The California Supreme Court connected human rights to reality last week when it ruled that same-sex couples have the same right to marry that heterosexual couples have. The court majority rejected the false notion that offering gay and lesbian couples a separate and unequal arrangement—civil unions—was anything less than second-classed citizenship.
It’s time for the presidential candidates to do the same. According to the New York Times, Clinton, McCain, and Obama all oppose same-sex marriage, while saying that same-sex couples should be entitled to the legal protections afforded married couples.
All three are wrong. The human right to marry has never been just about insurance coverage and tax status—though those are important. It is also about the more fundamental principle of recognizing the humanity and equality of gay and lesbian Americans; of recognizing that they are a part of the American community with equal value and equal dignity.
What’s especially troubling is that it seems likely that all three candidates would support same-sex marriage if they did not believe it was political suicide to do so. Again, they’re wrong. Although most Americans lean against same-sex marriage, most also believe that gay and lesbian Americans should enjoy basic human rights.
In a recent national poll by The Opportunity Agenda, 57% of Americans said that “equal opportunities for gays and lesbians” were human rights that should be protected. That included 71% of Democrats, 57% of Independents, and 40% of Republicans. Majorities recognized this human right in the Northeast, Midwest, South Atlantic, the West, and (by a margin of 51% to 49%) in the South.
The point is not that most Americans can be convinced to support same-sex marriage between now and Election Day 2008. It’s that most Americans, and most voters, simultaneously hold both inclusive and exclusionary values when it comes to gay and lesbian Americans. And, just as important, most will be willing to vote for a candidate who supports same-sex marriage as a matter of principle, even if they themselves disagree.
Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were each elected despite their opposition to Roe v. Wade, which most Americans support. Indeed, Americans cast votes every Election Day for candidates with whom they disagree on a single issue, and they respect candidates who stand by their convictions on tough issues.
In talking about same sex marriage, this season’s candidates can learn a lot from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s statements of support for the California Supreme Court’s decision. Newsom has astutely focused on opportunity, community, and human rights. Newsom told CNN’s American Morning, “this is so much bigger than the gay/lesbian, and bisexual community. This is about families coming together. This is about what we represent as Americans and what the constitution represents in terms of its principles and protections.”
Newsom told CNN’s Anderson Cooper:
“The reality is, take a look around. The people that are serving you gas, the people that are in your restaurants serving you, the firefighters, and police officers [are] members of the gay and lesbian community. They’re members of our broader community. And the fact is, we’re all affirmed when their rights and their opportunity to live their life out loud is affirmed. And, so, I think, eventually, people will come to grips with this, and then they will move on to things that matter more in their lives, health care, education, all of those things that the presidential candidates should be focused on, not this issue yet again.”
Newsom is right on the issue, and his message is one that will resonate far beyond California.