In both states, a new wrinkle appeared in the campaign strategy, instigated by Mr. Obama. Days before the the Texas and Ohio primary were to be held, Obama released an "Open Letter to Gay Americans" detailing his positions on gay rights and explaining why gays (and those who support them) should vote for him. He followed up with a provocative advertisement placed in major gay publications in both Texas and Ohio which evoked the watershed Stonewall Riots and stressed equal rights, highlighting the words "dignity and respect."
It was one of the first times during this campaign that gays have been targeted so specifically. It's also a strike at an important, yet small, demographic that is somewhat up for grabs.
In his open letter, Obama stated that it was wrong to have "millions of Americans living as second-class citizens," and promised to help bring equality to the LGBT community if he becomes president. He mentioned his pro-gay actions as senator in Illinois and on the national stage, and he said he would repeal the Defense Against Marriage Act (DOMA), enact the Matthew Shepard Act, which would outlaw gay-related hate crimes, and pass a more comprehensive Employment Non-Discrimination Act to protect the LGBT community. Obama called the DOMA a discriminnatory law passed by the conservative 1996 Senate under Bill Clinton, which says that states and the federal government need not recognize same-sex marriages conducted in other states.
He also pointed out that Hillary Clinton would not completely repeal it. He promised to eliminate the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on homosexuals in the military, another subtle dig at Hillary; Bill Clinton passed the original law as a compromise in 1993.
So, that's very promising, right? It's great news for the LGBT community to have a candidate who so openly and honestly supports the strengthening of gay rights. Clinton has also stated she would work to equalize gay rights in much the same way, but she hasn't made a statement as dramatic and public as Obama's open letter. Regardless, if either Obama or Clinton wins the presidency in November, it's good news for gays and lesbians in the United States.
However, there are some important caveats in Obama's open letter, ones which make me question his desire to honestly combat homosexual inequality in this country. First of all, Obama said he believes that "civil unions represent the best way to secure that equal treatment." Civil unions are a noble step and establish most of the most important rights of partnership that gay couples have been craving for decades.
I still can't shake the feeling of "separate but equal" whenever I hear about the distinctions between "marriage" and "civil unions." Why not just call them marriages? I know it's because this would cause an already difficult-to-convince conservative audience to retract any support for equal rights, but it's still not true equality.
It's making a distinction, a segregation, based solely on sexual orientation, which to me still reeks of discrimination. Obama's not alone in supporting civil unions rather than marriage; Mrs. Clinton supports the same thing.
The other troubling detail in Obama's open letter is who gets to decide on gay partnership rights. He said "I also believe that the federal government should not stand in the way of states" in terms of deciding between civil unions, marriage, domestic partnerships or even banning any kind of partnership altogether. While I'm usually for states having the final say in enforcing policy, in this case I must protest. Let's look at how states have decided to handle gay partnership rights in the past. At present, there is one state which allows gay marriage, four states which allow civil unions, six which allow domestic partnerships (a lesser form of civil union which varies in privileges from state-to-state), and all the rest ban partnerships either by statute, constitution or law. 11 out of 50. Doesn't seem too promising.
Obama says he would "use the bully pulpit to urge states to treat same-sex couples with full equality," but who knows how much influence he would actually have over state policy. Leaving it up to states will get gay equality nowhere. Action is needed at the federal level to end discrimination, just as it was when Lyndon B. Johnson supported the Civil Rights Act to end school segregation.
It's truly wonderful that Obama and other candidates like Mrs. Clinton support gay equality more than any other major presidential candidates in history. This is undoubtedly encouraging for LGBT people everywhere. But it's not perfect. This should only be the beginning. Civil unions cannot be seen as the end of this situation, but as a stepping stone to fully equal marriage. If this is the best we can get this year, so be it, but unfortunately it means that the fight for gay rights must continue.