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Why Equality Matters

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As we prepare to launch EqualityMatters.org, Congress has just approved a bill repealing "don't ask, don't tell." This highly significant victory is an important milestone in our effort to secure full equality. No one said it better than our president, who deserves substantial credit for helping to bring about this day:

It is time to close this chapter in our history," President Obama said in a statement. "It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed.

The president is making a crucial connection here. This victory not only means that gays and lesbians will be allowed to serve with the dignity they deserve, but that America is beginning to recognize that our struggle is for civil rights. America is beginning to understand that gay rights are human rights.

In order to win the "don't ask" effort, we needed not only to convince our friends that now was the time to act, but we also had overcome the homophobia of the obstructionist Republican apparatus and conservative movement. Although eight Republicans joined the Senate vote to finally right this injustice, within an hour of the vote, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said, "we are now stuck with sexual deviants serving openly in the U.S. military..."

"It's a tragic day for America," Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, told the Associated Press. "But I don't think this will really affect the marriage issue very much. It's been rejected by voters in 31 states."

That's exactly were Mr. Sprigg is wrong.

Our culture is changing rapidly. Most Americans believe that gays and lesbians are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as their fellow citizens, including now over 50 percent who believe in marriage equality.

We see other signs of progress too. For example, Ricky Martin, one of the biggest pop music stars of all time and Ken Mehlman, a former Republican Party chair turned Wall Street banker, felt comfortable enough to publicly proclaim their sexuality. Now, the gay high school kid on Fox's Glee has a great, show-stealing boyfriend. A New Jersey teenager's suicide gave new poignancy to a PSA campaign in which Americans from all walks of life, famous and not, spoke openly and candidly in record numbers about what it means to be gay and how "it gets better" - thanks to activist and writer Dan Savage.

In Washington, however, we have missed opportunities and have not so far been able to transform favorable public opinion into the powerful and undeniable force for change that it should have been. We believe that the moment for decisive action for full gay equality is here -- that this moment is a historic imperative. The goal of Equality Matters is to leverage our expertise in media and communications, and politics and policy, to support those who share that belief and help create an environment where policymakers, the courts, the media and the public at large understand that gay rights are human rights.

Despite the important victory we have just witnessed, make no mistake about it: we are still the only class of Americans for whom discrimination is codified into state and federal law. We have a lot of work to do.

Three basic commitments; and substantial progress.

President Obama made three core commitments to Americans on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. He would end "don't ask, don't tell"; fight for and sign into law legislation with basic employment anti-discrimination protections; and work hard to repeal the federal anti-gay marriage law (the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA). We have now achieved one out of three.

This milestone on "don't ask" repeal and the other progress we have made would not have been possible without true political leadership. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is perhaps the most significant example of someone who, as she has stepped on to the national stage, has embraced the cause of equal rights for gays and lesbians as one of her signature issues. Gavin Newsom, the new lieutenant governor of California and the first elected official there to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, is another.

There are others less well known, like Iowa State Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, who when urged to allow legislative action on reversing Iowa's court-imposed marriage equality rule, recently said: "The easy political thing for me to do years ago would have been to say, 'Oh, let's let this thing go. It's just too political and too messy.'" But, he added, "What's ugly is giving up what you believe in - that everybody has the same rights. Giving up on that? That's ugly."

And we have witnessed profound profiles in courage and conviction in the "don't ask, don't tell" debate. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made a passionate case for open military service. Gen. John Shalikashvili and Former NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark were other important voices. Rep. Patrick Murphy and Sen. Joe Lieberman simply refused to give up.

The "don't ask, don't tell" rule was first created in 1993. I was serving on the White House staff at the time and later became a special assistant and LGBT advisor to President Bill Clinton. The president, who supported fully open military service, was thwarted in that goal by then chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell (a Bush holdover) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Sam Nunn, who both strenuously opposed letting gays serve. The new rule was supposed to be a compromise of sorts -- a midway point. Gays could serve, just not openly. It never turned out that way.

In the almost two decades since "don't ask, don't tell" was enacted, the world has changed dramatically. Our perceptions have changed. Our expectations are higher around issues of basic fairness, dignity, and respect, both as a result of sweeping changes in the culture and changes in our politics as well. It's hard to imagine a rule like "don't ask, don't tell" being made law today. Even President Clinton eventually denounced the law and he has since become a supporter of equal marriage rights.

Marriage equality takes center stage.

The key issue President Obama and other policymakers face now is gay marriage. In the civil rights community, it has become a litmus test of sorts on whether one supports full equality. As an Illinois state legislator, Mr. Obama favored marriage equality and a generally more expansive view of gay rights. But as he ran for higher office, his position became more cautious (he now favors civil unions), although he recently told blogger Joe Sudbay that "attitudes evolve, including mine."

