The question is not “what happens when the country officially supports marriage equality?” The question is what happens until it does. Partners who have lived together for decades or who are legally married cannot pay taxes jointly, collect social security if their partner dies or share spousal benefits like health care. Civil unions clearly do not do enough to extend full rights to same-sex couples.
Not to mention, civil unions use semantics to excuse the mistreatment and exclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans. The two might seem like different terms for the same thing, but in practice, a civil union is not a marriage. It carries a wholly different connotation that perpetuates structures of inequality and neglects the rights of a vast population of American citizens.
Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney has denounced same-sex marriage, despite it being legalized under his governorship of Massachusetts. Romney’s website states that, if elected, he would attempt to pass a Constitutional amendment declaring marriage as only between a man and a woman. Romney wants the governing legal document of the United States to keep a segment of society from having the same rights as others, rather than extending those rights.
On the other hand, President Barack Obama has refused to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that allows states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, in future Supreme Court cases. With Obama’s support, the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was repealed last year, allowing openly gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals to serve in the military.
For a while, Obama appeared to flip-flop on the issue of equal marriage, saying in 2004 that he supported same-sex marriage, then supporting civil unions in 2008 until his self-described 2012 “evolution” into someone who publicly supports same-sex marriage. Now Obama, along with a majority of people born after 1980, sees that equal marriage is inevitable for a country that wants its law-abiding citizens to be treated with dignity and respect. Putting gay marriage at the forefront of election issues will ensure that this dignity and respect are protected for all Americans.
Voting for a presidential candidate based on a single, clear issue is not often advisable. Presidents have a wide range of powers and privileges, and voters generally should weigh the positions, past actions and values of a candidate with careful thought and consideration. But gay marriage, as a civil rights issue, is different.
It should be noted that same-sex marriage is most likely to become legal on a national level through a Supreme Court case. If the Supreme Court decides to hear one of the cases related to same-sex marriage, the sitting president should refrain from influencing the justices’ decision. Even if an Obama administration chose not to represent either side of the issue, the justices would still make a decision.
In that sense, Obama and the DNC’s support for equal marriage might seem largely symbolic — a way for one political party to differentiate itself on a hot-button social issue. But it is not merely symbolic of acceptance. It is acceptance.
We live in a democracy where every individual has the right to decide who they want in office. As a whole, our country chooses a leader. People who support same-sex rights do not have to be defined by that viewpoint when they cast their ballots in November. But Americans have an incredibly powerful decision to make about the values of that leader. They can choose a leader who believes all Americans should be treated equally or someone who wants to legislate discrimination on an antiquated issue.