Actions speak louder than words. This was the response of many gay rights activists in light of President Obama’s public endorsement of same-sex marriage. While it was a moving and courageous public stance on a socially charged issue, many proponents of marriage equality believed that the statement did very little in the legal nightmare revolving around the recognition of same-sex marriages at the federal level.
I disagree. Although late and obviously incomplete, it is necessary for a world leader at the President’s level to speak with conviction to a global audience on an issue that he and other politicians have dodged in a political dance with public opinion. He chose the medium of national television to deliver an announcement in his own words about why he believes that same-sex couples should have all the rights heterosexual couples enjoy. He cited his children, and how he would not know how to explain to them at the dinner table that the same-sex parents of their friends would be denied the same rights straight parents take for granted.
This is not just the fight for the title of “marriage.” Rarely is anyone I know aware that 1,138 rights are denied to gay couples because of their marital status. If you are heterosexual, take a minute to understand how you would feel if you were passed up for these benefits.
When the same-sex marriage law was passed in New York on a hot summer Friday night last year, I remember feeling that I had woken up to a different city the next day. Although nothing had physically changed, I walked through Times Square that weekend believing that as a gay woman of color in New York, I was suddenly visible and protected by law. The state would now acknowledge my ten-year relationship, and I could march to City Hall and get this magical piece of paper I could show anyone who still questioned this fact.
I was wrong.
I have shared with my partner the same up and downs as any heterosexual couple. We’ve discussed children, have completely intertwined finances, and have the same financial and emotional concerns as any other couple with or without children. Our lives revolve around work, bills, and ensuring that we continue to live many more happy and healthy years together, just like everyone else’s families would want for themselves. But because any marriage I enter into with my same-sex partner is not recognized by the federal government, I get a greatly disproportionate amount of benefits and I’m denied many rights regardless of the fact that I pay full social security payments and taxes.
I cannot get her social security benefits if she dies. If I have a child and I die, my spouse and my child will not get any of the money I paid and saved my entire working life for their benefit. My company may refuse to give health insurance benefits to my dependent spouse, or if they do give insurance, I will have to pay taxes on this benefit where heterosexual couples are exempt. I’m not eligible for Family Leave should my partner fall ill, or if our child is sick and I didn’t legally adopt my non-biological child. We will not be eligible for countless survivors’ benefits, rights, and tax exemptions should our other half die. As an American citizen, I would not be able to give my spouse and non-biological child Permanent Resident status or citizenship the way heterosexual couples easily can.
These are only few (but very basic) things that I am denied as tax-paying citizen of the United States, and contrary to marriage equality opponents’ beliefs, this issue is not even anywhere around anatomy or whether or not our union is “suitable” in everyone else’s eyes. Lives, finances, and children’s welfare are at stake when families are denied federal rights that are readily given to any two opposite-sex people who meet on the street today and decide to get married tomorrow.
Imagine for a second these rights were taken away from you because the government said your family just “doesn’t look right.” Imagine also that you are told that your happy and loving family is a threat to traditional marriages. In Hillary Clinton’s speech about gay rights to the UN in December, she said, “Progress comes from being willing to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. We need to ask ourselves, ‘How would it feel if it were a crime to love the person I love? How would it feel to be discriminated against for something about myself that I cannot change?’”
This is what President Obama did when he spoke to the world yesterday and finally voiced his opinion on the matter of same-sex marriage. His words may not bear weight and he may not have changed any laws in those few minutes of public speaking, but he put the topic up for discussion at every dinner table in America. Parents will be forced to explain to their children why their friends are denied rights based on their family structure. Black and Latino voters who make up both Obama’s base as well as the major opponents of same-sex marriage might begin to open their eyes given the strength and courage of their beloved leader. Politicians will see that a marriage equality stance is no longer a career death sentence, but possibly even a good public move.
Most of all, every gay teen and child in the world, every closeted and out homosexual, whether single or busy with the everyday task of family life, will remember the day when the first President of the United States did the right thing and spoke up for the millions of gay families who just want what all the other families have taken for granted from the beginning of time. It gives us an ally. It makes us feel that we are no longer invisible. It tells us that change is definitely coming.
To me, those words are action enough.