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Struggling with John Edwards on Marriage Equality

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A question from the John Edwards event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire last week, on marriage equality (via this vlog)

QUESTION: Given that there's so much dissension in the country about gay marriage, what is your view, or what would you tell your gay supporters in the country what your view is on -- not gay marriage in a religious sense, but gay marriage as a civil right and as being able to get a civil license to marry your same sex partner?

EDWARDS: Single hardest social issue for me, personally -- and there are lots of them -- but most of the others, I don't have a lot of personal struggle with. I have a lot of personal struggle with this one.... Because the issue is, from my perspective, I think it is right and fair and just in America that men and women who want to live with their partner should be treated with dignity and respect and should have civil rights, as you refer to them. And the question becomes, 'Can you accomplish that through civil unions or partnership recognition and support of partnership benefits? Does that provide the level of dignity and respect that gay Americans are entitled to? Or do you have to cross the bridge into the issue of gay marriage?' I personally feel great conflict about that. I don't know the answer. Wish I did.

Well, luckily for Senator Edwards, the answer to that question is very simple.

Legally, marriage is marriage and anything less is just that: less. Civil unions and domestic partnership laws are discriminatory and hurt families. Marriage is the only currency of commitment the real world universally understands and accepts. Senator Edwards' question of how to "accomplish" civil rights is incredibly simple. Learn more about it at Blue Jersey's Think Equal campaign for marriage equality.

In his answer, Senator Edwards typifies one of the most frustrating things about working towards marriage equality: the misconception that civil unions are, or will eventually be, equal to marriage. Creating a separate system is inherently unequal. People who want equality should recognize that -- especially someone like Senator Edwards, whose high profile can help enlighten others.

Now, for the part of the question on what to tell his gay supporters, here's another portion of Senator Edwards' answer in Portsmouth:

It's very easy for me to say, 'Civil unions? Yes. Partnership benefits? Yes. Obviously all the other anti-discrimination stuff? Yes.' It's a jump for me to get to gay marriage, and I haven't yet gotten across that bridge. But it is something I struggle with, and that's just the truth.

Understandably, Senator Edwards has other concerns at the moment. He has to campaign for the presidency in states where voters have firmly rebuked marriage equality. He subtly acknowledges it in his response, saying, "I wish I knew the right answer [about extending equality], because some of it has to do with the time in history that we're in."Here, Senator Edwards hints that the answer he's really seeking is the political one. Senator Edwards isn't naive and neither are those fighting the hardest for marriage equality. They recognize the political reality of our country. Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, recently said,

This country is a patchwork. Every civil rights movement in America has been a patchwork. There are red and purple states out there where quite frankly I would never aim for anything more than civil unions. A blue state like New Jersey, I would never fight for anything less than marriage equality.

At the same time, Goldstein never pretends to struggle with the real world inequalities between marriage and discriminatory civil unions. When Senator Edwards says he doesn't know the answer to extending full equality, he's spreading a misconception and confusing progressives. He knows the answer to that question -- it's the political one he's struggling with.

Still, at this point, his answer is much better than the other candidates'. What Senator Edwards didn't say should be acknowledged, too. He was specifically asked about civil marriages -- not religious ones -- and he didn't disregard that by reciting the standard, 'I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.' It's definitely a start.

A better answer for Senator Edwards to give to his gay supporters may be, 'When it comes to legal equality for same sex couples and their families, marriage is the only currency of commitment the real world universally understands and accepts. But as it stands, most of our country is not there yet, and may not be for a generation. It is for this reason, I cannot say there will be any great action during my term. I can only say that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. The president is just one person, and he alone cannot bend that arc. But I do believe that in time, as more come to the realization of equality, it can and it will bend.'

This answer identifies the solution to the legal inequalities and the political reality. While both conclusions are evident, the idea that the country is not ready for marriage equality is much better understood than the fact that only marriage is full equality. The latter is a bitter pill to swallow before the American public, but coupled with the former, it goes down a lot easier.

Speaking the truth on this subject is pragmatically the most important thing Senator Edwards can do for same sex couples -- as a candidate or as president. For, few, if any, expect him to promote marriage equality by the constitutional powers of his office. Instead, his unofficial power of the bully-pulpit will have the greatest impact on the future of equality in this country.

That's why it's important he stops "struggling" and tells the country the truth -- all of it.

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