Today, President Obama at last acknowledged that he personally supports the right to marry for gay and lesbian Americans. Although the president maintains his position that marriage laws should be decided on a state-by-state basis, his personal statement provides a huge boost to the marriage equality movement. At a time when over half of Americans want full marriage rights for gays and lesbians, the endorsement of a sitting president is a meaningful signal of progress.
Sixteen years ago, in May 1996, People For the American Way became one of the first national groups to endorse marriage equality and vow to work toward it. In a note to members of the organization’s board, which was to vote on the issue, PFAW’s staff wrote that the Right had started to use the “marriage issue” to “polarize Americans” – a strategy that had its first major victory in the passage of DOMA later that year.
Despite all the progress that has been made for LGBT equality in the past sixteen years, the 1996 memo could have been written yesterday:
In recent years, People For the American Way has come to be a very important voice in the ongoing effort to rid America of discrimination and prejudice against gay men and lesbians.
We have done that over the years for the simple reason that it’s the right thing to do. Opposing discrimination and fostering respect and appreciation for diversity are core values for People For the American Way. These are precisely the values under attack in this latest campaign.
Of course, the marriage issue has very real implications for the everyday lives of millions of Americans. In the area of health care for example, existing marriage laws allow a spouse to make critical decisions for an incapacitated spouse; not so for unmarried couples wou haven’t gone through the necessary legal steps. In many hospitals, the right to visit patients in an intensive care unit is limited to immediate family; gay and lesbian partners – lacking the legal status of family – are often excluded, to the great detriment of both partners. In addition, enormous economic consequences flow from the inability of gay men and lesbians to marry, including significant tax and inheritance benefits.
The lack of legal recognition of gay and lesbian families is of particular concern when children are involved, since the children are deprived of the protection of a legal relationship with the non-biological parent and the ability of that parent to make important decisions for them in any number of settings, including schools and hospitals. And if the biological parent dies, the children may well be taken away from their other parent, who has no legal relationship with them.
Sixteen years later, marriage discrimination continues to hurt gay and lesbian American and their families. That a sitting president has publicly acknowledged the impact of that discrimination is very powerful. We hope that soon the injustice we outlined in 1996 will be hopelessly out of date.