Obama’s Ground-Breaking Gay Rights Speech*
New York City, June 28, 2009:
“Forty years ago today, the New York Police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. These sorts of actions were common, and tolerated by the bar owners and the patrons of the bar, who were a mix of outsiders generally not welcome in the mainstream community: drag queens, hustlers, homeless young men, a few lesbians. The more mainstream clientele lived double lives, fearful that they would be discovered and lose everything: their jobs, their families, and their standing in the community.
“Although a movement towards gay rights had begun before Stonewall, the officers who raided the bar that night could not have expected the resistance they encountered. The gay community, led by its most marginalized members, had had enough. Skirmishes between police and patrons spilled out onto the street, and catalyzed further confrontations and demonstrations throughout that week. Within months, the gay rights movement as we know it today had taken root. The accomplishments of what is now called the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered “(LGBT”) community have been remarkable since that time, but the work is unfinished.
“Today I commit myself and my Administration to doing what we can – what we must – to achieve the goal of equality. Let me explain how I arrived at this point, and why I believe it’s so vital for all Americans to embrace – not just tolerate – the goals of legal and social equality for the entire LGBT community.
“For most of our history, and to a large extent even today, gays and lesbians have lived in the shadows. Their personal lives were unspoken and unspeakable, and their history, too, is but little-told. How many even know about Stonewall? Such ignorance of seminal events in any other equality movement would be shocking. Gays and lesbians are in all of our families, or the families of people we know, but for too long we pretended otherwise. The time for doing so is over.
“True, there has been great progress on the social front over the last decade or two, but the law and the dignity it teaches and confers have lagged behind. It is past time to lash the hopes and aspirations of this large and beautiful family of Americans to our great national mast.
“Why now? The anniversary of the Stonewall Riots provides an obvious occasion for a call to action, action I promised during my campaign. But I’m delivering this speech for another reason. Earlier this month, the Department of Justice filed a brief seeking dismissal of a case challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA, as it’s usually called, defines marriage for federal benefits as the union of a man and a woman. As a practical matter, this means that a gay or lesbian couple validly married in their home state are nonetheless unable to receive any of the federal benefits that their opposite-sex counterparts do.
“I don’t support DOMA, and have called for its repeal. So why are we defending it in court? Generally, that’s what we do, as long as there’s a solid legal argument to make, even if we don’t agree with it. We can oppose the suit and try to get DOMA repealed at the same time. But both the blogosphere and all of the main LGBT advocacy groups erupted in anger when they read the brief. I was shocked and dismayed at this anger at first. But now I see that it was entirely justified. The brief recounts and gives support to some of the worst homophobic cant, much of it firmly and decisively rejected by fair-minded people, even if the law is less clear. That some of it still finds any support in law is distressing. It woke me up to the plain fact that the judiciary is hardly immune from some of the assumptions and prejudices about gays and lesbians that have been around for far too long.
“I don’t fault the DOJ for their actions; they are smart lawyers, trained to make whatever arguments might plausibly be advanced. But I should have firmly stated my position against making the kind of arguments that appear in the brief. Accordingly, today I have made the probably unprecedented move of directing the DOJ to request that the motion be withdrawn. Admittedly, there’s some controversy about the proper role of the Administration in directing the DOJ, but I’m confident that this is legally appropriate; and it’s the right thing to do.
“And let me state, clearly and directly, that the statements in the brief suggesting that the LGBT community is not entitled to equality, are unacceptable. On behalf of my Administration, I apologize not only to the community, but to everyone who found such arguments distasteful, or worse.
“What next? It’s not enough to withdraw a brief, because the underlying law – DOMA – is still there, as are several laws that diminish and degrade the LGBT community. I believe that all of these laws are related, and that all must be dealt with.
“First up is the federal hate crimes bill. Now, this might seem like an easy thing to enact, because no one favors acts of violence. But there is a controversy about whether to include protection based on gender identity and expression in the law. Obviously, people of non-conforming gender – often but incompletely referred to as transgendered – make lots of folks uncomfortable, including legislators. Many don’t understand gender confusion or failure to conform. But the bill must contain this protection, or I will send it back for redrafting until it does. Because the quest for equality that I’m today endorsing will have done with a piecemeal approach. And those of non-conforming gender are especially likely to face violent attacks, because of a more dangerous form of the fear I just mentioned. A bill that omits from its protection those who need it most isn’t worth signing.
“We also need to move, before the end of the year, to enact an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act – again, one that includes gender identity within its protection. The right to be hired, or not to be fired because of your sexual orientation or gender expression is still only guaranteed in a minority of states. This must change. And while policy and polls are too often fused, here it’s worth noting that large and consistent majorities of Americans favor this protection. The law will reflect good, fair business practices.
“Repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell military policy is also a priority. The policy is indefensible on grounds of national security. Many folks are aware that we have a shortage of Arab translators, and that this shortage can entirely be traced to “don’t’ ask, don’t tell.” If the gay translators hadn’t been kicked out, we’d be in much better shape to face the challenges that confront our military.
“Why is this policy in place, anyway? The only argument you still hear is that of “unit cohesion” – if straight soldiers are uncomfortable with openly gay soldiers in their ranks, the mission could be imperiled. Some military officers believe this, but opinions are changing.
“But there’s no evidence for this position. It reflects a vestige of the earlier, society-wide policy that consigned gays and lesbians to the shadows, unable to live openly as who they are. Imagine being gay and in the military: You can’t talk about it, you’re probably taking a risk by being in any kind of serious relationship (even if you don’t talk about it), and you live in fear of being found out. In 2009, this isn’t a notion of “unit cohesion” that makes any sense. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” leads, in fact, to the undermining of cohesion by requiring and enforcing the dishonesty of silence.
“The last of the major issues on which I promised federal action, but have so far not acted, is the Defense of Marriage Act. This brings me back to my inspiration for today’s speech – the misguided brief that we filed in the DOMA challenge case. Marriage is working itself out, dynamically, on a state-by-state basis. In those states where gay and lesbian couples have, with great purpose and effort, secured the right to the same marriage rights that opposite-sex couples can take for granted, the federal government should not be erecting another barrier, which is what DOMA does. These same-sex couples have all of the same challenges and responsibilities of all married couples. There’s no good argument for denying them the benefits that we bestow on straight couples.
“So what about marriage itself? Yes, it’s a state issue, and here I’d be on safe, firm ground by reiterating my position: Respect for states that allow same-sex couples to marry, while my own preference has been for civil unions. Many have supported civil unions as a compromise that confers all of the benefits of marriage on gay and lesbian couples, while recognizing that for religious, historical, and social reasons, marriage itself is reserved for opposite-sex couples.
“In “The Audacity of Hope,” I wrote that it was ‘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….’
“I’ve now concluded that my opposition was, in fact, misguided. In a twist of irony that perhaps the LGBT community can one day appreciate, it was my study of the DOJ’s DOMA brief that crystallized my thinking on this issue. I’ve also been reading the decisions by state courts and the debates taking place in state legislatures. Vermont decided that ten years of civil unions were enough to show what everyone should have known from the start: Separate but equal legal institutions can’t be defended. As the courts have said, if the difference were not important, no one would have gone through the trouble to create a new, parallel institution. While states might find the civil union an easier pill to swallow politically, they are not a prescription that cures the problem.
“Gays and lesbians are fostering and adopting children, and creating families in all kinds of ways, as are many straight families. We should welcome and support this kind of responsibility, not continue to impede it. Many thoughtful conservatives actually support marriage equality, and it’s easy to see why. Those who are willing to work to build the strong families that society wants should be encouraged, not discriminated against.
“While my mixed-race background has given me an invaluable perspective on issues of racial equality and justice, it has not directly shaped my view of the challenges faced by gay, lesbian, and transgendered Americans. Yet I know that inequality and the loss of dignity that too often is a consquence of it is not limited to race. In “Dreams from my Father,” I wrote of my transformative experience in my church: ‘Our trials and our triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black….’
“I quoted these same lines in my “Race Speech” a little more than a year ago. Today, it is time to consider the ‘more than black’ more fully. For one of the great gifts of the civil rights movement was its insistence that every life has dignity, that all families deserve respect, and that every person has potential that can only be fully realized when legal and social oppression are confronted, and declared unacceptable and unworthy of us, as a people and as a nation.
“That same speech also referred to the constitution. I said then that the answer to the slavery Q was already embedded in our Constitution – which has at its core “the ideal of equal citizenship under the law.” That Constitution, I added, also “promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”
“Let me move away from the abstract to the real, closing with a story that is extraordinary only in its extent, not in its impulse. Steve Lofton and Roger Croteau are long-term partners who, over the years, became foster parents to five needy children. Several had HIV, and were considered “unadoptable” by the local department of social services. Yet under Florida law, these foster parents couldn’t adopt any of these children. By my definition, this is a family. Yet this family could have been sundered by adoption, and there would have been no recourse.
“The family moved first to Oregon, where they were able to adopt their kids. Then, so that their kids would be able to be part of a family whose dignity was respected and whose equality was recognized, the family moved to Vancouver, Canada.
“Gay or straight, isn’t this the kind of family we want to celebrate, not demean or needlessly stress?
“That Steve Lofton and Roger Croteau were able to create a family against these obstacles should tell us all we need to know. We can’t expect every family to look like this one. But shouldn’t we be creating the legal environment that fosters strong and loving families, with or without children?
“No family is perfect, but good gay and straight families, fully recognized and respected, can help us in our expanding effort to achieve a more perfect union.”
*The one I’d love to hear.