How and why President Obama chose to announce his support for marriage equality is far less important than the announcement itself. The top elected official in the land is now on record in support of same-sex marriage. Who says progress is impossible?
History may well take note of a satisfying political narrative implicit in the president’s decision. It is impossible to imagine Barack Obama in the White House without thinking of those civil rights activists, famous and obscure, who fought for racial equality in the 1960s. And so the child of one civil rights movement has empowered another. That can hardly be a coincidence.
Of course, Mr. Obama’s announcement does not mean that marriage equality is a done deal. The voters of North Carolina, not to mention the governor of the state of New Jersey, have made it clear that they are not about to follow the leadership of New York and several other states in removing discriminatory practices in the issuance of marriage licenses.
But the president’s principled position, made in the midst of a difficult re-election campaign, clearly has moved the conversation forward. Critics no doubt will attempt to demonize the president and marriage equality supporters as Election Day approaches, but their strategy may (and should) backfire. After all, Dick Cheney, the grouchy pit bull of 21st-century Republicanism, supports marriage equality as well—indeed, he announced his support years before Mr. Obama did.
Mr. Cheney is hardly the only conservative Republican who supports marriage equality. Here in New York, where residents generally have good reason to suspect the worst of their elected officials, support for this civil rights issue can be found on both sides of the aisle. That speaks to the justice of the cause, and to the open-mindedness of some cultural conservatives who have re-evaluated their opposition to equality and voted accordingly.
Just as New York became a leader on issues of social justice in the early 20th Century, the Empire State again has a chance to be both an example of progress and an advocate for broader change in the culture. New York’s public officials, led by Governor Cuomo, already have passed and signed marriage equality into law. Society has not collapsed; indeed, New York is a more-just place because of same-sex marriage.
So let New York add its powerful voice in politics and in culture to the ongoing national debate about justice and marriage. Let New York show that the civil right to a marriage license issued by a government agency does not, in any way, infringe on the rights of religious bodies that do not recognize same-sex marriage.
New York’s commitment to marriage equality should be a source of pride, now more than ever. We don’t often get a chance to cheer for principled positions in politics. But on this issue, we can and we do.