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Next up for Obama: Marriage equality for gay Americans

By Kerry Eleveld
Friday, January 21, 2011;

Less than a month after President Obama repealed "don't ask, don't tell," his Justice Department filed its latest brief defending the so-called Defense of Marriage Act - the law that makes gay Americans second-class citizens by outlawing federal recognition of their legal marriages.

This action underscores the point that the battle over gay rights is just beginning.

As Obama was preparing to sign the repeal legislation late last month, I was granted the first ever one-on-one interview with him as president by a journalist from a news outlet for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

While I felt it important to give the president the opportunity to elaborate on this singular achievement - one that would help restore his relationship with LGBT Americans and with his broader progressive base - I also wanted to discuss marriage equality. Nearly every country in the world that has legalized same-sex marriage began first by allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

Given that openly gay men and women would soon be fighting and, in some cases, dying for their country, I wondered whether the president thought it was time that those women and men be entitled to full marriage rights.

"Like a lot of people, I'm wrestling with this. My attitudes are evolving on this," Obama responded. "What I know is that, at minimum, a baseline is that there has to be a strong, robust civil union available to all gay and lesbian couples."

His current position on gay marriage - that this is an issue he struggles with as he watches his gay and lesbian friends marry and create loving households - goes beyond his 2008 campaign stance, which was simply to support civil unions. (Earlier in his political career, as a candidate for the Illinois state Senate, Obama supported full marriage rights for same-sex couples.)

But the president is facing new terrain now that some gays in the military will undoubtedly be lawfully wedded to their partners. For example, will the families of those service members have access to the same benefits and support networks that their heterosexual counterparts have? Will their spouses be the first informed if they pay the ultimate sacrifice in the course of defending their country?

There is a serious flaw in the president's position of viewing civil unions as a path to giving same-sex couples equal relationship recognition: The federal government does not recognize civil unions for the purposes of spousal benefits. In fact, no legislation to formalize civil unions exists at the federal level.

That means that advocates of civil unions, Obama included, are suggesting for lesbian and gay couples a status for which the federal government has no definition and no frame of reference within its codes, and one that provides no path to legal recognition.

Meanwhile, his administration continues to defend a law that expressly prohibits the federal government from honoring same-sex marriages, which are legal in five states and the District of Columbia.

The day after I interviewed the president, he was reminded at a news conference by ABC's Jake Tapper that the military doesn't recognize civil unions either.

Realizing the inherent flaw in his prescription for equality, Obama was left with few options other than using the question as a starting point for national discussion.

"This is going to be an issue that is not unique to the military," the president responded. "This is an issue that extends to all of our society, and I think we're all going to have to have a conversation about it."

I hope that the president is serious about leading that discussion, much the way he did with his landmark Philadelphia speech on race in 2008.

That, too, was considered troubled territory that many of his advisers warned against broaching - yet it became a moment that helped define Obama's character.

With equality legislation stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, one of the most significant advances Obama can make between now and his 2012 reelection campaign is to evolve fully on marriage equality.

The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" was a turning point in the marriage discussion. It poses a major challenge and an opportunity for the president.

While he, like many Americans, grapples with the fact that civil unions provide no remedy for gay taxpayers with regard to federal spousal benefits, he has enlisted the most powerful lobby in the nation to work on behalf of gay rights - the U.S. military.

Once repeal is implemented, the military will begin to move toward eradicating the inequalities endured by gay service members.

Indeed, 67 percent of service members told the Pentagon's study group that lifting the ban would have a positive effect or no effect at all on readiness - surely those service members will care that their comrades in arms get equal treatment. I would bet they will insist on it.

Kerry Eleveld was the Washington correspondent for the Advocate for the first two years of the Obama administration. She is editor of EqualityMatters.org.

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