Paul Begala: Will President Obama Deliver on Gay Rights?

President Obama gives his inauguration address Monday in Washington, D.C. Justin Sullivan/Getty

When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the March on Washington in 1963, he used an interesting metaphor. He called “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence ... a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” King said he and the hundreds of thousands gathered on the Mall were there “to cash a check.”

In his second inaugural address, on the day we honor Dr. King, President Obama issued a promissory note of his own. “Our journey is not complete,” he declared without equivocation or reservation, “until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

Our president linked Stonewall with Selma and Seneca Falls as latter-day Lexingtons and Concords in the battle for full equality for all Americans. The Stonewall Inn was a New York gay bar. On June 28, 1969, it was raided by the police, enforcing a law that prohibited liquor licenses for bars with a gay clientele. This had happened before; gay Americans were routinely humiliated and incarcerated. But this time they fought back. The riot was a seminal moment in the history of gay rights. So for the president to link it to Selma, where the heroic John Lewis and others were savagely beaten, and Seneca Falls, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other pioneers of the women’s-rights movement dared to declare their equality, is both historic and heartening.

But almost before his words had finished resonating across the National Mall, his press secretary was walking them back. The president, he told reporters, personally supports gay marriage. But the legality of gay marriage itself? “That’s something that should be addressed by the states.” Of course, states determined the legality of interracial marriage for decades, and so the marriage of the president’s parents was illegal in 19 states. We rightly look back at that time with horror, just as our children will look back on today, when 30 states have enshrined discrimination against gays into their constitutions.

To be fair, it takes time to move our massive government. But gay-rights activists are looking for quick movement on many fronts, for there is much our president must do to honor his new promissory note:

Join the lawsuit against Proposition 8. The voters of California amended their constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. A remarkable and brave young gay activist, Chad Griffin, who now leads the Human Rights Campaign, has spearheaded an effort to overturn the action as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws.” Longtime gay-rights activist and former Clinton White House official Richard Socarides is optimistic that the Obama administration will join the lawsuit. “My own view,” he says, “is that the Justice Department and the White House press office are just catching up with the rhetoric of the speech and that the government will in the end enter the Proposition 8 case on the side of gay-rights advocates. They certainly should.”

Use his power to order federal contractors not to discriminate against their gay employees. In 1941 FDR signed an executive order prohibiting any defense contractor from discriminating based on race, creed, color, or national origin. It took 23 years for Congress to enshrine this principle in the Civil Rights Act. President Obama supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but instead of waiting for Congress to act he should use his constitutional power to end taxpayer-subsidized discrimination against gays.

Make sure gay military spouses have the same rights and privileges as straight military spouses. This president and our remarkable first lady have done admirable work shining a light on the service and sacrifice of our nation’s true top 1 percent—the 1 percent of Americans who serve in the military—and their families. Being a military spouse is tough enough; gay spouses should not be denied benefits earned by their loved one’s service.

A half-century ago, another president was challenged to make his actions match his ringing rhetoric on equality. As a candidate for the presidency, John F. Kennedy promised to end racial discrimination in federal housing by executive order “with the stroke of a pen.” After two years in office, he had not yet done so. To prod the president, civil-rights activists sent pens, thousands of them, to the White House. At last the executive order was signed.

This president has evolved significantly on gay rights, but he has a distance to go still. If he does not move quickly and decisively, the White House mailroom may soon be filled with stones, to remind him of the promise of Stonewall.