Yesterday, Barack Obama declared that his position on gay marriage has evolved, and where once he thought civil unions were sufficient, he’s decided, rightly, that they are not, and has made possibly the clearest and most supportive statement on the matter that any president has ever made.
Critics have contended that civil unions are another way of saying “separate but equal”, only, you know, without the “equal” part. It is effectively a form of soft bigotry to say that one type of life partner contract is allowed to be called “marriage” while this other type is not, for reasons completely unfathomable to anyone but the theists who draw the line in the sand at their personal definition of marriage — a relationship sanctified by a member of their clergy and thus accepted in the eyes of God. There are, of course, legal ramifications as well, but people seem to care more about their precious words.
And while many individual members of many religious organizations would have no problem with declaring that their God has no problem with gays getting married, others obviously find it some sort abomination, owing to their particular readings of the religious traditions they hold dear. The parallels with the religiously-motivated opposition to interracial marriage are obvious and palpable. With good reason — the situations are practically identical.
Despite this good news, my initial reaction — and I suspect many of your initial reactions as well — were deeply cynical.
I was initially irritated that this statement was made very shortly before Obama’s reelection campaign began. It felt like an opening gambit, a sop to pander to the LGBTQ community who, by and large, has felt abandoned by Obama since he took office. I was mad that it hadn’t happened sooner, that it COULD have happened sooner but for Obama’s own position on the matter. I was worried that, with so much riding on keeping outright slavering bigotry out of the Oval Office, that Obama could have done more good by announcing this a year or more ago, having the conversation in advance, making the political climate toxic to bigoted Republicans for this election, and could have done a significant amount more good in the name of equality than he’s managed so far.
But Obama was instrumental in the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Clinton-era law that ostensibly opened the door for non-heteronormative folks to join the military with impunity — so long as, you know, they hid the fact that they were anything but heterosexual. With Republicans controlling the House for the past two years, and controlling many states’ legislatures, and therefore most of the United States’ political agenda, gays have seen nothing but one ridiculous law after another in one state after another to abridge their rights.
Of course, they’re not alone, as women have had their reproductive rights under siege for the entire duration, but much as misery loves company, people also generally love having boots removed from their throats. Go figure. So the sitting President is, from his bully pulpit, bullying the bullies who have joyfully maintained their boot-on-neck stance. And the pushback against this anti-bully movement is ridiculously transparent, with the anti-gay rhetoric claiming by and large that the Christians and bigots are themselves being bullied, by having their right-to-bully removed.
Sure, Obama has had three and a half years in office to take this potentially controversial stand, and we’re all disappointed that it could have been sooner. But given that only a slim majority of the electorate supports gay marriage, and given the real goals of the Republicans for the past several decades have been geared toward social conservatism (e.g., every regressive policy you can find a Bible verse to support), rather than any sort of fiscal prudence or any other pretension at good governance, it seems the “obvious political calculus” aimed at shoring up numbers in an otherwise demotivated demographic is not so obvious after all. The Republicans still get an unduly large amount of support from the general electorate despite their obvious bigotry, which they wear on their sleeves. So this is actually a really bad, really risky time for Obama to be making this sort of stand, even if it will motivate that otherwise demotivated demographic.
This motion could backfire, drastically. That makes the motion seem all the more genuine. Either that, or Obama’s signalling that he’s going all in this time around, and he’s betting with the unprecedented upswing in support for gay marriage. He could have punted on this til after the election, but he didn’t. And that’s important.
I do wish that Obama had realized much sooner all the parallels between the anti-gay bigots and the anti-miscegenation bigots of yesteryear. I suspect he’s figuring it out now, and if this enlightenment comes because his political handlers are nudging him in that direction, so be it. Better late than never, given the alternative has openly campaigned on maintaining straight male privilege.
I have decided that for me, this is not the time to be cynical. The stakes are always high in any election for the President of the United States, but in this case, my cynicism right now could actually help to undo this positive momentum for human rights, and given how slow we as a race tend to be in fixing injustice, I’d rather not lose that momentum and have to continue having this sort of conversation in a decade. Now’s the time. We’re at the tipping point. Keep pushing.