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Profiles in Courage: JFK and Barack Obama

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On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy made a momentous civil rights address to the nation. This speech was a pivotal turning point in race relations in the United States. Had Kennedy not had the courage to make that speech, American history would have been different and, quite possibly, Barack Obama would not be President of the United States today.

Below is the speech I would like to hear President Obama make on Saturday, October 10, when he addresses the national meeting of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest lesbian and gay civil rights organization in the nation. It is a virtually verbatim version of President Kennedy's 1963 speech, but substituting sexual orientation for race.

Good evening, my fellow citizens:

This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.

Today, we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, we should not deny loyal Americans the right the serve their country. It ought to be possible for Americans of every race, gender, ethnic origin, and sexual orientation to serve in the military, to receive equal treatment in the workplace, to be free from hate crimes, and to marry the person he loves.

It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his or her race, gender, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. But this is not the case in America today.

This is not a sectional issue. Nor is this a partisan issue. Nor is this a religious issue. Men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics or religion. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. New laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue.

The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because of her sexual orientation, cannot work in a factory, if she cannot visit her life-partner in a hospital, if she cannot serve in the military, if, in short, she cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have her sexual orientation changed and stand in her place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? This Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.

We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for gays and lesbians; that we have no second-class citizens except gays and lesbians; that we have no class or caste system, except with respect to gays and lesbians?

Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make change constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.

Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment to the proposition that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has no place in American life or law. The Federal and State courts have upheld that proposition in a series of cases. The Executive Branch has adopted that proposition in the conduct of most of its affairs. But there are other necessary measures which only the Congress can provide, and they must be provided at this session. The old code of equity law under which we live commands for every wrong a remedy, but in too many communities, in too many parts of the country, wrongs are inflicted on gay and lesbian citizens and there are no remedies at law.

I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact the Employment Non-Discrimination Act which will give all Americans the right to work without regard to sexual orientation. This seems to me to be an elementary right. Its denial is an arbitrary indignity that no American in 2009 should have to endure.

I'm also asking the Congress to enact the Matthew Shepard National Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and to repeal the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which I have previously described as "abhorrent." I will further call upon Congress to enact federal legislation recognizing equal rights for all persons, without regard to sexual orientation, in the fundamental realm of family rights, including equal treatment under federal law of all persons who are in a legally-recognized marriage, civil union, or domestic partnership.

But legislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone. It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country. My fellow Americans, this is a problem which faces us all. Today, there are gays and lesbians who are denied the right to work, the right to serve in the military, the right to marry, the right to adopt. It seems to me that these are matters which concern us all, not merely Presidents or Congressmen or Governors, but every citizen of the United States.

This is one country. It has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. We cannot say to some of our fellow citizens that you can't have some of the most fundamental right of human beings. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that.

Therefore, I'm asking for your help in making it easier for us to move ahead and to provide the kind of equality of treatment which we would want ourselves; to give a chance for every person to be a full and respected citizen of this great nation.

This is what we're talking about and this is a matter which concerns this country and what it stands for, and in meeting it I ask the support of all our citizens.

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