Time for Federal Action

June 18, 2009
By Evan Wolfson
Executive Director of Freedom to Marry and author of Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality and Gay People's Right to Marry

On Wednesday, President Obama took a small step in the right direction directing his administration to provide some protections to same-sex partners of federal employees. Any measure that provides some support and respect to more families in America is obviously a good thing, but not a solution to the root cause of many of the hardships and the injustice gay Americans experience – the denial of the freedom to marry. Selected partner protections for federal workers, however good, fall far short of the vision of an inclusive and equal America that gay people continue to believe President Obama shares, despite the Administration's months of inaction and recent bad actions such as the Department of Justice's offensive brief filed in support of the federal anti-marriage law.

President Obama laid out this shared vision in a February 2008 open letter to the gay community:
“I’m running for President to build an America that lives up to our founding promise of equality for all – a promise that extends to our gay brothers and sisters…I support the complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – a position I have held since before arriving in the U.S. Senate. While some say we should repeal only part of the law, I believe we should get rid of that statute altogether. Federal law should not discriminate in any way against gay and lesbian couples, which is precisely what DOMA does.”

The rising frustration and disappointment that advocates of equality, gay and non-gay, have begun expressing is a warning signal that the Administration and Congress need to get the team and work back on track. The President's Oval Office statement yesterday calling again for repealing of the discriminatory so-called ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ or DOMA was a good marker by which to measure the needed progress; now the White House and Congressional leaders must move a repeal bill forward, working in partnership with gay organizations and the many others who support equal rights in America.

Shortly after President Obama's election, I published an "Open Letter" congratulating him and all of us who worked to secure the vote for the vision we share. I wrote, "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…We are ready for your leadership, and ready to do our part.” I urged the President to follow the example of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and provide the moral leadership and make the "bully pulpit" case to the American people that would help frame, spur, and accompany specific actions, some of which require legislation and some of which his administration can and should take now "at the stroke of a pen."

In February, as the Administration's inaction began to raise concerns, I wrote a piece offering lessons from Lincoln, President Obama's role-model:
"Lincoln's combination of tactical maneuvering and incremental action with consistent articulation of a clear moral standard over time helped elevate public understanding and commitment to what is right.... As Lincoln's words and actions skillfully paved the way for America's "new birth of freedom," he returned again and again to the Declaration of Independence's promise that "all should have an equal chance." Lincoln didn't expect that promise to waft in by itself, or solely on the work of others. He led."

It's time now for all of us, gay organizations, advocates of equality, the President, his Administration, and Congress to get back on track and start delivering.