Tonight's State of the Union provides President Obama with one of the easiest, yet high profile, chances to explain why Congress should pass gay rights legislation as soon as possible. Daniel Hernandez Jr., the heroic, openly gay intern who has been credited with saving the lives of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others during the Tuscon massacre, will be seated in First Lady Michelle Obama's box as the president delivers his address.
The president, no doubt, will introduce Hernandez and thank him for his selfless actions earlier this month. But the Obamas' symbolic gesture will ring hollow unless the president asserts during his speech that gay and lesbians like Hernandez deserve the same rights as every other American — to work without fear of being fired because of their sexual orientation; to learn in safe and supportive educational environments; and to enjoy the rights of marriage.
True, now that Republicans have control of the House of Representatives, it is unlikely that any gay rights legislation will become law over the next two years. But that doesn't mean the president should shy away from providing leadership on the issue. In fact, Obama could credibly make the case tonight that this is one of the issues Republicans and Democrats should agree to compromise on if they truly hope to bring the country together in the wake of the shootings.
Furthermore, if Obama praises Hernandez but fails to knock the laws that currently render him a second-class citizen, the president risks sending a very dissonant message: How can Hernandez be both an American hero worthy of praise and a citizen unworthy of equal protection under the law?