January 24, 2012 at 12:05 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
A preview of tonight’s State of the Union

UPDATE: A gay rights advocate, speaking on condition of anonymity, said LGBT-specific content in the State of the Union address is not expected. According to the source, Obama’s speech will have “maybe a mention of LGBT,” but no LGBT-specific policy initiatives will be discussed.

Leaders of state LGBT advocacy groups working to advance marriage equality legislation say President Obama can a make a big speech tonight even bigger by throwing his support behind marriage rights for gay couples.

Obama is set to deliver before a joint session of Congress his third State of the Union address at 9 p.m.

As Obama makes the finishing touches to his speech, LGBT advocates in states across the country — most notably in Washington State, Maryland and New Jersey — are preparing for legislative fights to advance marriage rights for gay couples.

Passing same-sex marriage legislation in these states has various challenges. Marriage in Washington State and Maryland could go to referendum after the governors there sign the legislation into law, while New Jersey’s governor has previously said he’d veto any such bill.

State advocacy groups working on same-sex marriage legislation say an announcement from President Obama in support of marriage equality could give them an edge in their fights. The president, who doesn’t support same-sex marriage, said his view could “evolve,” but he hasn’t yet declared support for marriage rights for gay couples.

Josh Friedes, marriage equality director for Equal Rights Washington, said personal conversation is what drives support for same-sex marriage and that a public endorsement from Obama during the State of the Union address would certainly get tongues wagging.

“If the president of the United States were to announce support for marriage equality, his words would serve as a catalyst for millions of conversations,” Friedes said. “And that’s what we need in Washington State as we contemplate the likelihood of a referendum on a marriage bill this fall. Indeed there is probably no person who can better increase the number of conversations than the president.”

The bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington found the needed support among lawmakers this week to reach Gov. Christine Gregoire’s (D) desk, but the possibility of the law being overturned later this year in a voter-initiated referendum still looms.

Friedes added that Obama is respected as “a family man” and his support for marriage equality “could open the hearts of many people to revaluate their own positions.”

“But mostly if the president announces support for marriage equality it’s on us to use the event as an opportunity to share our personal stories,” Friedes said.

Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, had similar thoughts on the helpfulness of Obama declaring support for marriage equality during his speech, which is happening the day after Gov. Martin O’Malley introduced same-sex marriage legislation in that state’s legislature.

“If President Obama voices his support for marriage equality in his State of the Union address it will add even more momentum to our efforts in Maryland and help us get the bill over the finish line,” Evans said.

A national group that has been pushing for Obama to endorse same-sex marriage continues to apply pressure as the American public awaits the president’s remarks tonight.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said the day Obama joins the majority of Americans — who, according to polls, now support same-sex marriage — will be “a meaningful day for families who cherish the love and commitment that make marriage matter.”

“It will also be a really a good day for the president, as he will tap into the political momentum and energy that come to candidates who do the right thing,” Wolfson added.

Whether the president will endorse marriage equality during his speech remains to be seen. As the nation continues to recover from a recession and the unemployment rate remains above 8 percent, Obama will focus his speech on improving the economy.

In a conference call with reporters on Monday, senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Obama would lay out a blueprint in the speech that includes four pillars to improve the economy: manufacturing, energy, skills for workers and fairness and responsibility.

“We need an American economy where everyone gets a fair shot, where everyone gets a fair shake, and where everybody does their fair share,” a senior administration official said. “And those are the kinds of things that will be reinforced in the State of the Union.”

On Friday, when asked by the Washington Blade whether Obama would announce support same-sex marriage in the speech, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said he wouldn’t rule “in or out” the possibility of the president endorsing gay nuptials during the address.

Obama has incorporated LGBT issues in his State of the Union speech in previous instances. In 2010, he pledged to work with Congress and the military to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In 2011, Obama promised to certify repeal to lift the gay ban from the books before the end of the year — and later fulfilled that pledge.

According to Politico, the Human Rights Campaign has this year “pushed Obama to mention the LGBT community in his list of accomplishments and policy proposals.”

Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, reportedly told Politico, “The inclusion of our community in those laundry lists in any part of the speech helps us tremendously in being thought of as a vital part of the American fabric.”

But Michael Cole-Schwartz, another HRC spokesperson, told the Blade on Monday that he doesn’t “have anything” on the inclusion of LGBT-specific language in this year’s State of the Union address.

At least one workplace rights advocate is pushing Obama to address the lack of federal non-discrimination protections for LGBT people in his speech.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said he hopes Obama will take the opportunity to “mention how LGBT Americans have no federal law to protect us from irrational firings and harassment on the job.”

“By delivering this message, the president can help us do some important public education, given that 90 percent of American voters mistakenly think ENDA is already the law of the land,” Almeida said.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is legislation that has stalled in Congress and would prohibit private and public employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Almeida called on Obama to announce during the State of the Union address that he would issue an executive order barring federal dollars from going to contractors that don’t have non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers.

“President Obama has the power to change that by just putting pen to paper, without any need to wait for this dysfunctional Congress to do the right thing,” Almeida said. “Even if he does not announce the ENDA executive order during the State of the Union, I remain hopeful the president will take strong executive action very soon.”


Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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