Mayor pressed to support same-sex marriage in wake of Obama's affirmation

An open letter to Mayor Kasim Reed

Dear Mayor Reed,

Not quite three years ago, in November 2009, you and I sat across a conference room table in the office of the weekly gay newspaper where I served as editor. You were there to interview for our endorsement in the Atlanta mayoral election.


Read what local activists are doing to press Mayor Reed to “evolve” here.

Your opponent in the race, Mary Norwood, had sat at the same table, for the same reason. She supported same-sex couples’ right to marry. You did not. You chalked it up to your personal religious beliefs, but couldn’t really explain why — given the separation of church and state — religious beliefs should play a role in setting public policy.

We didn’t endorse you, but we didn’t endorse Ms. Norwood either. The newspaper locked its doors and filed for bankruptcy without publishing another issue. You went on to win the election, but you lost District 6, home to Atlanta’s gayest neighborhoods, by a wide margin.

A few months later, you and I sat down again, this time in your office at City Hall. It was March 2010, and I was there to interview you for an article in the new LGBT newspaper we had just launched, GA Voice. This time, you brought up gay marriage first.

You hadn’t changed your position, but it was clear you were still smarting from the gay voters who had flocked to Norwood during the election — despite your support for gay rights while you served in the Georgia legislature, which included serving as the House sponsor of a hate crime law that was later struck down for being too vague, and trying to stop passage of the bill that put a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot in 2004.

Some critics had said you refused to support gay marriage for political reasons, that you had aspirations to higher office. You insisted repeatedly that your opposition was “genuine” and “heartfelt,” a belief for which you were “willing to risk an election.”

Somehow, that didn’t make me feel any better.

The problem, Mayor Reed, is that your stand on gay marriage just doesn’t make sense. Neither did President Obama’s before May 9. That’s why critics thought his stand was purely political, and that’s why many still think that about you.

“I believe in absolute full legal equality, I believe that gay and lesbian couples should have every right and benefit that married couples have, but I do have a reservation where it comes to marriage,” you told me back in that 2010 interview.

But if you truly believe in full equality, why not call it marriage? Because the fact is that alternative legal statuses like civil unions do not grant the full rights, or the full respect, as marriage.

The California Supreme Court explained this better than I ever could, though the point is so obvious it is hard to believe it needs explaining:

“Retaining the designation of marriage exclusively for opposite-sex couples and providing only a separate and distinct designation for same-sex couples may well have the effect of perpetuating a more general premise … that gay individuals and same-sex couples are in some respects ‘second-class citizens’ who may, under the law, be treated differently from, and less favorably than, heterosexual individuals or opposite-sex couples.”

And if you are afraid that being pro-gay marriage will hurt your future electability, you can cross that off your list of concerns.

President Obama’s announcement was groundbreaking for many reasons, the most important being that it affirmed the basic equality of all Americans. But it also gave cover to basically every other politician in the country.

Really, think about it. Being opposed to marriage equality actually hurt you in the 2009 mayor’s race. It could hurt you again if you seek re-election next year.

You have already served in the Georgia House and Senate, so you aren’t going back there. If you ran for Congress, it would be in a Democratic Atlanta-based district, and supporting gay marriage won’t hurt you. U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta) already supports gay marriage; should he decide one day to retire, voters in his district wouldn’t hold it against you.

Running for an office elected statewide, like governor or U.S. senator, would be a long shot for you already. Sadly, Democrats aren’t winning statewide races these days, and even more sadly, Georgia has never had an African-American governor or U.S. senator. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, but supporting gay marriage would hardly be the biggest obstacle you would face.

On the list of future political options for you, that leaves being appointed to federal office. But that will only happen if a Democrat is in the White House. And the Democrat presidential nominee is Barack Obama. And he, of course, supports gay marriage.

Do you see where I am going with this?

You might wonder why we care.  Mayors don’t pass marriage laws, which are set at the state level. And Georgia is nowhere close to legalizing gay marriage.

That is, of course, exactly why your support matters. Elected officials wield the power of the bully pulpit, garnering the visibility and respect to influence all kinds of issues where they don’t directly set policy.

To that end, Freedom to Marry launched the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry  project, which now includes more than 200 mayors. They represent cities large and small, including Southern cities like Tallahassee, Fla., and Chapel Hill, N.C.

“We stand for the freedom to marry because it enhances the economic competitiveness of our communities, improves the lives of families that call our cities home, and is simply the right thing to do,” reads the pledge from the mayors.

Mayor Reed, as these other mayors know, marriage equality has become the new litmus test to judge whether someone is truly committed to lesbian and gay rights. Even those in our community who don’t think it should be first on the proverbial “gay agenda” don’t like you when you say we should be denied that right.

It isn’t just President Obama who has “evolved” on gay issues. The whole country has evolved. You sponsored the state hate crimes bill in 2000. That was a courageous stand — back then.

The same year you helped fight the marriage amendment here in Georgia, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. Now there are eight states, plus the District of Columbia, though laws passed in two states haven’t taken effect yet and could still be turned back by bigoted amendments.

Still, polls show about 50 percent of Americans now support marriage equality, and as of May 9, so does the president of the United States.

If you continue “wrestling” with this issue much longer, you won’t be an ally — you’ll be an anachronism.