While some policymakers still exist in both parties who think that support for marriage equality is too much to ask, positions on this issue are changing rapidly as the culture of the country progresses. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, former first lady Laura Bush, former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olsen, former party chair Ken Mehlman, and Cindy and Meghan McCain all form the core of Republican supporters of marriage equality.

With New York Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo pushing for marriage equality legislation in the state early this spring and the federal court about to confer it (again) in California, it may not be long before it is the norm for many citizens across the country because of momentum created outside Washington, including in Iowa and the Northeastern states. In fact, in addition to New York, pro-marriage governors were also elected this year in California, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.

Another important factor in the evolution of where we are today is the democratizing impact that "new media" and the Internet have had on the equality movement. Bloggers like John Aravosis, David Mixner, Pam Spaulding, Joe Sudbay and Andy Towle have been an invaluable resource, providing up-to-date, provocative information to the gay political community that it could not get elsewhere.

Partially as an outgrowth of all this information, new gay rights groups like Get Equal and Fight Back New York, formed just this year, were able to demonstrate that you could get results by being tough on friend and foe alike (a fact almost no one in Washington seems to get).

The struggle for marriage equality goes back to the late 1980s when groups like Lambda Legal and leaders like civil rights attorney Evan Wolfson (now head of the equality group Freedom to Marry), brought the original same-sex marriage case. Many, even those who were gay rights supporters then, thought they were asking too much. The truth is that they were visionaries.

Last year, following voter approval of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California, another visionary, Chad Griffin, formed the American Foundation for Equal Rights. He hired two of the best lawyers in America, one of them the most respected conservative legal figure in the country, former Republican Solicitor General Ted Olson and Democratic legal superstar David Boies. Together, they have since won the most sweeping gay rights court ruling in history.

That ruling captured an historical imperative. Supporting full equal rights is no longer out of the political mainstream, nor should we let our elected officials fail to seize this moment in history to embrace the dignity of each and every human being. Anyone who misses the opportunity will undoubtedly find themselves on the wrong side of history.

And as the Democratic Party starts work on its new national party platform next year, it will have to face the issue head on, as will President Obama.

The challenges ahead.

Historically, some Democrats have believed in the faulty premise that voters who care about gay equality have no alternative but to support all Democrats. In fact, even within the Democratic Party there has always been a range of views, including some real champions (Howard Dean, for example, was the first significant political leader to support early civil unions) and some not.

Now we have even more options. In my home state of New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another marriage equality supporter and a Republican-turned-Independent, has staked out many aggressively pro-gay positions.

The gay Log Cabin Republicans made an important contribution earlier this year when their long languishing federal court case become the first to significantly and broadly strike down "don't ask, don't tell."

Then comes the issue of money. Gay and lesbian donors to the Democratic Party are frustrated with the sometimes slow place of change. Moreover, gay rights have become significantly more important to progressive donors generally, who are directing their substantial resources toward those who support full equality, ignoring those who don't.

Washington-based gay rights groups have faced daunting challenges in the past two years. With friends in power, it often seems like change should come more easily. As a former White House official, I understand how that view is part of the Beltway culture. Additionally, whenever a new Democratic administration arrives, especially when it is preceded by a conservative one, progressives generally have long lists of items they all want done right away. The fact is, not everything can be first on the list. I understand that, too.

But equality groups have had another huge obstacle. They have had to try to be strategic sometimes without clear and consistent White House guidance. Let's face it: LGBT rights lobbyists were in the same position as many other progressive activists (for example, those for immigration and climate change) - they often had to make strategy decisions based on mixed signals from the administration.

Because President Obama lacked close relationships or long-standing political connections to gay rights leaders, he should have appointed a senior staff person to oversee policy formulation on equality issues across the government from the start.

During the early days of the new administration, in a Washington Post op-ed I urged President Obama to talk about equal rights with the passion he seemed to project during the campaign. That is exactly what he did following passage of the "don't ask, don't tell" bill this past weekend. When I read the president's statement I knew, again, that he was with us.

Now, even with an incoming Congress not fully in his corner, the president still has enormous power to fight ongoing discrimination through enforcement regulations and by instructing the Justice Department to fight for an expansion of rights rather than a contraction of them.

Going forward, we must continue to do battle against the cynical obstructionists of the right-wing apparatus and conservative movement who still try to exploit fear for their own partisan and anti-Obama political reasons. It's clear the right-wing wants to continue to have this fight through the upcoming presidential election and -- as candidate Bob Dole tried to do against Bill Clinton in 1996 with the issue of marriage -- use it as a wedge against Democrats and progressives.

At the same time, we should insist that President Obama show moral leadership on marriage equality by not only endorsing it now, but by using his considerable powers of persuasion to help all Americans understand why equality matters.