Nearly 42 years to the day after the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, New York — the legendary clashes between gay activists and police which gave birth to the modern-day gay rights movement — that state’s governor signed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. Just before midnight on Friday, after a 33-29 vote in the Republican-controlled state Senate, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed same-sex marriage into law.
Passage of the law makes the Empire State the sixth state in the U.S. to legalize such marriages, followed by Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa. Gays and lesbians can marry in the District of Columbia as well. Eight other states — Illinois, Hawaii, Delaware, California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington — provide civil unions or extensive marriage-like rights. And the news coming out of New York, which has a population of 19 million, is expected to send shockwaves throughout the nation and the world.
The question that remains is whether President Obama will lead on the issue and put his weight behind federal gay marriage legislation. In 2011, there are glaring comparisons to President Lyndon B. Johnson and his passage of civil rights legislation over four decades ago.
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President Obama has made measured, incremental steps towards civil rights for the LGBT community. Gestures by the administration — such as the repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy banning openly gay soldiers in the military, a refusal by the administration to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, and extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees — all point in a positive direction.
However, the president claims that he is “evolving” on the issue of marriage, which is a politician’s way of saying that he doesn’t want to go out on a limb. Apparently, Obama is cautiously watching the events unfold in New York, perhaps over-cautiously, and unprepared to take a bold, decisive and unequivocal stance for fear of political backlash from independents and church-going blacks and Latinos this presidential election season. This, despite a recent Gallup poll showing that for the first time, a majority of Americans favor legalizing same-sex marriages.
Arianna Huffington called Obama’s stance “the fierce urgency of sometime later” — this notion of half-stepping on gay marriage, troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and other matters, which amounts to kicking the proverbial can down the road and failing to deal with a problem head on. The failure of the Obama White House to get in front on gay marriage was evident the day before Cuomo signed the law in New York.
At a LGBT fundraiser in that state, Obama called for equal rights for gays and lesbians, but stopped short of endorsing marriage, saying: “I believe that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country,” a no-brainer for a president who has enjoyed vigorous support from the gay community and progressives. Meanwhile, Obama, who supports civil unions, has stated that marriage should be between and man and a woman, and that the subject of gay marriage should be left to the states. His position contradicts his support for gay marriage in 1996 before he ran for national office. Gay rights advocacy groups such as the Human Rights Campaign are pressuring the president to take a more forceful position on gay marriage. They would assume the role that Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement played in pressuring President Johnson to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
King’s march from Selma to Montgomery was designed to urge Johnson to expedite the Voting Rights Act. During that march, on March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers and local police descended upon 600 nonviolent demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The act of police violence, complete with teargas and billy clubs, was known as “Bloody Sunday.” Two days later a subsequent march was held with 2,500 marchers. That evening, three white ministers were beaten by several local whites. One of the clergy was a man named James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts who died from his injuries.
On March 15, 1965, Johnson addressed Congress, invoking Reeb’s memory and urging the lawmakers to pass the voting rights legislation. Comparing Selma to the battles of Concord and Lexington during the Revolutionary War, President Johnson called the events “a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.” Johnson presented Congress with a draft of the legislation. “Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over.
What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America,” the president said. “It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” On August 6, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Passage of these two bills required the civil rights movement to apply pressure on Johnson, who was suspicious of Dr. King and the movement. Johnson, in turn, had to apply pressure on Congress by seeking Republican support and dealing with resistance from segregationist Democrats. In fact, Johnson, a power broker and master wheeler dealer, rammed the bills down the throats of the Southern lawmakers. And the civil rights legislation entailed political risks for Johnson and his party. After signing the Civil Rights Act, Johnson predicted “We have lost the South for a generation.” Johnson told Robert Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen, “I know the risks are great, and we might lose the South, but those sorts of states may be lost anyway.”
He was correct. Starting in 1964, aggrieved Southern Dixiecrats, resentful over the Democratic Party’s support for the rights of African-Americans, began the process of “white flight” from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. For Lyndon Johnson, it was the right thing to do, though not necessarily the easiest or most convenient. But that is what leadership is all about. Civil rights defined his legacy in the White House, along with a crippling and expensive war in Vietnam — a cautionary note for President Obama.
Politicians act based on their political calculations, and sometimes they are compelled to do the right thing as a result of external pressure. Gay rights activists will likely subject Obama to the pressure that King and others visited upon Johnson. However, President Obama should welcome a bolder move to support gay rights, including marriage legislation. Such a move could help guarantee a second term for the Obama administration.
The president’s vocal support of gay marriage could increase enthusiasm among a jaded, disenchanted Democratic base that has experienced four years of broken promises and may be experiencing buyer’s remorse since 2008. More importantly, the issue of same-sex marriage could become the defining moment of the Obama presidency. Those voters who oppose the policy will be relegated to the dustbin of history. And Obama, like Johnson, cannot concern himself with those who live in the past and wish to be left behind.
Leaving the issue to the states to decide, as Obama suggests, is the most expedient approach. But history and demographic trends would suggest that it would prove the least courageous. When states were allowed to impose their own restrictions on marriage, the results were the miscegenation laws of the Jim Crow era, which criminalized and invalidated interracial marriage in a number of states. President Obama’s parents would have faced prison time in those states under such laws. It took the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia to overturn the miscegenation laws that remained on the books in 16 states. States such as Virginia justified these laws “to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,” and to prevent “the corruption of blood,” “a mongrel breed of citizens,” and “the obliteration of racial pride,” as was mentioned in the Loving decision.
Forty-four years later, Americans look back at the Jim Crow era with shame, and wonder what possessed people to enact such oppressive legislation. Today, a majority of Americans, especially younger generations, support same-sex marriage. And there will come a time when sexual-orientation-based restrictions on marriage will seem as misplaced as restrictions based on race. Certainly, the President Obama should consider how people 30 or 40 years from now will judge his administration’s position on LGBT rights.
Given that Obama is an admirer of Dr. King, the president should remember King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. In the letter, the civil rights leader addressed those Birmingham clergy who disapproved of his use of direct action in challenging segregation, and the timing of his demonstrations. King replied, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” He added, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
The recent news from New York provides proof to Americans that the train is coming. Last week in New York, Obama asked the gay community for patience, but time is running out for him. The times demand concrete action, not symbolic gestures or rhetorical gymnastics. When it comes to same-sex marriage, the Obama administration must decide if it will lead this train, or pitifully attempt to follow once the train has left the station.