Civil Rights

Obama, It’s Time to Step Up

New York may have passed gay marriage, but when will the president finally get on board? Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black on how a state-by-state solution divides the country.

06.26.11 3:09 PM ET

Friday night will be remembered as a watershed moment in the march toward full equality for all Americans—the night a bipartisan group of legislators made New York the sixth state in our nation to extend the guarantee to freedom for all its residents to marry.

But as encouraged as we all were with the outcome in Albany, I was troubled by President Obama’s remarks at the LGBT Leadership Council Gala last Thursday in Manhattan.

The president told supporters that he believes gay and lesbian couples should have the same rights as every other couple in America; I’m glad to see his continued “evolution” on the issue. But he also told the group that marriage “traditionally has been decided by the states.” Not only does this tell me that his evolution is not complete, it feels like the president has taken one step forward and three steps back.

It was only three years ago in Philadelphia when then-Senator Obama gave a major speech on race in America, and talked about “a Constitution that had at its very core the idea of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty and justice and a union that should be perfected over time.”

He spoke that day of the “protests and struggles, on the streets and in the courts” that would eventually “narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”

But Thursday, he made the same argument that has been used time and again to deny equal citizenship and widen that gap.

I do hope the 44 states that force a second-class citizenship on gay and lesbian residents will reverse course quickly. I hope legislatures across America will see the arc of history and act—rather than be left behind. I hope that as each state takes up the issue, the votes become more bipartisan and less controversial.

I hope that every state will do what New York did on Friday, but I know that a solely state-by–state solution could mean years of pain, decades of waiting, and too many of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters left behind. A solely state-by-state solution sends a government sanctioned message to the bigots and bullies that in some states it’s OK to treat LGBT people as undeserving of equal rights. And worse still, a solely state-by-state solution will always be subject to political winds and will therefore never feel permanent.

Obama knew when he spoke in Philadelphia that throughout history it has been the courts that have protected our individual rights and liberties. That’s why he talked about the struggles in the streets and in the courts—not in the state houses and the ballot boxes.

Mr. President, please consider the LGBTQ children living in Mississippi, Arkansas, and in my home state of Texas. Are their lives less worthy of protection than those in New York, Massachusetts, and Iowa?

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If the civil rights of this country’s minorities are left to the states, then this will become a checkerboard nation where some areas are free and some areas are not free. Children in some states will be told to lift their heads high and others will be told they are second-class citizens, less than, and that their love and their future families are not worthy of this nation’s protection and admiration.

Fourteen times, the Supreme Court has held that marriage is a fundamental liberty. Marriage is the birthright of all Americans and “the most important relation in life.” On none of these occasions did the justices restrict their decision to couples living in one state or another.

Forty-four years ago, the court dismissed the notion that marriage can be decided by the states when it unanimously held that “the freedom to marry, or not to marry a person of another race rests with the individual, and not with the state.” Loving v. Virginia struck down anti-miscegenation laws nationally—not just in Virginia. Until that point, the president’s own parents would have been subject to arrest in more than a dozen states for the crime of loving each other and having their relationship recognized publicly.

Now, a gay teen in New York is able, for the first time, to imagine a new future—a future where he can grow up feeling like a full citizen, a future where he can meet the person of his dreams, fall in love and, if he wants to, get married.

Meanwhile, just across the state line in Pennsylvania and across America, other gay and lesbian young people wonder when they can hold the same hope. They wonder when the government will allow them the same rights and protections as their classmates and siblings.

It’s time for the president who made hope the central theme of his campaign to stop denying that hope to so many Americans. It’s time for President Obama to complete his “evolution.”