On Wednesday, President Obama announced he supports same-sex marriage.
While I am definitely happy, I am not completely surprised. What the general public may not know is that President Obama has been one of the most supportive presidents of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in the history of the U.S. During his presidency, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act was passed, declaring that hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity would be considered a federal crime. He pushed to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to openly serve in the military. He banned all job discrimination based on gender identity in the federal government, and he order the Department of Health and Human Services to allow LGBT people to have hospital visitation and medical decision making rights for their partners. And the list goes on.
Despite all of this, Barack Obama made it very clear when he ran for office (for both the Senate of Illinois and the presidency of the United States) that he was not in favor of same-sex marriage. For the first half of his presidency, he held to this stance, often evading the question of marriage altogether or arguing that it was up for states to decide what was legal or not. In June 2011, when he said that his position was “evolving,” I had the feeling that he might eventually change his viewpoint, simply because it did not make sense that he would advocate for one LGBT social justice issue, but not another.
As a leader and member of the LGBT community, I noticed that many close friends and colleagues have given President Obama (and other elected officials) a “free pass” for their public positions against same-sex marriage. In an ideal world, these political figures would be forthright and supportive of all social justice issues that affect the millions of LGBT Americans in our country. However, perhaps holding onto such stances was merely part of one’s political strategy; if one openly shared her or his actual political views (which may not match what the majority believes), she or he would not be elected. And in Obama’s case, it would have meant we would have endured another four years of Republican rule, which likely would have not been very pro-LGBT. Despite this, when public officials and others in power are not vocal about their true and genuine feelings about a political issue, lives are indeed hurt.
I think about a young man named Tom Bridegroom who I learned about yesterday. Tom and his partner Shane Bitney Cone were in a loving partnership for 6 years and had planned on getting married once same-sex marriage was again legal in their state of California. However, tragedy struck and Tom died in an unexpected accident. Shane, who had been living with Tom for years, was denied hospital visitation and other rights afforded to other couples because Tom’s family did not acknowledge or accept their relationship. If Proposition 8 was never passed and the two were able to get married, Shane would have had the legal rights he deserved. And perhaps he could finally have the opportunity to grieve and heal from his loss.
Same sex marriage isn’t just about allowing LGBT Americans to get married to each other; it’s about advocating for basic human rights for all people. When same-sex couples are denied rights that heterosexual couples have, a message is communicated that LGBT people are second-class citizens. When LGBT couples are not allowed to adopt children or when LGBT youth are harassed or bullied, messages are sent that LGBT people are abnormal or inferior. All of these messages can negatively influence an individual’s mental health, which may lead to other known issues affecting LGBT people including depression, physical health disparities, and perhaps even suicidal ideation.
In fact, there are so many other issues within the LGBT community that continue to be unspoken and unheard of. For example, transgender and gender nonconforming people continue to be discriminated against on systemic, institutional, and interpersonal levels; research finds that transgender people encounter overt and covert discrimination in their daily lives, while experiencing disparities including homelessness, joblessness, and poverty at greater rates than non-transgender people. I think about a dear friend of mine, who I will refer to as M, who was detained at the airport a few days ago for not identifying as either a man or a woman. M was asked publicly about genitalia, forced to go through the full-body scanner three times, and finally coerced to choose a gender in order to make it through security. Others watched as M was visibly humiliated and treated like a circus freak, but no one said anything.
So while I believe that President Obama taking stance on supporting same-sex marriage is a step in the right direction for LGBT rights, I believe it is merely one step. I also think it is important for all of us who believe in social justice to be vocal about our viewpoints, even when it is not the most favorable or majority perspective. In fact, I have come to realize that the times in which we feel it may not be in our best interests to stand up for what we actually believe may be the times that we need to stand up the most. We need to use our voices, literally and politically, to advocate for equality and change; otherwise, we allow for injustice to continue and for pain and suffering to persist.