03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

President Obama's Maine Chance to Make the Case

When President Obama speaks to gay and non-gay supporters of equality at the Human Rights Campaign's dinner this Saturday, he has a lot of ground to cover. I don't just mean the number of subjects to address, given the many ways in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in America are discriminated against. Nor do I just mean the pressures on the White House to begin delivering on promises made, or to respond to the disappointments and inaction that have made the Administration's first year rockier than it needed to be, given the faith most gay people have that the President still shares our vision of an America where all are treated equally.

By ground to cover, I mean that President Obama has the opportunity -- and I believe the obligation -- to speak in moral as well as concrete terms about non-gay people's stake in ending the exclusion and discrimination gay people endure. President Obama should not just talk about his general support for equality, and even just specific items he is working on, but, in addition, needs to make the case as to why Americans must continue evolving in support of fairness and freedom, and why anti-gay discrimination must end.

One good model for the kind of case President Obama should make to America was recently provided by the last president to speak at a gay equality event, Bill Clinton. President Clinton, who signed the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" into law in 1996, made headlines a month ago when he came out in support of the Respect for Marriage Act introduced by Rep. Jerry Nadler and 100 members of Congress to fulfill President Obama's pledge to repeal "DOMA." President Clinton explained to CNN's Anderson Cooper how he'd come to change his mind and support the freedom to marry:

I think, what made me change my mind, I looked up and said look at all of this stuff you're for. I've always believed that--I've never supported all the moves of a few years ago to ban gay couples from adoption. Because they're all these kids out there looking for a home. And the standard on all adoption cases is, what is the best interest of the child? And there are plenty of cases where the best interest of the child is to let the gay couple take them and give them a loving home. So I said, you know, I realized that I was over 60 years old, I grew up at a different time, and I was hung up about the word.

I had all these gay friends, I had all these gay couple friends, and I was hung up about it. And I decided I was wrong.

[O]ur society has an interest in coherence and strength and commitment and mutually reinforcing loyalties. If gay couples want to call their union marriage and a state agrees, and several have now, or a religious body will sanction it, and I don't think a state should be able to stop a religious body from saying it, I don't think the rest of us should get in the way of it.

I think it's a good thing not a bad thing. And I just realized that, I was, probably for, maybe just because of my age and the way I've grown up, I was wrong about that. I just had too many gay friends. I saw their relationships. I just decided I couldn't, I had an untenable position.

What's important here is not just the support for the freedom to marry, or even the fact of a changed position, but also that the former president made a compelling personal and value-laden case for doing the right thing, talking in specific terms about gay people, our families, American principles, and what the Vermont Supreme Court in its freedom to marry ruling called, our "common humanity."

President Obama needs to make the same specific and personal case. As I wrote to him in an open letter published in The Advocate last year:

Discrimination based on sexual orientation, particularly government denial of fundamental rights such as the freedom to marry, is not a gay problem. It is an American problem. And the cause of equal rights for all must always hold a preeminent claim on any president.

At another defining moment of ferment, challenge, and choice, one of your predecessors stood before Congress and summoned the nation to a civil rights "program" with words most thought they would never hear from an American president. In his inspirational "We shall overcome" address, Lyndon Johnson told Americans, "There have been many pressures upon your president, and there will be others as the days come and go.... I never thought [as a young man] that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of [my former] students, and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance. And I'll let you in on a secret -- I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me." Like Dr. King, Johnson understood that the "time is always ripe to do right."

In campaigning for the White House, President Obama committed himself to many gay civil rights priorities -- passage of an inclusive federal civil rights bill, toward which the pending Employment Non-Discrimination Act is an important start; ending the oppressive regime under which gay military personnel today serve our country in the armed forces; undoing current federal discrimination against legally married same-sex couples, including the full repeal of so-called "DOMA;" and moving the nation toward equal protections and respect for our families, youths, and seniors. In his speech, I want to hear some specific timetables for action: a commitment to pass ENDA in 2009 alongside health care reform, a plan for undoing military discrimination by 2010, an endorsement of the Respect for Marriage Act and a pledge to build congressional support to bring it to his desk this term.

But I also want to hear that case for why America needs to do this. As I urged in a Huffington Post piece in honor of Lincoln's 200th birthday, I want this President to summon the nation to, in Lincoln's words, "think anew" about ending anti-gay discrimination and exclusion.

President Obama has the perfect context in which to make that case: a clear and unequivocal call on the people of Maine to vote no in November on the anti-gay ballot measure aimed at undoing the freedom to marry enacted earlier this year.

Here is what I'd like to hear the President say to the nation, including the good people of Maine:

"Running for the White House, I told the country, and promised those who shared my vision, that, 'As your President, I will use the bully pulpit to urge states to treat same-sex couples with full equality in their family and adoption laws.'

Today I want to be clear that we have a lot to do here in Washington, in the states, and in the private sector - and a good place to start is repudiating the kind of anti-gay attacks we've seen from state to state, from California to Maine.

Earlier this year, following public hearings and careful examination of expert evidence and constitutional guarantees, Maine's state legislators passed a law ending the denial of civil marriage licenses to same-sex couples while assuring that clergy could continue to make their own choices about religious marriage. Maine's governor signed this important bill into law, but it now faces challenge in the form of a ballot-measure this November. I urge Mainers to stand up for equality and fairness. We should all treat others as we would wish to be treated - that's the Maine way, and the American way.

Like other Americans, I have wrestled with the question of how we end discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and provide equal treatment for all families. With time, conversation, and reflection, I have learned a lot more about gay people and their families and lives. I have visited with gay friends, heard their stories, and met with their parents and loved ones. I've watched them raise great kids, struggle to make ends meet, pay taxes, and care for one another in sickness and in health. I've seen gay couples contributing to our communities and building strong families. I've met gay young people who, like others, have the dream of falling in love and finding a partner with whom they can build a life together. These gay people share everyone's hopes and dreams, including the dream of a legal commitment to match the personal commitment they live out day to day with their partner.

The conversation about the freedom to marry and changing attitudes continues throughout the country, with many people of good will thinking it through. We all know that marriage matters, and that love and commitment enrich our lives here on earth. Government has no business putting obstacles in the path of people seeking to care for their loved ones, gay or non-gay. And it is wrong to take away rights from any group of people. We don't do that in America.

Ballot-measures such as Question 1 in Maine do not help families or strengthen communities; rather they undermine basic values and hurt families while helping no one. I oppose Question 1 in Maine and urge Maine's voters to reject this discriminatory effort to strip away rights and dignity from gay and lesbian couples.

Mainers should vote no, and should embrace full equality, including the freedom to marry. And as Maine goes, so goes the nation.

Thank you. Gay and non-gay Americans together, let's get to work."