More on Obama’s statement on same sex marriage

The fallout from president Obama’s statement yesterday that he was in favor of same sex couples having the same right to marry as any other couple has been interesting to observe.

There have been those who have found reasons to criticize it, saying that it was long overdue, that his emphasis that it was his personal opinion diluted the impact because he did not say that he was going to fight vigorously for it to become law, that he was saying this for political reasons to galvanize his base of supporters, that he was forced to do so by vice president Joe Biden’s statement, even that he was doing this because he needed ‘gay money‘ to counter the loss in Wall Street money that was now going to Mitt Romney.

The Log Cabin Republicans (consisting of gay Republicans) even had the nerve to blast Obama’s statement as “offensive and callous” because he did not make his statement earlier. Why gay people would remain members of a party that so opposes their rights is as baffling as why gays choose to remain Catholics or Muslims or Orthodox Jews or evangelical Christians. Why be part of a group that so clearly wants you to disappear?

All the above criticisms of Obama’s statement may well be valid. But I have long stated that the private character and motives of public people are hard to determine and rarely worth the effort to do so. What counts are their public actions and whatever the motives of Obama or the qualifications to his stand, I think that it still does not detract from the fact that this was a major advance for the rights of gay people. Symbols are important in politics. To have a sitting president publicly give his opinion that he could see no reason to deny same sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples, and that civil unions were not sufficient, changes the debate significantly and in a positive direction. When added to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and his decision not to defend the infamous Defense of Marriage Act in the courts, I think we have to give him credit for significantly shifting the goals posts on the issue of gay rights.

Of course, the chattering classes immediately and inevitably started a discussion on their favorite topic, which is what all this means for the November elections.

There is no question in my mind that this is going to dominate the discussion for some time. Although his stand is controversial, one of the major factors in Obama’s favor is that the position is favor of same sex marriage is simple and straightforward and based on the sound secular principle of equal rights: that people’s rights should not be determined by their sexual orientation. It flows naturally from the past application of that same principle of equal rights to gender and race, which were also opposed in their time but are now taken as a given.

Those opposed to same sex marriage have a much harder time explaining what they stand for and why and how it is different from issues of gender and race. The problem is that the opposition to same sex marriage is rooted in one thing only: homophobia, based largely on religion. But except for the outright religious bigots who are comfortable publicly saying that they oppose same sex marriage because of the Bible and because homosexuality is a sin, all the rest have to scramble to find ways to oppose it without conceding that they are homophobes. Obama’s stand has now shifted attention to the opposition and you can watch them squirm as they try to find ways to thread that needle.

Mitt Romney is already tying himself up in knots, saying: “I indicated my view, which is I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender, and I do not favor civil unions if they are identical to marriage other than by name… My view is the domestic-partnership benefits, hospital visitation rights, and the like are appropriate but that the others are not.”

This raises immediate questions such as what he means by ‘domestic-partnership benefits’, what else is included in his phrase ‘and the like’, what things should be different in order to make civil unions not identical to marriage, what are the means by which same sex couples gain these rights, do these rights transfer across state lines, and so on. Once you say you oppose same-sex marriage for any reason other than religious dogma, then you find yourself on a never-ending explanatory journey where the contradictions become increasingly glaring.

I recently asked a ‘liberal’ Catholic (an oxymoron if there ever was one) where he stood on this issue and it was interesting to see him squirm as he tried to explain why he thought same sex marriage was not a good idea without bringing in god and the Bible. He just could not do so and instead resorted to blathering on about needing to understand the context and history of marriage and so on. He kept talking about his relatives who are in same sex relationships in order to make me understand that he was not a bigot. He was clearly uncomfortable and smart enough to know that his position and that of his church was indefensible.

Of course, this implies that the media will ask these questions and here I am cautiously optimistic that they will carry out this role. Both Obama and Romney are very similar pro-oligarchy, pro-war candidates. There is very little to distinguish them on the major economic and foreign policy issues of the day. The media is part of that same interest group and has little interest is exposing the fact that American elections are basically a fraud in which the system is rigged to produce a status-quo candidate. As a consequence, the media was staring at six months of boredom unless one of the GRAGGS issues (guns, race, abortion, gays, god, sex) could be ginned up. Obama has given them that chance and they are unlikely to let go.

