Socarides op-eds push for full equality

Blog ››› ››› EQUALITY MATTERS STAFF

Media Matters today announced the launch of EqualityMatters.org, a new media and communications initiative in support of gay equality. Joining EqualityMatters.org as President is Richard Socarides. A leading gay rights advocate for over two decades, Socarides previously served as White House Special Assistant and principal adviser to President Bill Clinton on gay civil rights issues.

Below is a sampling of Equality Matters President Richard Socarides' op-eds pushing for full LGBT equality.

POLITICO: A way forward on gay marriage

August 18, 2010

The recent sweeping federal court ruling striking down California's gay marriage ban as unconstitutional provides President Barack Obama, a constitutional law scholar, with an important opportunity to shift his views on same-sex marriage. He can do so by reminding people that respect for the constitution, the rule of law and the courts are the principles upon which this country was founded.

When he ran for president, Obama took the position that while he was for equal rights for gays, he favored civil unions over marriage. (Earlier, as a candidate for the Illinois state Senate in 1996, he had supported full same-sex marriage rights.)

His presidential campaign view seemed fine for most gay voters at the time (despite its apparent political expediency), and he received their overwhelming support in the general election. But that position is now untenable for several reasons.

First, where you stand on the issue of marriage has become a kind of political litmus test for gay voters on whether you support full or partial equality. It is now seen as a proxy for whether you believe gays and lesbians are entitled to full dignity, respect and inclusion in every aspect of American society. And whether, in essence, our struggle for equality is worthy as a civil rights movement. Just saying you are for equal rights will no longer cut it.

Chad Griffin, president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which brought the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case in California, said immediately after the ruling: "Today we begin the process of saying to the millions of people who are made to feel ostracized, besieged, bullied and ashamed of how God made them -- be who you are, love who you love and marry who you wish to marry."

That is not someone talking about just a marriage license, and if Judge Vaughn Walker's reasoning is upheld, it is hard to believe that any law that discriminates against gays would be constitutional.

Moreover, as the Perry case and its high-profile legal dream team of Ted Olson and David Boies continue to focus attention on the issue, Obama's position becomes increasingly important to the liberal (and younger) voters that helped elect him -- voters who are already less enthusiastic, according to recent polling.

They realize that the external political environment has an impact on the Supreme Court and that the president's views could be an important factor. Obama can no longer continue to allow his Justice Department to vigorously defend the constitutionality of anti-gay laws in court -- laws he then says should be repealed.

The day after the California ruling, White House aide David Axelrod reiterated the president's current position, telling MSNBC, "The president does oppose same-sex marriage, but he supports equality for gay and lesbian couples in benefits and other issues, and that has been effectuated in federal agencies under his control. He supports civil unions, and that's been his position throughout. So nothing has changed."

That was a missed opportunity.

Support for equal benefits, but not for equal status -- a gay "separate but equal" rule -- is contrary to what Obama stands for, both as a person and as a symbol of expanding freedoms and opportunities. Continuing on this course will lose him and his fellow Democrats the support and enthusiasm of a large block of his base voters.

But can President Obama, who once supported gay marriage, only to oppose it now, change his position again? The answer is yes -- and he in fact has no choice.

People understand that most public officials who now support gay marriage once opposed it. It wasn't until after they left office that Bill Clinton and Al Gore (and, most recently, Laura Bush) said that they favored marriage equality. As Nate Silver recently wrote on his blog FiveThirtyEight.com: "Does anyone really believe, in a country that is becoming close to evenly divided on gay marriage, that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Kerry are among the half who oppose it? "

The sooner Obama changes his answer on this most important equal-rights issue of the day, the better off he will be. The Perry ruling provides the right opportunity to shift his emphasis and provide real leadership, reminding people that in this country, we look to the courts for direction on what our Constitution requires.

It might also help the president's popularity with those that elected him, and it puts him and his party on the right side of the equality question, where he, of course, belongs and presumably wants to be.

Huffington Post: A Summer for Gay Rights

July 18, 2010

This is shaping up as the summer of gay rights in the courts. The twin victories last week from the US District Court in Massachusetts striking down as unconstitutional key portions of the anti-gay "Defense of Marriage Act" and the eagerly anticipated decision in the federal Proposition 8 case in California have made for enormous excitement in the legal and civil rights communities.

