If You Want to Be a Leader, You Can't Be Afraid to Lead

On Monday in the first-ever CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential debate, Americans directly challenged candidates to address the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. The questions posed by people sharing their stories and truly looking for answers were clear and concise. The candidates' answers, on the other hand, while affirming, were still incomplete and unconvincing, leaving voters unclear as to why those who say they are for "equality" are not, in fact, supporting that equality under the law when it comes to the simple and cherished freedom to marry.

Ironically, the record shows that the candidates' timidity is unnecessary, as Americans are ready to accept leadership on this question.

Mary and Jen in Brooklyn, New York asked a direct question: "If you were elected president of the United States, would you allow us to be married...to each other?" Rep. Dennis Kucinich gave a clear and powerful affirmative (former Senator Mike Gravel also shares this stance, but wasn't offered an opportunity to respond). The others who answered all professed their support for equal protections for same-sex couples, but then offered Mary and Jen not the freedom to marry the candidates themselves have enjoyed, but other legal mechanisms that fall far short of marriage. In their aspirations, the candidates got the 'what' right--equality, but when it came to their policy positions on the 'how' -- ending the denial of the freedom to marry to committed same-sex couples -- they fumbled.

While marriage, under U.S. law, is a civil union, "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships" are not marriage, and do not provide what only the freedom to marry does. These alternative legal mechanisms have deliberately been created both to approximate and withhold marriage itself. Six years since the first civil unions (in Vermont), and with several states (California, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, and Vermont) now having gone down the non-marriage path, real-life application has shown that such separate alternatives do not provide equality in either the intangible or tangible protections, security, clarity, and respect that marriage brings.

The only way to end discrimination in marriage is to do just that -- end discrimination in marriage, not create a parallel and unequal thing for some committed couples and their kids.

The second question came from Rev. Reggie Longcrier, a pastor from Hickory, North Carolina. "Most Americans agree it was wrong and unconstitutional to use religion to justify slavery, segregation, and denying women the right to vote," said Rev. Longcrier. "So why is it still acceptable to use religion to deny gay Americans their full and equal rights?"

Senator John Edwards concurred that it is wrong for "any of our faith beliefs to be imposed on the American people when we're President of the United States." He then talked about his "enormous personal conflict" on the marriage question, and referred to his "journey on this issue." In this, Senator Edwards aptly captured the rethinking many fair-minded Americans are experiencing as gay and non-gay family-members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers invite conversation about who gay people are and why marriage matters. I am a big believer in encouraging people on these "journeys" to fairness, as described in my book, Why Marriage Matters.

However, none of what Senator Edwards said answered the basic, and correct, question posed by Rev. Longcrier. Since the Senator rightly agreed that using "religion to deny gay Americans their full and equal rights" is wrong, and also believes, he says, in the provision of all legal rights and responsibilities, then why doesn't he support the freedom to marry under the law?

Senator Edwards was not the only candidate trying to have it both ways. Senator Barack Obama gave perhaps the most frustrating answer of all. Dodging the moderator's reminder that interracial couples, such as his parents, were denied the freedom to marry as recently as 40 years ago, Obama skipped over legal marriage rights, the question at hand, and invoked religious rites of marriage, an entirely different matter: "Now, with respect to marriage, it's my belief that it's up to the individual denominations to make a decision as to whether they want to recognize marriage or not. But in terms of, you know, the rights of people to transfer property, to have hospital visitation, all those critical civil rights that are conferred by our government, those should be equal." Surely, Senator Obama is well aware of the difference between civil marriage, a legal status established by our government which confers those very civil rights of which he speaks, including the rights to property transfer, hospital visitation, etc., and religious recognition of marriage, which each religious institution already determines for itself. Why doesn't he support non-discrimination in the government's issuance of legal marriage licenses?

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's answer was perhaps the most revealing. Asked about marriage, he took a pregnant pause and sidestepped by saying that he wanted to work for "what is achievable." While this tacit support for marriage equality, similar to a position offered by Senator Hillary Clinton in October 2006 is welcome, people should not have to parse to figure out where their leaders stand; that's not leadership. And, of course, note to all politicians: an end to exclusion from marriage is achievable, if only enough supporters of equality would actually start achieving. See Massachusetts.

Americans are hungry for, and respect, candidates who speak up for what they believe. As public opinion continues to move toward greater support for gay people's freedom to marry, tellingly, political leaders who have voted right on marriage have, in fact, been elected and re-elected:

  • To date, every state legislator, including those running in conservative districts, who voted to support the freedom to marry and ran for re-election won.

  • Even state legislators who evolve from opposing to supporting the freedom to marry win; in Massachusetts they showed a 100 percent re-election rate.
  • A report published by the Human Rights Campaign after the 2004 election found 94 percent (604 out of 640) of state legislators nationwide who voted in 2004 against discrimination were re-elected in the 2004 election.
  • Open-seat races with both a pro-marriage and anti-marriage candidate have most often resulted in victory for the pro-marriage candidate. Pro-marriage candidates won a vast majority, 71 percent, of the races, and none of the pro-marriage candidates lost their races because of their stance on the freedom to marry.
  • The public's journey on marriage and gay people's place in society gives candidates another reason to show courage. Americans continue to move in the direction of equality, with opposition on marriage equality lower than many believe. Perhaps most important for the candidates and their nervous consultants, a March 2007 Newsweek poll of nationwide adults found a strong majority, 59 percent, of Americans would not vote against a presidential candidate if she or he strongly supported full marriage rights for same-sex couples. According to the Task Force, one in five Americans live in states which offer some type of recognition and protection to same-sex couples -- virtually none of which existed just seven years ago.

    In his newly released book, already popular among Democratic presidential candidates, The Political Brain, author Drew Westen asserts, "If you want to win elections, you can't assume your values. You have to preach them. If one side is running on values and the other side is running from them, it isn't hard to figure out how the electorate will start thinking, feeling, and talking about values." The values here are equality, fairness for families, commitment and love. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates affirm their belief in these values, but stop short of preaching or implementing them when it comes to policy.

    The American people deserve leaders who aren't afraid to lead. The good news coming out of the CNN/YouTube debate was that the Democrats all talked about equality (the Republicans will have their turn, but so far none comes close) - and Americans like Rev. Longcrier and Mary and Jen are not going to stop prompting them to do better when it comes to action, not just talk. Ending the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is the clear and correct answer to the question of how to achieve equality. What's more: it is achievable. Candidates who say they want equality (and the votes of those who believe in equality) should be prepared to live up to their values and lead the way.

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