The Washington Post Friday, May 8, 2009
Believe it or not, often I can see the other side of an argument. I know that tough gun control laws save lives and make our communities safer, for example, but I also see clarity in the Second Amendment. I support affirmative action, but I realize that providing opportunity to some worthy individuals can mean denying opportunity to others. Thinking about some issues involves discerning among subtly graded shades of gray.
On some issues, though, I really don't see anything but black and white. Among them is the "question" of granting full equal rights to gay and lesbian Americans, which really isn't a question at all. It's a long-overdue imperative, one that the nation is finally beginning to acknowledge.
Before his inauguration, President Obama called himself a "fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans." Now, with the same-sex marriage issue percolating in state after state and with the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy ripe for repeal, it's time for Obama to put some of his political capital where his rhetoric is.
On Wednesday, Maine became the fifth state to legalize gay marriage; similar legislation in New Hampshire has been sent to the governor. Politicians in Washington who want to avoid what they see as a dangerous controversy have a convenient escape: They can say that the marriage issue should be left to the states and that the question of whether a legal gay marriage in one state should be recognized everywhere has already been addressed by Congress and ultimately will be settled by the courts.
But that's a dodge, not a stance. It certainly can't be confused with leadership.
Favoring "civil unions" that accord all the rights and benefits of marriage -- but that withhold the word marriage, and with it, I guess, society's approval -- amounts to another dodge. I'm concerned here with the way the law sees the relationship, not the way any particular church or religious leader sees it; that's for worshipers, clergy and the Almighty to work out. Marriage is not just a sacrament but also a contract, and the contractual aspect is a matter of statute, not scripture.
Obama took the "civil unions" route during last year's campaign and has stuck with it. While I see the political calculation -- that was basically the position of all the major Democratic candidates -- I never understood the logic. If semantics are the only difference between a civil union and a marriage, why go to the trouble of drawing a distinction? If there are genuine differences that the law should recognize, what are they?
It seems to me that equality means equality, and either you're for it or you're not. I believe gay marriage should be legal, and it's hard for me to imagine how any "fierce advocate of equality" could think otherwise.
Obama sensibly advocates the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." He should press the case by publicly reminding opponents of letting gays serve openly in the military that their arguments -- it would hurt morale, damage cohesion and readiness, discourage reenlistment -- are often the same, almost word for word, as the arguments made 60 years ago against racial integration in the armed forces. It was bigotry then, and it's bigotry now.
Obama should also make the obvious case that forcibly discharging capable, fully trained servicemen and servicewomen for being gay, at a time when our overstretched military is fighting two big wars, can only be described as insane.
What the president shouldn't do is stay away from the marriage debate on the grounds that it's not a matter for the federal government. For one thing, he's on record as favoring repeal of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act -- a law that blocked federal recognition of same-sex marriages and relieved states of any obligation to recognize out-of-state gay marriages.
Does Obama's stance in favor of repeal mean that he believes the federal government should recognize same-sex marriages? Does he also believe that, say, the state of Alabama should recognize a gay marriage performed in Iowa? If so, what is the practical difference between this position and just saying in plain language that gay marriages ought to be legal and recognized in all 50 states?
I'm not being unrealistic. I know that public acceptance of homosexuality in this country is still far from universal. But attitudes have changed dramatically -- more than enough for a popular, progressive president to speak loudly and clearly about a matter of fundamental human and civil rights.