US Ambassador backs marriage equality as a basic human right

Statement from the US Ambassador to Australia: Yesterday, the President shared that he personally supports the right of same-sex couples to marry. It will not change federal policy, because marriage has always been a state issue rather than a federal one.

The President has always supported equal benefits for same-sex couples and – since the day he took office — he has asked Congress to repeal the “Defense of Marriage Act” (which forbids a same-sex marriage from receiving full force and effect in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage).

The President’s statement is significant not for any legal impact, but rather for the power of it being said at all. For the first time in history, the President of the United States has acknowledged the dignity of the commitment of gay and lesbian people to one another, and his belief that their relationships be accorded the same respect as heterosexual couples in America.

I was born in the same year as the President – 1961 – a time when same-sex attraction was considered a medical disease, and virtually no one publicly acknowledged being gay or lesbian. If you go back to movies from that era, gay and lesbian people were rarely depicted at all, and if they were, it was only to be mocked and vilified. Gay-bashing was a common event – youths would beat up or kill a person just for “seeming” gay. In fact, being gay or lesbian was against the law in many states. Although some small gay activist groups formed in the 1970s, most civil rights groups did not want to be associated with gay causes, and their complaints were rarely reported in the media. So gay and lesbian people often kept their relationships and their feelings secret rather than risk abuse, mistreatment, and discrimination.

In the early 1980s, mainstream Americans finally began to confront the fact that people – people whom they liked and admired – were gay or lesbian, in part because of the tragic revelations that came out of the AIDS epidemic. People were stunned to learn that movie stars like Rock Hudson and Anthony Perkins were gay, that the great dancer Rudolf Nureyev was gay, or that the lead singer of “Queen,” Freddie Mercury, was gay. Suddenly, people – both straight and gay – began to see that people whom they worked with and admired, family members whom they loved, celebrities whom they idolized, were gay or lesbian.

It is hard now to remember that it took great courage for popular figures like Ellen Degeneres (The Ellen DeGeneres Show) to acknowledge her same-sex relationship – in fact it was still headline news when she announced it. And yet, over time, more and more straight Americans came to see that the people they worked with, admired, and loved were just that — people they worked with, admired, and loved — regardless of whether those people were straight or gay.

The love and commitment between two people – be they straight or gay – are just part of who we are; it does not end at a state’s border, or depend on their beliefs or politics. As President Obama said in his 2004 Convention speech: “We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.” And so, like many people, through the years, the President’s views about gay relationships and rights have changed and evolved. What was normal in the 1950s and the 1960s – the systematic abuse, mistreatment, stigmatizing, and discrimination against gay and lesbian people – is now shameful to all decent Americans. Committed relationships between men and between women, rather than being hidden, are now normal, and are portrayed as any other relationship would be in television programs.

And so today when the President of the United States says that he doesn’t see any reason why a same-sex couple should not be able to marry, it is significant. A group of Americans, who were once victimized, now know that a President has witnessed their journey and respects their lives and loves and families and contributions to our nation.

Jeffrey L. Bleich is the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to Australia.