Karen Ocamb

Biden, Duncan Support for Marriage Equality Underscores Political Minefield

Filed By Karen Ocamb | May 07, 2012 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Arne Duncan, constitutional amendment, Freedom to Marry, gay marriage, Joe Biden, marriage amendment, marriage equality, North Carolina, President Obama, same-sex marriage

Tomorrow, Tuesday, in North Carolina, the LGBT community and allies such as the NAACP square off against the extreme voices of antigay Religious Right intolerance as voters decide whether or not to pass the horrendous antigay Amendment One. The Obama re-election campaign issued a statement last March opposing the initiative.

Vice President Joe Biden on Meet the Press Sunday, May 6, 2012

But that's been it. Despite President Obama making repeated trips to the state, he's made no direct mention of the initiative. Therefore, considering the generally scripted nature of TV appearances, some LGBT politicos viewed Vice President Joe Biden's remarks on Sunday's Meet the Press just days before the NC primary to be more than merely fortuitous, especially placed in the context of a loving gay male couple in Los Angeles and their two adopted children. Biden told MTP host David Gregory:

I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men marrying women are entitled to the same exact rights. All the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly I don't see much of a distinction beyond that....

The good news is that as more and more Americans come to understand what this is all about is a simple proposition. Who do you love? Who do you love and will you be loyal to the person you love? And that’s what people are finding out is what all marriages at their root are about. Whether they’re marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals.

"I'm grateful that the vice president of the United States is now publicly supporting marriage equality and I hope very soon the president and the rest of our leaders, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, will fall in line with the vice president," said Chad Griffin, a member of the Obama campaign's national finance committee who will assume the presidency of the Human Rights Campaign next month.

But wait - this is gaffe-prone Joe Biden and sure enough, the White House immediately tried to walk back Biden's statements, claiming Biden, like Obama, is still "evolving" on marriage rights for same sex couples. In response to the attempted walk-back, Griffin, who was at that LA fundraiser, told Metro Weekly:

“His words can speak for themselves,” Griffin says. “I don’t think anyone in America — or, I should say, I don’t think anyone outside Washington — would have any question what the vice president was saying.”

The walk-back became even more difficult when Education Secretary Arnie Duncan said on MSNBC Monday morning that he, too, supports marriage equality. Duncan is the second cabinet official to support same-sex marriage. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan voiced his endorsement of marriage equality in an interview with Metro Weekly last November.

Obama senior advisor David Axelrod

Springing to the political rescue was Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod who immediately tweeted after Biden's comments: "What VP said–that all married couples should have exactly the same legal rights–is precisely POTUS’s position." He reiterated that point on a conference call with reporters Monday morning:

I think that they were entirely consistent with the president’s position, which is that couples who are married -- whether they're gay or heterosexual couples -- are entitled to the very same rights and very same liberties. And that’s why the president and the administration stood down on the DOMA court case. The president believes that the law is unconstitutional and when people are married, we ought to recognize those marriages and afford them the rights to which they’re entitled.

And that's really the essence, when you boil down what the vice president was saying – that was the essence on a policy basis of what he was saying. And that’s where the federal government comes into play.

And one other point on this. There couldn’t be a starker contrast on this issue than with Gov. Romney, who has funded efforts to roll back marriage laws in California and other places, who believes that we need a constitutional amendment banning the rights of gay couples to marry, and would take us backward, not forward. So, there’s a very clear distinction in this race.

True. Romney signed the National Organization for Marriage's pledge for a federal constitutional amendment banning marriage equality and contributed $10,000 to the Prop 8 campaign in California in 2008, among other comments to court the Religious Right.

But LGBT politicos see distinctions, too. A Politico story about the Biden comment, for instance, noted that

Biden's comments come on the verge of North Carolina's vote Tuesday over a gay marriage ban that was causing major frustration with Obama among gay marriage supporters: The president's against the proposed state constitutional amendment even though he isn't pro-gay marriage. They've also noticed that although his campaign issued a statement on that position in March and another one like it last month for a similar measure going before voters in Minnesota, the statement didn't come from the president himself.

In other words, the moves meant to add to the president's long list of statements and policies favoring gay rights have for many gay rights activists instead highlighted the biggest thing missing from that list: the president completing his self-described evolution and backing full marriage equality.

"You can see it like teasing," said Kevin Cathcart, the executive director of Lambda Legal, which leads court cases to expand gay rights around the country. "There is sometimes a disconnect between the administration and the community, because I think they think they're doing brave important things, and a lot of people on the ground think, 'Oh, come on already.'".....

Not exactly the stuff enthusiasm is made of for gay marriage advocates. As much as they applaud what the president's done on gay rights since taking office, LGBT advocates say Obama's opposition to gay marriage bans without backing gay marriage is the clearest example of not doing enough.

"It gives the people who are frustrated further proof to say, 'That's nice; he's saying don't amend the Constitution.' But where is he?" Cathcart said. "I'm not saying it doesn't matter where this vote goes, but at the end of each of those election days, no one is going to be able to get married in North Carolina and Minnesota."

In addition to the North Carolina and Minnesota votes, there are legalization efforts under way in Washington state, Maryland and Maine -- where, for the first time, voters will decide whether to grant equal marriage rights, rather than take them away.

Constantly through the campaign, Obama's going to be in states where marriage is either on the ballot, in the courts, has been recently legalized or where past bans have left simmering anger.

Add in the brewing fight to include a marriage equality plank in the convention platform, and the calendar will be full of reminders to LGBT advocates of how they see Obama falling short on the issue -- dampening their passion at the very moment Obama needs them and the rest of the base to turn out in force to compensate for losses elsewhere.

