Gay-rights advocates were thrilled, and stunned, when President Obama’s second inaugural linked the 1848 Seneca Falls women’s voting rights convention and the Selma civil-rights movement of the 1960s to Stonewall, the wellspring moment behind gay rights.
It was a rhetorical milestone for the inaugural, uttered by a president standing feet from another Democratic president who, less than 17 years earlier, had signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Four years ago, gay-rights groups had bristled when Obama asked Pastor Rick Warren, a strong opponent of gay marriage, to deliver the invocation. And Obama had not supported gay marriage until eight months ago.
But, despite satisfaction with first-term accomplishments in their sphere that activists say outpace every other liberal interest group, gay-rights advocates have a laundry list for the next four years—and the expectation that Obama will fill it.
“As exciting as the words of yesterday are,” said Richard Socarides, founding president of Equality Matters and principal adviser on gay-rights issues in the Clinton White House, “I think that we’re realistic about how much hard work it’s going to take to translate those words into reality, and that’s the hard part. The hard part begins now.”
If the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA in June, as gay-rights activists expect, the president would be pressured to comb through the federal code and its 1,138 mentions of marriage, ranging across areas from military to immigration to taxes.
“Those [would] all be wiped away, those limitations, but then there will be a lot of administrative work to put that in practice,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics at Third Way, the center-left think tank.
At the same time, Republicans, even those who assiduously avoided social issues in the last election, would be pushed to respond legislatively, perhaps through religious-exemption laws. Red-state Democrats would be squeezed to abandon their party.
“I think that’s the place where it’s a little bit scarier, because depending on what those attacks are, we’re going to have to keep making the case that it’s OK for him to veto those things or watch what kind of trade-offs he’s making there,” Erickson Hatalsky said.
Even before the Court ruling, Obama is being asked to meet an unmet first-term request and sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from employment discrimination on a sexual-orientation basis. More broadly, activists have been disappointed that Obama hasn’t pushed Republicans to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. “That’s the place where there hasn’t been a lot of attention, and folks have been really frustrated,” Erickson Hatalsky said.
Immigration reform, another liberal appetite Obama whetted on Monday, would also need to include language for same-sex marriages to appease activists.
Another historical step Obama could take would be to name an openly gay Cabinet member, the first in history.
Despite the excitement, advocates are aware that promise does not always become policy. Ask some of the other interest groups — those pushing for action on climate change and immigration — who heard bells of optimism Monday that had been sounded before.
Indeed, just a day after the inaugural, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Obama believed gay marriage should be decided in the states.