It is time for President Bush to take a stand. Despite his cynical and exploitative support of a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, he has long maintained that he is a compassionate and tolerant person who has no gripe against gays and lesbians, as such. He just thinks marriage is only for heterosexuals. Beyond that, though, the President has suggested that discrimination against any person – including on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation – is wrong.
In his second inaugural address, Mr. Bush eloquently declared that “the public interest depends on private character – on integrity and tolerance toward others.” Several months earlier, with specific reference to sexual orientation, he proclaimed that “we have a choice to make in America and that is to treat people with tolerance and respect and dignity.” People “in a free society,” he explained, have a right to “live the way they want to live,” and that right must “be honored.”
I believe Mr. Bush truly holds these values, but thus far in his presidency has been too timid to act on them. As a lame duck with increasingly negative public opinion polls and a doubtful place in history, this is the moment for Mr. Bush to “go to China.” He can restore his personal credibility and create a lasting legacy for himself as a moral leader by announcing his support for federal legislation prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment, education, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation.
A third of the states and some two hundred cities already have such laws and the federal government already prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in federal employment. A federal law of the sort I suggest (such a proposal has been floating around Congress for more than a decade) would bring sexual orientation into line with race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and age. It would not address the hot-button issues of marriage and the military, but would go a long way towards recognizing that the United States will no longer turn a blind eye towards discrimination against an individual because of his or her sexual orientation.
Just as Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who had long opposed civil rights legislation, rose above his parochial values and concerns when he became President and energetically supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and President George H. W. Bush rose above his skepticism about federal antidiscrimination legislation to enthusiastically endorse the Americans with Disabilities Act, President George W. Bush should rise above his narrow partisan roots and prove that a compassionate conservative can champion the fundamental American value of equal protection of the law.
Through long and sometimes bitter struggles over slavery, Jim Crow, women’s suffrage, and anti-Semitism, our nation has gradually overcome deeply-rooted prejudices to become a better and stronger nation, with a truer commitment to the ideal that we are all “created equal.” Through these moral struggles, we have come to recognize in federal law that discrimination against blacks, women, Catholics, the elderly, and the blind are no longer acceptable in American society. I have no doubt that we will come to the same judgment with respect to sexual orientation.
If President Bush has a sense of history, he will seize the moment and attach this step in human progress to his own legacy. It is not beyond him to do this. He has recognized that history “has a visible direction” set by the “flow of justice,” and he has demonstrated his willingness to act on this understanding in the debate over immigration. The proper model for Mr. Bush at this moment is Lyndon Johnson. For decades, Johnson was compelled by political expediency to vote with his fellow Southern Democrats against civil rights laws, legislation outlawing poll taxes, and even measures banning lynching. In 1948, he assailed President Truman’s entire civil rights program as “an effort to set up a police state.” Then, in 1965, as President, he stunned the nation by proposing and winning enactment of the Voting Rights Act.
It is worth recalling Johnson’s words on that occasion: “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.” Referring to “the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life,” Johnson declared that “their cause must be our cause, too,” for “it is not just Negroes, but . . . all of us who must overcome.” Like Johnson, President Bush has an opportunity to step out in front of history, if only he has the compassion, insight, and courage to do so.