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RNC is Steele Stumbling on the Way to Equality

Posted: 02/26/09 03:53 PM ET

Like many others who watch political leadership closely, we were initially optimistic about the election of Michael Steele as the chair of the Republican National Committee. Not only did he offer a different face to the party, his profile had been one more of inclusion than exclusion. We hoped we might see the party led beyond strict conservative orthodoxy, particularly when it came to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.

Those hopes were quickly and emphatically dashed. This week Steele told conservative radio host Michael Gallagher that even having a conversation about protecting same-sex couples through a second-class status of civil unions would be to "backslide on a core, founding value of this country." For the first African American chairman of the Republican Party, Steele should rethink using "founding values" as a weapon against those different than himself.

Our infant nation was founded on a number of values - among them freedom, self-determination and equality - but unfortunately many of the values enshrined in our constitution and laws were unjust. From slaves being counted as less than a person to women being wholly disenfranchised, our first steps as a young country were weak and feeble. Yet as does a child, our country matured, and over time, we learned to walk. Through the struggles of generations of brave Americans the shackles of slavery were shattered and women gained not just the vote, but seats in our nation's capital. Jim Crow is no more.

It has taken more than 200 years for us to stand upright on issues of race with pride along with the perspective to understand the road still ahead of us. You can't see over the mountaintop crawling on your hands and knees.

Yet today in our country, many families aren't able to protect and care for each other because the laws of our land do not allow it. Same-sex couples - many of them raising children - are shut out of more than a thousand federal rights and responsibilities that come with marriage and only a handful of states offer some degree of legal protection. Strong families need access to each others health insurance, social security benefits and family and medical leave.

Seventy-five percent of Americans favor some form of relationship recognition for same-sex couples - be it through marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships. While we will continue to advocate marriage as the only true and equal protection for families, Steele would have us shut down that conversation entirely. Summarily denying basic legal protections on the basis of tradition and "foundational institutions" has a familiar - and frightening - ring to it.

The ideal of equality was the real wisdom of the founders. Yet some - including the new chair of the Republican Party - want to bend the arc of the moral universe back toward injustice by denying LGBT people the same rights as everyone else. It's time we run toward our more perfect union rather than revert to our infancy and lose sight of the dream. We might all be in a different place today were we to rely only on our "founding principles."

Robinson is the CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition and Payne is the Associate Director of Diversity at the Human Rights Campaign.