President Obama referred to same-sex marriage as a “story of freedom” and “a civil right” in his 2015 State of the Union address Tuesday night as he laid out his vision for the nation in the fourth quarter of his presidency.
Speaking in the U.S. Capitol before a joint session of Congress — as well as six of the Supreme Court justices who’ll soon be deciding the marriage issue — Obama noted the rise in support for gay nuptials as an example of America at its best.
“I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in 10 Americans call home,” Obama said.
The designation of same-sex marriage as “a civil right” is the latest indication by Obama his administration is prepared to argue before the Supreme Court in favor a nationwide resolution striking down all remaining state bans on same-sex marriage. On Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear cases seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples initially filed in four states: Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Obama also made a reference to LGBT people when speaking broadly about the commitment of the United States to human rights, making history being the first president ever to say the words “lesbian,” “bisexual” and “transgender” in a State of the Union address.
“That’s why we defend free speech and advocate for political prisoners and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” Obama said.
LGBT advocates praised Obama for the LGBT inclusion in his speech, saying his words were yet another example of his leadership on LGBT rights.
Stacey Long Simmons, director of public policy and government affairs for the National LGBTQ Task Force, had called on Obama to say the word “transgender” in the speech and expressed approval with the progressive nature of the address.
“He also laid out opportunities for bipartisanship on issues as diverse as strengthening voting rights to achieving reproductive justice,” Simmons said, “And, as the most LGBTQ-friendly commander-in-chief ever, he also made history by being the first president to say the words ‘’lesbian’, ‘bisexual’, and ‘transgender’ in a State of the Union.”
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said the historic firsts for LGBT people in the speech were worthy of Obama’s record.
“The president continued to lead and distinguish himself as a steadfast advocate for LGBT people,” Sainz said. “The president acknowledges marriage as a civil right and for the first time in a State of the Union speech refers to our bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters. It should not go unnoticed that he also lends his voice to supporting LGBT people across the world struggling against tyranny and oppression.”
LGBT-supportive lawmakers who spoke to the Washington Blade in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol after the speech also praised Obama, saying his words demonstrated his commitment to the LGBT community.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) gave high marks to Obama for the LGBT inclusion in the speech when asked about his historic inclusion of the words “lesbian,” “bisexual” and “transgender.”
“To hear the president of the United State reference the LGBT community and gay marriage and protecting the rights of gay, bisexual and transgender people in the State of the Union is a phenomenally strong statement of his commitment to our community,” Cicilline said. “It’s historic, and I think it will have an endorsement benefit to our community in our ongoing quest for full equality.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the LGBT inclusion in Obama’s speech was consistent with the country’s ideal of equality under the law.
“I think his point was that all Americans need to be treated equally,” Hoyer said. “That fight has been a long fight, centuries old, and I think he referenced his commitment to that and the commitment of the country to it.”
But prior to the speech, LGBT advocates had also called on Obama to call for federal non-discrimination protections in anticipation of the introduction of a comprehensive LGBT rights bill that would prohibit bias in employment, public accommodations, education, housing, federal programs and credit. Obama made no reference to the bill during his speech.
Cicilline, who’s poised to introduce the legislation along with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) this spring, said he doesn’t think it was necessary for Obama to address the bill in his remarks.
“We’re still drafting it,” Cicilline said. “I think the president was speaking in broad, overarching themes and to reference our community in multiple occasions, I think, is terrific.”
Other lawmakers had varying reactions when asked by the Washington Blade about whether they shared Obama’s view that the struggle for same-sex marriage is a “story of freedom.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of four Senate Republicans who supports same-sex marriage, said he agrees with the view Obama articulated on marriage in his speech. But when the Blade asked if he supports litigation before the Supreme Court challenging bans on same-sex marriage, including the ban in his state, Portman replied, “I support the democratic process, and I think it is working.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), now the lone Senate Democrat who opposes same-sex marriage, said when asked if he agrees with Obama on marriage that he didn’t hear those words in the address and would need to review them.
Toward the end of his remarks, Obama summed up his vision of America by including gay people as one of the diverse groups within the country.
“I want future generations to know that we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we are a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen — man and woman, young and old, black and white, Latino and Asian, immigrant and Native American, gay and straight, Americans with mental illness or physical disability.”