Last July, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) Americans and our allies celebrated New York State becoming the sixth and largest state to allow same-sex marriage. And, of course, it sent an urgent message to President Obama.
But what does it signal to us LGBTQ citizens when the first African American president wants to employ states’ rights, which once upon a time in this country federally mandated racial segregation and sanctioned American slavery, to address the issue of same-sex marriage?
As a civil rights attorney, Obama knows that employing states’ rights violates our full constitutional rights as well as re-institutionalizes the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson. As a result of that case, the ”separate but equal” doctrine became the rule of law until it was struck down in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
The fight for marriage equality in the U.S. is similar to my ancestors’ fight for freedom. In their day, before the Civil War in 1861, the U.S. consisted of 19 free states and 15 slave states. As a matter of fact, in the 2004 presidential race between John Kerry and George Bush where marriage equality was a hot-button issue, the election map results between Kerry’s blue states and Bush’s red states corresponded to the pre-Civil War free states and slave states, respectively.
As LGBTQ Americans, we’re not in slavery, but we certainly will be in a civil war as each state battles this issue. Whereas President Lincoln acted on behalf of my ancestors’ civil rights, we need to call on Obama to move on ours.
”The president has staked out a cynical political position aimed at not rocking the boat,” said Richard Socarides, who advised President Bill Clinton on gay rights issues. ”This states’ rights argument is a separate but equal argument. Would the president have thought it right to let the states decide on the issue of interracial marriage, or on whether or not women should be allowed to vote?”
In 2008, a blogger on Pam’s House Blend was prescient and saw the painting on the wall about Obama as a full-throated LGBTQ civil rights advocate and wrote:
”Obama not only thinks that separate-but-equal is just ducky for LGBT couples. It was a gimmick from an era in which Obama could have aspired to no position in the White House higher than that of head janitor… Once he’s in office, LGBT citizens will be forgotten. Obama is also in favor of the ‘States’ Rights’ approach to the whole marriage equality issue. This was a principle sacred to the White Citizens’ Councils a half-century ago and is just as unconstitutional now…”
Obama needs to remember that an African American woman named Mildred Loving not only set the precedent for same-sex marriage, but also paved the way for Obama’s parents to marry by challenging states’ rights.
Loving gained notoriety when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in her favor that anti-miscegenation laws executed by the state are unconstitutional. Married to a White man, Loving and her husband were indicted by a Virginia grand jury in October 1958 for violating the state’s “Racial Integrity Act of 1924.” The trial judge suspended their sentences on the condition the Lovings leave Virginia and not return to the state together for 25 years. The Lovings initially agreed and left, but returned soon after and decided to fight their case.
In advocating that same-sex marriage should be left up to the states, ABC News reported that Obama stated, ”I think it’s important for us to work through these issues because each community is going to be different; each state is going to be different.”
Perhaps, after nearly one full term in office, Obama is still unaware of the deleterious effects of how the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevents the federal government from fully protecting same-sex nuptials. DOMA denies us government-issued civil marriage licenses and over 1,100 federal rights and benefits, including Social Security benefits, the ability to file a joint federal tax return, and the right to petition for a spouse to immigrate, among other benefits and responsibilities conferred upon heterosexual married couples.
But how many sides are there to a politician’s mouth eyeing toward 2012?
”If Obama were to come out for marriage equality today, nothing could happen tomorrow,” said one Democratic strategist close to the administration who spoke on condition of anonymity to ABCNews.com. ”The Defense of Marriage Act still needs to be repealed, and that won’t happen soon with a Republican-controlled House in place.”
”I was reminded that it is my obligation not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society, but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided,” Obama wrote in his recent memoir, The Audacity of Hope.
While our president states his opinion is still ”evolving” on this issue, he needs to know that we LGBTQ Americans and our families want to sample what he and Michelle and every heterosexual married couple take for granted — marriage, not marriage-lite.
Our democracy can only begin to work when those relegated to the fringes of society can begin to sample what those in society take for granted as their inalienable right. For that to happen people, like state lawmakers, have to step in to make the democratic process work for us all.
And so, too, our president!
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African American church before coming to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow.