Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) delivered a stirring keynote address Tuesday on advancing LGBT rights as the nation awaits Supreme Court decisions that could potentially advance marriage equality throughout the country.
In an address in the Great Hall of the U.S. Justice Department where employees commemorated June as the month of Pride, the first out lesbian elected to the U.S. Senate spoke about the importance of continuing to advance LGBT rights.
Recalling her attendance for oral arguments on DOMA before the Supreme Court, Baldwin said much attention was devoted to federalism and standing, but the debate on marriage equality “isn’t really about any of those things.”
“It’s about fairness, it’s about whether gay and lesbian Americans deserve to be treated just like our family members, our friends and our neighbors,” Baldwin said. “It’s about opportunity, about whether every American gets to dream the same dreams, choose the same ambitions and have the same shot … And it’s about freedom: the freedom to love, the freedom to commit, the freedom to build a family.”
Baldwin spoke on stage at a podium next to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who delivered opening remarks prior to her speech, and lesbian signer Melissa Ethridge. Baldwin’s office said her complete remarks weren’t available.
Invoking former Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s work in diversifying the Justice Department as the black civil rights movement unfolded in the 1960s, Baldwin said the LGBT movement is the current battle for equality and noted the importance of pending court cases on marriage.
“Of course, as much progress as that generation made in fulfilling the promises America makes about fairness and equality, there was plenty left to do for generations that followed,” Baldwin said. “But we gather today, at another moment of great progress in the area of civil rights — this time for LGBT Americans.”
She also reflected on the progress on LGBT issues in recent years, which she said has taken place because more Americans “have decided that they want to leave to the next generation a country that is more equal, not less.”
“That, along with the hard work of so many champions of equality — from the president to the activists in all our 50 states — that is why we have so many firsts to celebrate today,” Baldwin said. “And that’s why the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act is on the books — and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ isn’t.”
Baldwin also ticked off numerous pending LGBT bills — saying she’s “even more excited about the progress that’s in our reach” with President Obama in the White House — even progress on legislation that often isn’t given considerable attention.
“Progress like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, so that we don’t have to contend with the … reality that in more than two dozen states, it’s to legal to discriminate against LGBT employees,” Baldwin said. “And progress like the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, so that LGBT students can go to school worried about math tests and swim meets, and not about bullying and harassment. Progress like the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act, so that LGBT Americans who work to support their families in the civil service can be rest assured that their partners can enjoy benefits like health insurance and retirement.”
But Baldwin concluded by saying the LGBT rights movement is actually about working toward a cultural change to ensure LGBT people are treated fairly.
“But we don’t want to just live in a country where our rights our respected under the law, we want to live in a country where we are respected for who were are, where we enjoy the freedom and opportunity not because the Supreme Court gave us permission, but because we’re Americans, and that’s all there is to it,” Baldwin said.
The speech elicited considerable excitement from the audience. After she spoke, Holder stood up on stage and said, “Wow!” and “That was good!”
Chris Hook, a Justice Department attorney and secretary for the LGBT affinity group DOJ Pride, said Baldwin struck an emotional chord with the audience.
“Part of it is, she’s achieved so much within our own community, and it’s really great to see her supporting and championing causes not only for the LGBT community, but as Americans writ large,” Hook said.