President Barack Obama is the most pro-LGBT president in American history. His record on LGBT rights is unrivaled, but he has yet to publicly endorse same-sex marriage (“marriage equality”). The White House has announced that Obama’s State of the Union address will focus on the economy and a “return to American values.” Marriage equality represents the American values of equality, liberty, and the respect for the civil rights of all Americans. The State of the Union is the perfect opportunity for Obama to endorse marriage equality.
Obama’s record on LGBT issues is unrivaled in U.S. history. As president, he repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," which prevented LGBT Americans from serving openly and honestly in the armed services. He prohibited discrimination based on gender identity in federal employment, expanded federal benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees, and lifted the ban on the entry of HIV-positive individuals into the U.S. He has also called for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and believes that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional; his administration will no longer defend it in court. Yet, his silence on marriage equality lingers.
To be clear, Obama does not have the authority to single-handedly end DOMA or to legalize same-sex marriage in the U.S. But his support would be an important and symbolic step forward. His support would make sense given the other LGBT family-related initiatives he endorses. He believes in adoption rights for LGBT Americans and equality in U.S. immigration law for LGBT Americans and their partners. This affects not only LGBT Americans in the U.S., but also U.S. service-members and diplomats who serve overseas and whose partners may not be legally able to move to the U.S. He opposes a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and supports the Respect for Marriage Act, which would grant equal federal legal protections and rights for LGBT couples and straight couples.
To be sure, marriage equality is not the most important goal in the lives of LGBT Americans. Under Obama’s leadership, numerous federal agencies have announced rules and regulations that have an impact on the everyday lives of LGBT Americans. The Department of Health and Human Services requires all hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid to allow visitation and medical decision-making rights to LGBT patients. The Department of Labor announced that the Family Medical Leave Act applies to LGBT parents caring for their children, and same-sex domestic partners can now apply for long-term care insurance. The State Department announced that transgender Americans can obtain passports that accurately reflect their gender. The Justice Department declared that persons with HIV/AIDS are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has developed regulations to ensure that housing programs do not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. These are good policies which embody American values.
Marriage equality is not just good policy, it is good politics. America is ready for marriage equality. A 2011 Gallop Poll showed that the majority of Americans support marriage equality. There is overwhelmingly more support for marriage equality now than there was for interracial marriage when the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia. Governors from Maryland and Washington State are following New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s lead and making marriage equality one of their top priorities this year. Increasingly, national lawmakers are publicly endorsing marriage equality. Thirteen governors, 21 senators, and 61 members of the House of Representatives support marriage equality. Unfortunately, the overwhelming support comes from Democrats. Only one Republican congressperson, Ilena Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, supports marriage equality. Obama’s support and leadership are not only welcome, but needed.
The president will not lose support for endorsing marriage equality. Sure, there are people who are against it, but there is no evidence that they would either vote for the president in the first place, or that they would withdraw their support because of his endorsement. Instead, he will strengthen his support, particularly among younger Americans, who are overwhelmingly supportive of marriage equality, and disaffected liberals, who want to see him support marriage equality not after he has won a second term, but before his re-election.
State of the Union addresses are an opportunity for presidents to outline their initiatives and goals for the year, and an opportunity for them to announce their support for initiatives that they believe are important for the country. Marriage equality should be on that list. As Obama is fond of saying, “We can’t wait.”
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