A state dinner at the White House is a magical event. A time for the president of the United States to showcase his country and celebrate the descendants from the honored country who now call America home. It’s also a time to send messages. And when it comes to gay men and lesbians and the issue of marriage equality, a consistent message is coming into clearer focus. For a man who maintains that he is “evolving” on the issue of same-sex marriage, President Obama is pretty evolved on the matter already.
As a guest at Wednesday’s state dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron, I know of at least two legally married same-sex couples in attendance. You’ve probably seen the arrival photo of Daily Beast/Newsweek writer Andrew Sullivan walking hand-in-hand with his husband, Aaron Tone.
What you didn’t see — unless you were watching C-SPAN — was Sally Susman, daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, walking in hand-in-hand with her wife, Robin Canter. Not only that, Susman proudly introduced Canter as her wife to all they met. Extraordinary occurrences in the people’s house, yet ordinary, as heterosexual couples have done this without shame on countless occasions.
An equally powerful signal was sent from the president’s table.
As my colleagues at The Reliable Source reported, the Obama administration has “an unspoken tradition” of “seating a same-sex couple at the table.” The honor went to Chad Griffin and Jerome Fallon. That Griffin is the incoming president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is not remarkable. HRC, the largest civil rights organization for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, has had a good working relationship with Obama (see, repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”).
What makes Griffin’s placement symbolic is what has made him a meteoric leader in LGBT equality. He is the force behind American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), an organization he founded in the wake of California voters passing Proposition 8, the measure that added a ban on same-sex marriage to that state’s constitution. The lawsuit filed by AFER to overturn the referendum is being defended by the powerhouse liberal-conservative tag team of David Boies and Ted Olson. Prop 8 was most recently struck down as unconstitutional by a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the federal level, Obama has already deemed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and has refused to defend it in court challenges around the country.
If the president or the administration had any concern about Griffin or the important work AFER is doing, you better believe he would not have been so prominently placed at the dinner. This doesn’t give Obama a pass on his evolution. And it certainly is not going to give him immunity in the impending fight over adding a marriage equality plank to the Democratic Party platform as Greg Sargent cautions. But it certainly makes clear — if you’ve been paying attention — where the president is headed.
Obama is not getting there as fast as many would like. But he’ll get there. Heck, he’s practically there already.
[Update, March 16, 11:30 a.m.: Turns out there were at least two more legally married same-sex couples at the state dinner, bringing the number to four. Tim Gill, the founding chairman of Quark and the founder of the Gill Foundation, was in attendance with his husband Scott Miller. And Dana Perlman, founding attorney of the Los Angeles-based law firm Perlman & Associates, brought his husband Hugh Kinsellagh.]