We are at a tipping point in which the federal courts appear finally willing to recognize and more aggressively enforce civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans. Much as they did for African Americans a generation ago.

In the Proposition 8 gay marriage case especially (Perry v. Schwarzenegger), lawyers Ted Olson and David Boies have made a comprehensive and overwhelming case for basic fairness and full equality. Their opponents, on the other hand, presented no credible expert testimony and made arguments so flimsy -- and at times even patently false - that a ruling in their favor appears highly unlikely. The decision is expected soon.

Despite all this, there remains some marginalized skepticism from some unusual critics.

[...]

But here's another statistic: at the time that the Supreme Court struck down the remaining state laws banning interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, the Gallup Poll found that some 72% of Americans were opposed to interracial marriage. At one time or another, 37 states had passed anti-miscegenation laws. When civil rights are being infringed, "sticking out its neck" to protect minority rights is not only something the Supreme Court does, it is one of the primary reasons for the Court's existence.

Both Rauch and Capehart are ignoring not only our political history, but the history of civil rights advances through court rulings. Importantly, there is now an emerging consensus among gay rights advocates that these cases, including the one brought by Olson and Boies on behalf of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, can succeed and that the timing is right.

Wall Street Journal: Obama Is Missing in Action on Gay Rights

June 25, 2010

President Obama celebrated Gay Pride Month earlier this week by telling guests at a White House reception that he still favors full equality for gays and lesbians. But despite a steady trickle of small steps Mr. Obama has taken to promote gay rights, on the big issues he is a disappointment.

[...]

It's true that this president is no George W. Bush, or John McCain, for that matter. He signed into law a long-sought amendment to the federal hate-crimes statute, which added sexual orientation as a protected class. Many cabinet agencies have taken steps to make their rules and regulations more gay-friendly, most significantly with respect to issues like hospital visitation and, earlier this week, some aspects of family medical leave. That's all good news.

Mr. Obama entered office with greater immediate challenges confronting him than most. But after eight years of benign neglect (at best) from Washington, and a campaign in which Mr. Obama promised to be our champion, gay Americans had good reason to expect more from this president, and now are understandably frustrated.

In a telling development, the most significant and aggressive legal effort to promote gay equality today is being led by a conservative, former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson. In federal court in San Francisco, together with co-counsel David Boies, he is prosecuting the most comprehensive and sophisticated legal attack on antigay marriage laws in history.

As that case unfolded--the decision will come later this summer--we learned last month that former First Lady Laura Bush supports gay marriage. Add her to the growing list that includes Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Cindy and Meghan McCain.

When Mr. Olson's case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court in a year or more from now, will Mr. Obama be one of the few left on the wrong side of history? What a bitter irony that would be.

Wall Street Journal: Ask Obama About Don't Ask, Don't Tell

January 24, 2010

Many question why the White House avoided dealing with Don't Ask, Don't Tell last year, when Democrats had big majorities in Congress and polls showed that a majority of Americans favor changing the policy. A Quinnipiac poll in April, for example, found that 56% of Americans support repealing the policy.

A big part of the reason why the White House hesitated is fear of a backlash similar to the one suffered by President Bill Clinton in 1993 when he tried to allow gays to serve openly in the military. Recently we saw the potential beginning of an antigay fear campaign--much like the one in 1993 when then Sen. Sam Nunn (D., Ga.) was leading the charge--in the form of a leaked memo from a legal adviser to Mr. Mullen. The legal adviser opined that "now is not the time" to lift the ban because of "the importance of winning the wars we are in." Also, the New York Times reported recently that the Pentagon had begun considering "the practical implications of a repeal--for example, whether it would be necessary to change shower facilities and locker rooms because of privacy concerns."

Fortunately, these scare tactics are for the most part relics of an older era. People understand that our military needs every talented American it can get, and that excluding gays from the military detracts from our ability to win wars.

Most people also understand that we are long past the point where our military personnel need to be reminded about appropriate behavior on duty, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Men and women serve side by side today in combat, as do gay and straight service members, without incident.

If repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell becomes impossible in the shifting congressional dynamic this year (despite bipartisan support), the president has several options that would stop the discharge of gay American soldiers.

Current law does not require the services to discharge members based on sexual orientation per se. Rather, it looks to certain conduct to create a presumption for discharge. Thus, the Department of Defense has the authority to devise regulations that determine when such prohibited conduct has occurred. Defense could also interpret the Don't Ask, Don't Tell statute more literally (as intended) and refuse to discharge a service member unless he willfully discloses that he is gay, which almost never happens. Finally, Defense could invoke current regulations to retain gay service members in the interest of national security. All are good options.

Huffington Post: "Exactly Why We Have Courts, Why We Have the Constitution and Why We Have the 14th Amendment"

January 11, 2010

Today, in a courtroom in California, a historic trial is beginning, one which may eventually decide the direction of civil liberties and constitutional rights in the United States into the foreseeable future.

That trial is Perry v. Schwarzenegger, and the battle for that most basic of civil rights, the right to marriage for anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, is now officially underway.

Theodore B. Olson, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, delivered his opening remarks this morning starting at 9 AM PT. In these, he reminded the court that "in the words of the highest court in the land, marriage is the most important relationship in life," and that basing the right to that relationship "on characteristics of an individual" is unconstitutional. He also noted that the stop-gap of domestic partnerships currently available in some states is an unequal alternative, and moreover, sounds like "a commercial venture."

"Proposition 8 singled out gay men and lesbians as a class, swept away their right to marry, pronounced them unequal, and declared their relationships inferior and less-deserving of respect and dignity."

Mr. Olson continued, noting that according to the California Supreme Court itself, "eliminating the right of individuals to marry a same-sex partner relegated those individuals to 'second class' citizenship, and told them, their families and their neighbors that their love and desire for a sanctioned marital partnership was not worthy of recognition." He then went on to lay out reasons for the importance of marriage, the harm Proposition 8 has done to gay and lesbian couples, and the lack of any valid reasons behind this exclusion.

Olson, a conservative who served as the attorney for the Bush side of Bush v. Gore, has received significant media attention for his involvement in this case. In an essay recently published inNewsweek entitled "The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage," he explained his reasoning, noting that he sees this as an issue of "recognition of basic American principles[and] commitment to equal rights," not a reason to invoke politics. He went on to say that "Americans who believe in the Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and equal dignity before the law cannot sit by while this wrong continues."

(President Bill Clinton recently agreed, saying that his former reluctance to endorse gay marriages was because he was "hung up about the word," and that he "was wrong about that...I had an untenable position.")

Mr. Olson's remarks are just the beginning of a three-week trial, which is eventually expected to be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. Though Federal Judge Vaughn Walker had originally agreed to air the trial on YouTube, with some delay, the Supreme Court this morning overturned that decision, meaning that, at least until Wednesday, cameras will not be allowed inside the courtroom.

Nevertheless, this trial, a landmark of civil rights for our time, is sure to draw the eyes of the world. The stakes could not be higher, but as Olson said today: "that is exactly why we have courts, why we have the Constitution and why we have the 14th Amendment....That is why we are here today."

AMERICAblog: The Choice to Defend DOMA, and Its Consequences

June 14, 2009

Like many other gay people who support the president, and as someone who had hoped he would be a presidential-sized champion of gay civil rights from the start, I was disturbed by his administration's brief defending the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), filed late last week, in opposition to our full equality.

It had such a buckshot approach to it, a veritable kitchen sink of anti-gay legal theories, that it seemed expressly designed to inflict maximal damage to our rights. Instead of making nuanced arguments which took into account the president's oft-stated support for repealing DOMA - a law he has called "abhorrent" - the brief seemed to embrace DOMA and all its horrific consequences.

I was equally troubled by the administration's explanation that they had no choice but to defend the law. As an attorney and as someone who was directly involved in giving advice on such matters to another president (as a Special Assistant for civil rights to President Bill Clinton), I know that this is untrue.

No matter what the president's personal opinion, administration officials now tell us that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) must defend the laws on the books, and must advance all plausible arguments in doing so. Thus, the theory goes, the DOJ was just following the normal rules in vigorously defending the anti-gay law.