"It's not enough to be against against-marriage. The president needs to be forthrightly for the freedom to marry," said Freedom to Marry Executive Director Evan Wolfson, who's helping lead the fight to get the marriage equality plank in the convention platform.

But Axelrod's point is critical and should not be shrugged off by the LGBT community. A new POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll shows the presidential race in a dead heat with six months to go before the November election. Politico reports that, "Mitt Romney edged out President Barack Obama 48 percent to 47 percent among likely voters, a number well within the margin of error, as Republicans rapidly consolidate behind the likely GOP nominee."

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney

To be sure, antigay Republican politicos are frothing at the prospect of the LGBT community pushing Obama into "evolving" faster and confirming what many suspect - that he supports marriage equality and there's nothing wrong with that. But Obama's support for gay marriage would surely rally the Religious Right and conservative base that so far hasn't warmed for stiff Mormon Mitt Romney and may prompt more conservative, religious and older Democrats to stay home.

But what irks some LGBT Democrats is the disconnect between what the administration and the campaign say and the reality for LGBT people on the ground. To be sure, President Obama's record of achievements on LGBT issues is laudable,, especially, as Axelrod noted, compared to Mitt Romney, who's pro-gay record is painfully laughable (such as hiring, then edging out Rick Grenell, an openly gay spokesperson who's an expert in foreign affairs).

During the Obama campaign's conference call with reporters Monday morning about new campaign ads, Jim Messina said:

We have a very simple choice between going forward or going back. We know what going back looks like: the worst recession since the Great Depression, a decade of unpaid-for wars, and two sets of rules that let the middle class fall further and further behind. And we know what going forward looks like: an economy built to last, where everyone does their fair share, plays by the same rules, and has a fair shot at success. Going forward means that when responsible, middle class families work hard, they can get ahead. These ads help illustrate the choice before the American people in the campaign. (Emphasis mine)

And therein lies the rub, as Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, told Politico, "It is a thin but stark line between being against discrimination and for equality," said Carey. "It is very noticeable to same-sex couples that he has not clearly stated his support for our lives and our families."

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese told Politico, "Members of the LGBT community all across this country want to continue to hear that the circumstances of their lives, the genuine inequities they face, are at the forefront of the president's thinking. That goes beyond a particular statement around a particular ballot measure, although those things are enormously important."

Lyn Shimuzu, left, and her partner, Silvia Castellanos, right, play with a train set with their children, 6-year-old twins Che, left, and Liana, right, at their home in San Francisco. (Photo via Center for American Progress)

While Messina and Axelrod talk about how unfair it is to play by two sets of rules - they seem to miss (or worse, deliberately ignore) that they, too, are practicing benign neglect when it comes to the rules under which second class LGBT citizens must live. Yes, as Biden points out, marriage is about love and the ability to adopt children and create a family. But it is also about Social Security - the lack of which may force the surviving partner to become financially destitute or go back into the closet to receive care. As the Center for American Progress pointed out in 2009:

Recent data has found that denying LGBT people equal access to the institution of marriage, protection from employment discrimination, and other civil rights and family benefits may be contributing to higher poverty rates in the LGBT community than in the general population overall. Despite recent advances, LGBT civil rights are rarely addressed in policy debates surrounding poverty.

And while the Obama campaign continues to spout the slogan "We Can't Wait" as the incentive to fight for better jobs and fair-equal opportunity to get ahead, the Obama administration says LGBT people must wait for fairness and a real level playing field. Recently, the Williams Institute produced research in its push to have Obama sign an executive order prohibiting job discrimination against LGBT workers:

The Williams Institute has undertaken a significant body of research regarding the experiences of LGBT employees in the workplace. This research consistently shows that LGBT people continue to face high rates of discrimination in the workplace and that state and federal protections could consequently have a significant and positive impact for LGBT workers without overly burdening employers.

Significant findings include:

  • For over seventy years, Presidents have issued executive orders requiring workplace protections from discrimination, including employees of federal contractors. These orders have not been overturned by courts, Congress, or subsequent Presidents
  • A federal executive order that requires contractors to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity would protect up to 16.5 million more workers.
  • Over ninety percent of the country's largest companies, including federal contractors, state that diversity policies are good for their corporate bottom line.
  • Among the top 50 federal contractors, 81% include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies and 44% include gender identity.
  • Among the largest private defense contractors, state laws or private policies already cover 95% of employees against sexual orientation discrimination, 69% of employees against gender identity discrimination.
  • Ordinances that require city and county contractors to prohibit sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination do not burdening governments or businesses.
  • As recently as 2008, the GSS, a national probability survey representative of the U.S. population, found that 27% LGB respondents had experienced at least one form of sexual orientation-based discrimination during the five years prior to the survey
  • When surveyed separately, transgender respondents report even higher rates of employment discrimination and harassment than LGB people. In a 2011 survey, 78% of respondents to the largest survey of transgender people to date reported experiencing at least one form of harassment or mistreatment at work because of their gender identity.

The White House called a meeting of A-gays to explicitly say that President Obama refused to sign that order.

So while life for LGBT people under a Mitt Romney presidency would be extremely difficult, life under President Barack Obama is still a struggle with political expedience: once again the LGBT community is being asked – and told – to be complicit in the continuing oppression as official second class citizens. But increasingly, as those middle class LGBT couples, families and adoptive parents get pushed down and denied work while being ignored by the constitutional scholar campaigning on equality and fairness, that enthusiasm gap will turn into rank cynicism and the inability to see distinctions of any political stripe. How long is too long to wait for equality?

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