By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of VirginiaPresident Obama’s announcement today that he supports same sex marriage is causing a media sensation. Yet, most of us have felt that, in his heart, he supported marriage equality all along.
Look at his history on LGBT rights. First, he told the lawyers at the Department of Justice to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, a horrible federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. Then he went after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” strongly supporting its repeal by Congress. He has also advocated for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which bans discrimination against gay men and lesbians by any employer with more than 15 employees.
In this context, Obama’s support for civil unions but not full marriage equality always struck me as being more about political timidity than his true feelings on marriage equality.
So why the change? And, why now?
What may be most remarkable about the president’s newly stated position on marriage for same-sex couples is the political landscape in which it occurs. Whatever the president believes in his heart, making this announcement at this time an indication he and his political advisors believe that voters across the nation are ready to embrace complete equality for gay men and lesbians.
So in the future, when marriage equality is as accepted as racial and religious equality is now, the president’s statement may be viewed as a turning point in the struggle for gay rights—that moment at which a sitting president of the United States who was not immensely popular announced at the beginning of a campaign for re-election that he supports marriage for same-sex couples.
Almost everyone I know, including those adamantly against marriage equality, admit that it is inevitable, just as everyone realized at some point that the civil rights movement would result in laws banning racial discrimination. There will be opposition -- just ask LGBT rights advocates in North Carolina and Virginia -- and it won’t happen overnight. But it will happen.
There are those who say that words can win this battle. Certainly nomenclature matters, and the more marriage is viewed as a personal decision, as an expression of commitment and support between two individuals, the more support it will have.
But in the end this is about equality under the law. You will still find in this society a lot of people who do not believe the races, or the sexes, or even the different religions are equal. But you will have a much harder time finding someone who will say that they shouldn’t be treated equally under the law.
That argument should – and will – apply to marriage for same-sex couples one day. And, President Obama will get some credit for it, as he should.