Another factor in favor of the media keeping the focus on this issue is that most urban sophisticates, and this includes the media, are in favor of same sex marriage but many have been reluctant to say so publicly and vigorously because a lot of people do not want to take ‘controversial’ stands. Obama’s statement gives them cover to support it more openly. In particular, I strongly suspect that most major media personalities are also in favor of same sex marriage but could not openly advocate for it. Now they can do so by vigorously questioning opponents as part of their ‘political’ reporting. Even Shepard Smith of Fox News says that opposing same sex marriage is putting the Republican party “on the wrong side of history.”

So watch every prominent politician being forced to answer the question of where they stand on same sex marriage. Those in favor will have little difficulty explaining their position. Those opposed but who do not want to appear to be religious nutters, will have immense trouble. And it will serve them right to have to squirm in the media spotlight.

Of course, those who say that they have to oppose same sex marriage because the Bible says so are also wrong. I hope reporters study what the Bible says about marriage but to help them get started, here is Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian, with a quick summary.


  1. Chiroptera says

    …it was interesting to see him squirm as he tried to explain why he thought same sex marriage was not a good idea without bringing in god and the Bible. He just could not do so and instead resorted to blathering on about needing to understand the context and history of marriage and so on.

    Which implies that the pro-decency side doesn’t “understand the context and history of marriage.” I would say that the pro-decency side has a far better understanding of marriage than the pro-bigotry brigade.

  2. chrisj says

    To be fair, I can understand how you could be a gay Republican if you thought (or blindly believed) that the party was right about everything else. It isn’t ultimately much stranger than being a female Republican or welfare-recipient Republican, and there seem to be plenty of those.

  3. says

    Re: the long overdueness and water-downedness of what Obama said yesterday… Yeah, I totally think that. My reaction was kinda similar to PZ’s. I was like, “That’s… that’s it?”

    But, I’ve been kinda quiet about that, haven’t posted anything about it on Facebook, etc. It’s sad that this is a significant step forward in 2012, but it is a significant step forward, and I guess we take what we can get.

    I’m thoroughly unimpressed. But I’m disinclined to spoil the celebrations of those who are. It’s still a step forward.

  4. Robert B. says

    My reaction was the same as James Sweet’s, until I saw that Obama also said that gay marriage is a states’ rights issue. In fact, it’s a civil rights issue, which means that, legally, the federal government has jurisdiction, and ethically, no level of government has the right to pass any law except the one that grants the full freedoms we are due. Not to mention, saying “states’ rights” right now is tantamount to endorsing the legality of Amendment 1 and similar laws.

    So taking that into account, this isn’t even a step forward, however small. As someone put it in PZ’s thread, he gave us an aspirin and then shot off our kneecap.

  5. jamessweet says

    Yeah, I was pretty disappointed by that too. It’s still a step in the right direction, but… this was some pretty weak tea. Obama’s stated position on marriage equality is still badly wrong.

  6. jamessweet says

    The reason I think it’s still a step forward is that Obama doesn’t really have any say in whether it’s a civil rights or states’ rights issue. The fact that he says it is up to the states means he would clearly oppose a federal anti-marriage equality amendment. Federal pro-marriage equality legislation is not really in the cards, and the Obama administration is opposing DOMA anyway.

    I guess the only influence he could have would be via a SCOTUS appointment, but do we really think Obama is likely to appoint someone who would oppose granting marriage equality? I tend not to think so.

    So we still get an endorsement, however tepid, of marriage equality from a POTUS. The caveat he adds is ugly but irrelevant in practice. If nothing else, this gives political cover for more politicians and pundits to openly support marriage equality (they’re no more radical than our Socialist Kenyan Black Supremacist Muslim Atheist president, right?!)

  7. Henry Gale says

    I think this was a calculated political step.

    Obama was firmly for gay marriage in ’96.

    Once he got onto the national stage he backtracked to being against gay marriage but for a strong civil union.

    Now when the rush for donor money is around the corner, just in-time for a big Hollywood bash at Clooney’s house, he’s back for gay marriage.

    Yet, he’s not so pro-gay marriage that he’ll call it a human right. Its just something the states should decide. Even though that means a marriage in one state may not be recognized in another state and all the constitutional issues around that.

    Yeah, for sure this was a political move designed to get more campaign donations.

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