This coming Monday, January 18, marks the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day that Barack Obama will serve as president of the United States. And I have every hope that this president will take this most important of commemorative holidays as an opportunity to speak out in favor of equal rights for all Americans -- including gay and lesbian Americans.
If you'd asked me last year on MLK Day -- the day before Barack Obama was sworn in as president -- I would have told you that my hope wasn't so far-fetched. As a candidate, Obama was forthright in his support of gay rights: He spoke out in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; he was determined to overturn "don't ask, don't tell," the military policy banning openly gay service members; and during an interview with The Advocate he very clearly stated his opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbids federal recognition of same-sex marriages, saying, "I have for a very long time been interested in the repeal of DOMA."
I also would have told you -- as I do today -- that it isn't unreasonable to expect the president to use MLK Day as a platform to speak out again in favor of these civil rights issues of such critical importance to our country. Coretta Scott King was very clear about her husband's support of equal rights for all Americans when, nearly 10 years ago, she endorsed the Marriage Resolution, a compact that calls for nationwide marriage equality:
My husband, Martin Luther King Jr., understood that all forms of discrimination and persecution were unjust and unacceptable for a great democracy. He believed that none of us could be free until all of us were free, that a person of conscience had no alternative but to defend the human rights of all people.... The civil rights movement that I believe in thrives on unity and inclusion, not division and exclusion. All of us who oppose discrimination and support equal rights should stand together to resist every attempt to restrict civil rights in this country.
I have little doubt that Barack Obama is a person of conscience. And I still believe he's the same "fierce advocate for gay and lesbian rights" he described in 2008 -- at the very least when he goes upstairs at night. But as president he's upheld the antigay laws he spoke out against as candidate -- often without any footnote to outline the steps he's taken, or plans to take, to overturn those laws. And with the very important exception of the federal hate crimes law, which the president deserves tremendous credit for signing last year, his administration has stumbled time and time again on our issues. When Advocate Washington correspondent Kerry Eleveld asked press secretary Robert Gibbs last May what the president was doing to repeal DOMA now that same-sex marriage is legal in five states, Gibbs was tongue tied. "I...I will have to check on that one," he said. "I honestly don't know the answer to that." We got our answer one month later -- in the form of a Justice Department brief in support of the antigay law.
In one of the several times Obama has spoken about gay issues since becoming president, at a White House reception commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, he urged guests to continue pushing him and his administration on issues of equality. "I know that many in this room don't believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that," he said. "It's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African-Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half a century ago."
That's what we're doing in the current issue of The Advocate -- pushing the president and the Democratic Party. Our provocative cover story, by James Kirchick, reports on the growing "don't ask, don't pay" movement, which encourages people to rethink campaign donations to lawmakers who don't fight as fervently for equal rights as they promised they would when they were asking for cash as candidates. And that's what I'm doing today -- pushing the president.
Honestly, he doesn't need to make a dramatic or long speech to make a tremendous difference. As Kirchick points out in his Advocate cover story, President Jimmy Carter helped successfully turn the tide against the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 proposal to bar gay and lesbian teachers from California schools, with an afterthought following a prepared speech in Sacramento: "And I urge you to vote no on Proposition 6."
In June, President Obama told those gathered at the White House for the Stonewall celebration that, "We seek an America in which no one faces the pain of discrimination based on who you are or who you love." Hearing him say those same 22 words once again -- on the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day of his presidency, the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day since voters in Maine overturned gay people's right to marry, and the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day to fall in the middle of a federal trial to determine the constitutionality of a law [California's Proposition 8] that bans marriage equality, could make all the difference in the world.
To read more content related to this post, see "Gays vs. Democratic Party: They're fond of your checkbooks -- and deaf to your demands for equal rights. What will it take for the Democratic Party to step up?" on The Advocate website here.