Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn states that she “personally supports” same-sex marriage but believes the issue should be “left to the states.” Her position stands in stark contrast to those of both Jason Carter, who is running for Georgia Governor, and Greg Hecht, the Democratic candidate for Georgia Attorney General.
Both Carter and Hecht have clearly and publicly stated that they support marriage equality and neither has added any caveats to that support. By stating that the issue should be left up to the states Ms. Nunn not only hurts gay individuals in very meaningful ways but also impedes the progress of our movement toward equality. As lawyers with more than 40 years of experience between us, much of it advocating for the rights of LGBT Georgians and their families, we feel an obligation to speak out on what we believe is a critical issue for our community.
A recently leaked memo from Nunn’s campaign shows that she hopes to raise $300,000 from the LGBT community and her “personal support” of marriage equality has helped open the pocket books of many LGBT and other progressive donors from Georgia and around the country. By announcing her personal support on the one hand, while embracing the “leave it to the states” position on the other, Ms. Nunn is laughing all the way to the bank. While political double speak is not uncommon in elections, candidates like Ms. Nunn should not expect smart voters to fall for any such ruse.
Georgia’s state constitution was amended to ban same-sex marriage by a 2004 referendum supported by more than 76 percent of the voters. Although public opinion in Georgia has been shifting, as it has around the country, it appears unlikely that the state’s voters or legislature will reverse the marriage ban anytime soon. None of our progressive elected members of the Georgia legislature, some of whom are openly LGBT, has even bothered to introduce legislation that would be needed to repeal the marriage ban. Ms. Nunn’s “leave it to the states” view is the equivalent to saying that loving same-sex couples in Georgia should continue to be denied the fundamental right to marry
Ms. Nunn’s position that the dignity of our relationships should be left up to the will of Georgia voters is a despicable thing to say. To say that voters should decide whether gays and lesbians should have equal rights is as despicable as saying that voters should decide if black children should attend the same schools as white children. Or that the electorate should control whether loving interracial couples are allowed to marry. To declare that a person of color does not have a “right” to equality, but only as much equality as the voters are willing to provide, would be a hateful, racist statement. And to tell a gay person that she or he has no “right” to equality—but only as much equality as the voters are willing to provide—is no less hateful and arguably homophobic.
Our nation has long passed the point where it is acceptable for individual states to deny equality to their citizens on the basis of race. Certainly any candidate for federal office who advocated “states rights” with regard to Americans of color would be rightly rejected and dismissed. We believe it is time to apply the same standard to candidates who advocate “states rights” with regard to us. Equality is not a gift from the voters; it is our right as American citizens. Any politician who says otherwise hurts our cause and us. Our community must call her out.
While gay voters and donors already know why Ms. Nunn’s position on marriage is wrong, many seem to believe it is just harmless pandering that can safely be ignored. We think it is important to understand that this stance is far from benign; it does great harm to gay people individually and to our movement toward full equality.
When an otherwise reasonable politician like Ms. Nunn says that our equality should be left to the states it makes a detestable idea sound like a reasonable one. By promoting such an odious assertion Ms. Nunn does very real harm, because reasonable people just might believe it is a reasonable position to take for themselves. At this point in our movement for equality we must insist that politicians who claim to be our friends—and who want our money and votes—do not promote positions that cause actual harm to LGBT people, and we must oppose candidates who help our enemies by making their unreasonable positions sound reasonable.
Ms. Nunn’s position of “leave it to the states” also promotes the cruel stigma that there is something wrong with gay people; it implies that it might be okay for states to establish a second-class system for gay people because we are inferior. What else could justify allowing voters to deny gay people the equality that all other minorities have as a matter of right? Time and time again we have seen this very argument—the alleged inferiority of gay people—used to defend the “leave it to the states” proposition in court. State governments defending marriage bans claim that we are bad parents, that we live unstable lives, or that we somehow differ in negative ways from other minorities whose rights are guaranteed and protected. We have come too far in our fight for equal dignity to settle for such insults and falsehoods.
It was not so many years ago that it was legal for the states to criminalize same-sex intimate behavior; that the mental health profession considered gay people to be crazy; that our federal government saw gay employees as untrustworthy; and that most religions considered us sinful. Many thousands of gays and lesbians lost their civilian and military government jobs solely because of their sexuality. We all know of people whose families and churches turned their backs on them after learning of their sexual orientation. Sadly, many took their own lives rather than face a continued existence of shame and self-loathing, which their government, families, and churches promoted. And still today we face a nation-wide epidemic of LGBT youth taking their own lives because of the very stigma and rejection that Ms. Nunn’s position promotes.
But times are fast changing. Almost all of the false and defamatory labels of the past are now gone. We are not criminals. We are not sick or crazy. We are not subversives. We are not sinners. The United States Supreme Court declared that our government couldn’t criminalize our love. The medical and psychological communities now universally affirm the normalcy of LGBT sexuality and our families. We have openly gay and lesbian members of Congress, judges, ambassadors, and generals in our nation’s military. Moreover, many mainstream religions have acknowledged the worth and dignity of their gay and lesbian believers.
We are gay Americans, and we deserve—in fact, we demand—the full dignity of our citizenship. It has been said that people get the government they deserve. In reality, our collective experience on this journey to equality has shown that LGBT people get the government we demand. We have come too far and paid far too dear a price in lost and damaged lives to acquiesce to a political candidate who insists on promoting a stigmatizing position such as that held by Ms. Nunn.
We also question Ms. Nunn’s apparent assumption that her stance will not seriously erode the support she expects and seems to need from LGBT voters. We encourage Ms. Nunn to realize that the political consultants who advise that she can advocate “states’ rights” and still count on LGBT votes may not understand the mood of the broader gay electorate in 2014. The gay leaders who are advising Nunn grew up, politically, at a time when timidity was a reasonable path to success. We had little real power in those years. Not only were the legislatures against us, but until a few years ago the courts were against us as well. In past political campaigns we often needed to tolerate public hostility from politicians who gave us their quiet support, and we believe the consultants who are advising Ms. Nunn spent so many years following that timid path that they have lost touch with the mood of today. If Michelle Nunn believes that gay turnout and support will help her win this election, we want her to realize that her current position will likely undermine that support despite what her consultants say.
Our community is in a battle for the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans. We will get marriage equality with or without Michelle Nunn’s approval, but the hateful stigma promoted by her “leave it to the states” position must be stamped out. The task now is to make anti-gay views as marginalized and rejected as racist ones. And we expect candidate who want our support to help us achieve that goal.
We have learned hard lessons along our road to equality, and that is why we urge Georgia’s LGBT and progressive voters not to fall for Ms. Nunn’s equivocation on the issue of same-sex marriage. Unless Ms. Nunn changes her stance we believe that donors should think twice before making further contributions to her campaign, and that voters should be very wary of voting for her for the U.S. Senate. But we hope that Ms. Nunn will change her stance. We hope that Michelle Nunn will publicly embrace marriage equality with courage, and without equivocation, as her Georgia colleagues Jason Carter and Greg Hecht have done.
Dan Grossman Atlanta attorney GA Voice 2010 Person of the Year
Jeff Cleghorn Atlanta attorney Former U.S. Army major