I know and accept the fact that one of the Department of Justice's roles is to (generally) defend the law against constitutional attack. But not in all cases, certainly not in this case - and not in this way. To defend this brief is to defend the indefensible.

From my experience, in a case where, as here, there are important political and social issues at stake, the president's relationship with the Justice Department should work like this: The president makes a policy decision first and then the very talented DOJ lawyers figure out how to apply it to actual cases. If the lawyers cannot figure out how to defend a statute and stay consistent with the president's policy decision, the policy decision should always win out.

[...]

I am still hopeful that much can be accomplished over the course of this presidency. But I strongly believe that to do so we must make it loud and clear that we will not be sacrificed to the altar of political expediency, that there will be a steep price to pay if our constitutional rights are ignored or put off indefinitely, and that a deeply offensive brief like the one filed last week will not be allowed to go unchallenged.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, I'm reminded of something President Obama said during the campaign: "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

Washington Post: Where's Our 'Fierce Advocate'?

May 2, 2009

As an adviser on gay rights to President Bill Clinton during his second term, I know how hard it is to achieve real progress. We learned that lesson acutely during Clinton's abortive first-term attempt to allow gays to serve in the military, an outcome for which he is still paying a steep legacy price.

But recent victories on gay marriage, a youth-driven paradigm shift in public opinion and the election of our first African American president make this a uniquely opportune moment to act.

I understand that the president has his hands full saving the economy. But across a broad spectrum of issues -- including women's rights, stem cell research and relations with Cuba -- the Obama administration has shown a willingness to exploit this change moment to bring about dramatic reform.

So why not on gay rights? Where is our New Deal?

It is the memory of 1993's gays-in-the-military debacle (and a desire never to repeat it) that has both the president's advisers and policy advocates holding back, waiting for some magical "right time" to move boldly.

This is a bad strategy. President Obama will never have more political capital than he has now, and there will never be a better political environment to capitalize on. People are distracted by the economy and war, and they are unlikely to get stirred up by the right-wing rhetoric that has doomed efforts in the past.

And people are willing to try new approaches. The court ruling legalizing gay marriage in Iowa represents a real opening, an opportunity to get "undecideds" to take another look not only at gay marriage but at gay rights in general. As Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin remarked, many Americans may be asking themselves, "If the [Iowa] Supreme Court said this, maybe I have to think anew."

Here is what Obama should do to seize this opportunity:

First, he should start talking about gay rights again, the way he did during the campaign. What made Clinton such a transformational figure of inclusion was his constant willingness to talk to and about gay people. When he said, "I have a vision and you are a part of it," you could feel his sincerity.

As president, Obama barely mentions gay and lesbian Americans. During his first 100 days, he has done so only while defending his selection of inauguration speakers. He was silent after the announcement of the Iowa decision -- one of the most important gay civil rights victories ever.

Second, he should move swiftly, as he promised during the campaign, to help secure passage of the bill now moving through Congress imposing new federal penalties for anti-gay hate crimes, as well as legislation allowing gays to serve in the military. Ten years have passed since Matthew Shepard was killed. We have endured 15 years of "don't ask, don't tell" discrimination. We have waited long enough.

Third, he should appoint a high-ranking, respected, openly gay policy advocate to oversee government efforts toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. Give this person access to policymakers, similar to what has been done on urban policy and for people with disabilities. This is especially important because, unlike Clinton, who had gay friends such as David Mixner, Roberta Achtenberg and Bob Hattoy around to nudge him, Obama has no high-profile gay senior aides with a history in the gay rights movement.

Finally, Obama should champion comprehensive, omnibus federal gay civil rights legislation, similar to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation and granting a basic umbrella of protections in employment, education, housing and the like (rather than the existing piecemeal approach to legislation). Such a bill should also provide for federal recognition of both civil unions and marriages as they are authorized by specific states.

Obama is in a good position, and the time is ripe for a new approach. Taking these steps might spare the country the trauma of devolving into a pervasive and divisive debate over gay marriage, which, after all, is not the only issue of concern to gay and lesbian Americans.

Gay voters who supported Barack Obama remain positive about him, and most are prepared to be patient. It's still early on gay rights for the Obama administration -- but now is the time to act boldly.

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