This Week's Gay Debate: A Prime-Time Opportunity for Straight Talk on Marriage

Thursday night the country will get the opportunity to hear Democratic presidential candidates discuss the lives and needs of gay and lesbian Americans during the forum hosted by Human Rights Campaign and Logo. The forum comes in the midst of a year that has seen record advances for gay rights, and early in an election cycle that has already seen Democratic candidates showing increasing comfort in addressing the need to end discrimination and exclusion that harm couples and their kids. One longtime gay advocate put it this way:

"In 1992, we were begging Bill to say the word 'gay' at the convention, and that was considered a major victory," said David Mixner. "Here we have every candidate for the Democratic nomination showing up to the debate, all supporting civil unions, two of them (Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel) supporting marriage, and all of them trying to figure out how they can support marriage and get away with it."

The good news for the candidates is that they can, indeed, "get away" with supporting marriage; in fact, they will do better by taking the position that most Americans believe they already have, given their professed support for gay rights and dance around marriage itself. As I wrote in a previous post, there is growing evidence from elections around the country that candidates who vote right on marriage do just fine.

Here are some further guidelines for candidates seeking to stand up for their values (love, commitment, fairness, freedom, equal treatment). By answering the inevitable question this way, they can cogently make the case for marriage in a way that finally enables them to move on and throw the challenge back at opponents. If the presidential aspirants follow these guidelines and remain true to their professed commitment to equality and fairness, they will not only gain the unwavering support of the gay voting bloc [PDF]and Americans who care about justice, but they will also win the respect of the vast majority who can certainly live with a candidate they may disagree with on a question that for most is not a top priority.

Asked whether they support ending same-sex couples' exclusion from marriage, candidates should reply:

I recognize and value the dignity and worth of all families. I believe in marriage and the good it offers society, and respect those who accept the commitment, protections, and responsibilities of marriage. Allowing same-sex couples to share that commitment does nothing to diminish my marriage with my (wife/husband).

Freedom of religion means that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions may decide whether to marry any particular couple. But a democratic and constitutional government should not discriminate as to which couples get a marriage license. Government should not be putting obstacles in the path of people seeking to care for their loved ones, nor should government create unequal classes of citizens.

America is strongest when we support all our people equally and build strong communities. Because I believe in fairness for all American families, I support the responsibilities and security of marriage for same-sex couples willing to take on that commitment.

I disagree with those who would use this question to divide the American people. The majority of Americans believe in equal rights and protections for their fellow citizens, and so do I.

A clear, principled answer like this will not cost a candidate support, and will enable him or her to move on to other questions the campaign would rather spend more time addressing, questions that voters consistently say are the ones that make the most difference in their choice of a president.

Candidates seeking to explain their position further should talk about real couples, real kids, and real emotions and values, such as treating people the way you'd want to be treated. They should move beyond abstractions and buzzwords to concrete examples [PDF] of the protections and responsibilities that come with marriage that are being wrongfully withheld from taxpaying citizens. They should describe how marriage protects families and children, protections that gay and lesbian Americans, in our common humanity, need too.

There are ample resources available [PDF] to assist candidates in refuting the tired and tinny "gloom and doom" claims made by opponents, and to arm them in making the case for marriage equality.

By following these guidelines, candidates should now be able to get beyond saying they are for equality while still falling short [PDF] of actually supporting equality because they are stuck at "civil unions" or other unequal legal mechanisms. Having gotten the "what" -- equality -- right, candidates can now move to get it right on the "how" -- ending exclusion from marriage.

The audience for Thursday's debate, and every subsequent presidential debate, is looking for our nation's leader. A clear, credible, and coherent answer in favor of the freedom to marry during this prime-time opportunity will permit candidates to show leadership, win respect, and move on to the most central questions of war, national security, health care, education, the economy and increasing wealth gap that all gay and non-gay Americans need to tackle together to get our nation back on track. And their support for marriage equality will not cost the candidates any support they would have gotten anyway, even as it helps couples, kids, and the country, a win/win.