When President Barack Obama affirmed his belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, much of the ensuing discussion focused on the history of the moment, ignoring what may be an even more significant point: The president's position now puts him in the mainstream of Americans. Three days after Obama's announcement, a USA Today/Gallup poll found 51 percent of Americans agree with him. He joined fellow Democrats like Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, among others, who have spoken in favor of the right of same-sex marriage.
Many local leaders — from both parties — likewise feel it's time America allow all Americans to get married. At the U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this year, mayors of more than 80 American cities large and small (including New York's Michael Bloomberg, Chicago's Rahm Emanuel, Houston's Annise Parker and Los Angeles' Antonio Villaraigosa — but not New Orleans' Mitch Landrieu) signed a Freedom to Marry pledge. Even many Republicans, like former First Lady Laura Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney, have come out in support of the right for two people to choose same-sex marriage. Today we join them.
Right now, six states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont) and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. Unless opponents force a referendum, same-sex marriage will be legal in Washington State starting next month. Meanwhile, the states that have made same-sex marriage legal have seen no repercussions (with the possible exception of a boom in the wedding and tourism industries).
Meanwhile, 31 states have enacted constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage — including Louisiana. Our state amended its Constitution in 2004 not only to forbid same-sex marriage, but also to bar any kind of civil union. Now, as then, we wonder: If the opposition to same-sex marriage is truly grounded in "defense of marriage" as an institution, why make it illegal for two people to enter into a civil union?
Given Americans' views on the subject and the trend lines — an April poll found nearly two-thirds of people under 30 support same-sex marriage — it's clear that the issue of same-sex marriage is a generational one and that its legalization is an inevitability. Ultimately, same-sex weddings will become commonplace and even more widely accepted. Of course, there will still be plenty of people who won't like it, just as there are people today who still don't like interracial marriage. Using dislike, distaste or prejudice to conjure a legal pretext against interracial marriage seems ludicrous nowadays — but those are the same underpinnings of the "case" against same-sex marriage.
The great civil rights leader the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. Martin Luther King, said last week he was "uncomfortable" with same-sex marriage because "we grew up under boy-girl, man-woman." The 90-year-old Lowery added that, despite his feelings, his position had changed over the years: "You can't believe in equal rights for some people and yet not believe in equal rights for everybody. That includes the right to marry the person of your choice. Equal rights for some people [is] an oxymoron."
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that states could not impose racially discriminatory marriage restrictions. Less than 10 years before that, Gallup conducted its first poll on the issue of interracial marriage: only 4 percent of Americans approved of it. Over the years, attitudes changed, just as they're changing now. Currently the Supreme Court is on track to hear two cases — possibly this year — that raise the issue of whether states can refuse to recognize same-sex marriage.
Earlier this month, North Carolina became the last of the Southern states to amend its constitution to explicitly ban same-sex marriages and civil unions. A look at the map of states that had miscegenation laws in 1967 is instructive; the southern states that had laws against interracial marriage back then are the same ones that currently have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage gives no one special rights. Rather, it gives everyone equal rights. The South is once again on the wrong side of history when it comes to equal rights — but many individual Southerners are not. As the debate continues nationally, it will be important to remind our friends — at home and elsewhere — that the notion of equal rights for all Americans may not have strong roots in the South, but it's nonetheless time for that notion to take hold in all corners of our nation.