April 26, 2013
Out of the Shadows: The Push for Marriage Equality
The United States has long struggled to realize its Declaration of Independence’s promise “that all men are created equal.” At the country’s inception, slavery fueled the Southern economy, and only a fragment of the population could legally exercise their right to vote. The full benefits of citizenship were unavailable to women, ethnic minorities and the poor. Nevertheless, voting and civil rights have gradually been expanded to these previously marginalized groups. As a result, de jure racism, misogyny and xenophobia are now, for the most part, extinct. Eventually, another group—the LGBT community—arose out of the shadows and launched its own campaign for civil rights. Significant strides have since been made at both the local and federal levels: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—a policy that prohibited openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals from serving in the military—was repealed in 2010; hate crimes against people of alternative sexualities and gender identities are now federal offenses; and several states have banned discrimination against LBGT people in the areas of employment, housing and education. However, the main issue of concern to the LGBT community over the past decade or so has been marriage equality. At the time of this writing, same-sex marriage is only legal in nine states. To add insult to injury, a majority of the forty-one states that do not have same-sex marriage have adopted amendments to their constitutions prohibiting recognition of it. Clearly, homophobia and heterosexism are still embedded in the American legal system. Fortunately though, public support for same-sex marriage—particularly among younger people—has been growing at an exponential rate. Even social conservatives now grudgingly admit the tide has irrevocably turned in the direction of equality. But this progress did not spontaneously come to be. The various elements of the American political system have played a crucial role in shaping this issue’s evolution.
The president, as the official head of government, is formally involved in matters of social change. One way he can pursue his vision of a more (or less) equal society is through the issuing of an executive order. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution vests the powers of the Executive Branch in the presidency. Notably, President Truman—exercising his authority as Commander in Chief—abolished racial discrimination and segregation in the military this way. However, the Framers—fearful of executive overreach—established a system of checks and balances that intentionally limits this power. The president therefore needs Congress if he wishes to pass actual legislation. Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution mandates that “every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate shall, before it becomes a Law, be presented to the President” for him to sign, veto or pocket veto. So even though the president occupies a different branch of government, he is certainly not removed from political debate. President Eisenhower put it well when he said, “I am part of the legislative process.”1 Presidents have long proposed legislation and even advocated for constitutional amendments, though not formally involved in their ratification. President Kennedy’s 1963 Civil Rights Address remains one of the more memorable examples of the former. Although Kennedy himself never witnessed the Civil Rights Act’s passing and implementation, his willingness to endorse it—especially with a reelection bid in the foreseeable future—was a testament to the issue’s progress.
More informally, political parties play an important role in social issues. A party may openly support or oppose an impending social change if it will benefit it electorally. The most drastic way to accomplish this is by adding the cause to the official party platform. The Republican Party did just