May 17, 2012
By Jacob Combs
Speaking earlier this week at a New York fundraiser hosted by Ricky Martin at the Rubin Museum of Art, President Obama became the first sitting president to use the term “marriage equality” in a public speech. Referring to the pride he feels for passing the Lilly Ledbetter Act (which gives women greater opportunities to seek legal action for equal pay), Obama spoke about his belief that all citizens in the United States should be treated equally:
The first bill I signed, the Lilly Ledbetter Act — a simple proposition — equal pay for equal work. I don’t want my daughters treated differently than my sons. That’s the reason why we’re fighting for comprehensive immigration reform — because I believe that a child who’s here, raised with our kids, playing with our kids, has as much talent as our kids, the notion that somehow they would not have the capacity, the ability to proclaim themselves Americans and to fulfill their American Dream — that’s not who we are and that’s not what we’re about.
The announcement I made last week about my views on marriage equality — same principle. The basic idea — I want everybody treated fairly in this country. We have never gone wrong when we expanded rights and responsibilities to everybody. That doesn’t weaken families; that strengthens families. It’s the right thing to do.
This may seem like a small, semantic technicality, but it’s actually a highly significant moment. The truth is that when it comes to advocating for marriage rights for gay and lesbian individuals, language matters. Polls conducted in states across the country find that respondents are far more likely to respond that they support such rights when they are presented as “marriage equality” as opposed to “gay marriage.” Having to put any adjective in front of the word marriage, whether it be “gay” or “same-sex,” inherently brands the concept as something other than ‘just’ marriage, or some specific subset of marriage.
In truth, though, gays and lesbians aren’t trying to get “gay married.” We’re trying to get married the same way that heterosexual couples are allowed to. In a much deeper sense, using the term “marriage equality” as opposed to “gay marriage” gets to the root of the marriage debate: what we are seeking is not a new right and not a special right, but rather equal access to the already existent and constitutionality fundamental right to marry that all individuals should enjoy.
So when President Obama uses the term “marriage equality,” it may not make headlines. But it’s a big moment that shows just how far we’ve come, and what an important ally we now have on our side.