a rather controversial request of President Obama. He calls for the President to touch on gay rights – and especially marriage equality – in the upcoming State of the Union address.
I’m not an idiot: Now that the Republicans hold the House, only wishful thinkers and the deeply delusional expect to see any movement on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender legislative agenda this year or next. Nevertheless, President Obama should address gay rights in his State of the Union speech this week, and he should tackle the biggest, most meaningful right of them all: the right to marry.
When he was a candidate for the Illinois State Senate in 1996, Mr. Obama told a gay publication that he supported “legalizing same-sex marriages.” Twelve years later, right about the time he decided to run for president, he came out against marriage equality. But, as the president likes to say, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Where a Gallup poll in 1996 found that just 27 percent of the nation supported equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, a CNN poll last summer found that a majority now supports marriage equality.
I know this is a controversial issue because I’ve diaried about it before (some might even say I'm just repetitive). Many people received the pressure on the President well, while others felt differently. This seems to be the case whenever this issue – or the broader issue of gay equality – is brought up. Some think pressuring the President to endorse marriage equality, something he really doesn’t have much direct influence over, is pointless. Some reiterate the President’s support for civil unions, either implying or directly asking: “Isn’t it the rights that matter?” Others believe that as long as the President isn’t doing any harm (like Bush tried to do in 2004), it doesn’t matter if he supports marriage equality or not. Still others believe that the pressure on the President is useless because he already supports marriage equality and is only in the “civil unions only” camp because of political expediency. Everybody has a theory.
These arguments are not completely without merit.
It’s true, President Obama supports the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and “full civil unions” for gays and lesbians that include all of the rights and benefits of marriage. And the rights are important. Given a choice between a “full civil union” and nothing at all, the pragmatist in me would take the civil union. But no, the rights aren’t all that matter. It’s not just about rights. It’s about dignity. When you tell me I can have the “full civil union” that’s just like your marriage, except that it’s not called a “marriage,” what you’re telling me is that my union isn’t the same as yours. It’s lesser, not worthy of the title “marriage,” not worthy of the same dignity or respect.
It’s true, it’s much better to have a President who doesn’t aim to enshrine anti-gay discrimination in the Constitution than it is to have a President who does. President Obama isn’t pushing the Federal Marriage Amendment, nor is he pushing amendments on the state level. He doesn’t seek to ban gays from marriage any more than he seeks to extend marriage to them. From a policy perspective, he seems to be fairly neutral (for lack of a better word). But it’s just this “neutrality” that is destructive. When gays and lesbians were in the process of being stripped of their right to marry in California, President Obama was pretty much silent. There was no Jimmy Carter moment when he urged voters to vote “no” on Prop 8. When anti-equality forces were trying to revoke gays’ right to marry via the ballot in Maine, President Obama did not speak out against this injustice. No, the President doesn’t seek to enshrine his personal belief that “marriage is between a man and a women” into law. But he doesn’t seem to seek to protect gays from this kind of discrimination, either. And that matters.
It may be true that President Obama secretly supports marriage equality but refuses to say so because of the perceived political repercussions. His 1996 support of marriage equality, which Savage mentions in his op-ed, certainly seems to give that theory legitimacy. But if this is the case, who cares? The President’s support is meaningless unless he states that support. And there is little justification for hiding behind political reasons – recent polling has shown that Americans are trending in support of marriage equality, and that opposition is a shrinking minority. Vice President Biden has suggested marriage equality is “inevitable.” The President himself has indicated he is on the wrong side of history on this issue. If the political expediency theory is correct, that seems to give us all the more reason to push for an endorsement of marriage equality.
And yes, it’s true that the President doesn’t have much direct influence over marriage. He can’t sign an executive order making my union with another man equal to a heterosexual union. But surely a President who made an "It Gets Better" video realizes the importance of words. Surely he understands what it means to have the President of the United States on your side. Marriage equality may not come for years, but having the support of the President means a great deal. People don’t dream of one day becoming civil unioned or domestic partnered – they (well, many) dream of getting married. And President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality will tell a generation of gay kids that it really does get better, that the arc of the moral universe (as the President likes to say) really does bend toward justice, and that the President of the United States supports them. If you don’t think that matters, I don’t know what to tell you except that it does.
So I’m with Dan Savage when he says:
The president — perhaps after introducing Daniel Hernandez Jr., the openly gay intern credited with saving Representative Gabrielle Giffords’s life — should declare that the trend is clear: this country increasingly believes that Mr. Hernandez and other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans should have all the same rights and responsibilities as other citizens.
Gay Americans are eventually going to win on marriage just like we won on military service, the president should tell Congress, so why not save everyone on both sides of the debate a lot of time, trouble and money by approving the entire gay rights agenda? Send the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, the Uniting American Families Act and the repeal of the odious Defense of Marriage Act to his desk for his signature.
President Obama should take the opportunity in his State of the Union address to address gay rights, including ENDA, the UAFA, and yes, even marriage equality. The Republican House majority be damned. The time to get on the right side of history is now. And there’s no better place than in an address to Congress and the nation.
By the way, in case you're wondering, I'm under no delusion that any of this will actually be addressed in the SOTU. Like Dan Savage, I'm not an idiot. But I admire Savage's attempt to use the SOTU to put marriage equality in the spotlight. We need to remind President Obama that while the hate crimes bill and the repeal of DADT are great, they aren't enough, and we're not going away until we're equal in all respects.