You could say that my reaction to Barack Obama’s interview with Robin Roberts on the topic of same-sex marriage is “evolving.”
What you have to understand is that this has been an ongoing process for me. I had been in the middle of writing a few hundred words trying to articulate my outrage over the White House’s deplorable behavior over the past few days. The Vice President of the United States had made a simple, genuine, and already sufficiently qualified statement that gay people should be able to marry the person they love. And the Obama camp went into overdrive spin control, treating that sincere statement as a gaffe. Oh, that crazy Joe, is the insultingly vapid storyline they chose to perpetuate about an accomplished senator, You never know what he’s going to say next, always going off-script with his wacky ideas about human dignity! They did everything they could to try and roll it back to the same non-position they’ve had for the past few years, all but closing their eyes tightly and wishing the question away.
It was the perfect example of how disillusioned I’ve gotten with the Obama administration and the Democratic party in general, who seem not just willing but eager to capitulate with an increasingly unhinged opposition.
None of us who voted for Obama (and plan to vote for him again, just to be clear) can claim that it’s a case of bait-and-switch. He made the idea of unity and cooperation the recurring theme of his campaign. But it’s a perfect example of something that sounds great in theory but turns out horrible in practice. It’s not rational to entertain an irrational opinion. It’s not equitable to cater to the fringe’s desire to discriminate against other people. If a man says, “I believe we should start dismantling the past 50 years of progress in women’s rights,” it’s not a good thing to respond, “Hang on everybody, calm down, let’s hear what he has to say.”
But in the middle of writing, I heard that the President had made a historic announcement. It was a landmark moment in the history of gay rights. People were saying that they were moved to tears. I read snippets before I could see the actual transcript, and saw mention of his daughters and their friends with same-sex parents. I’d expected an epiphany, an eloquent and sincere statement about the equality of all Americans.
What I saw was a lengthy reminder of how they totally just repealed of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, followed by this:
At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that– for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that– I think same-sex couples should be able to get married. Now– I have to tell you that part of my hesitation on this has also been I didn’t want to nationalize the issue. There’s a tendency when I weigh in to think suddenly it becomes political and it becomes polarized.
And what you’re seeing is, I think, states working through this issue– in fits and starts, all across the country. Different communities are arriving at different conclusions, at different times. And I think that’s a healthy process and a healthy debate. And I continue to believe that this is an issue that is gonna be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what’s recognized as a marriage.
Now, I’m most definitely not an expert on Constitutional Law or history, but wasn’t Loving v. Virginia, historically, a federal issue, specifically about what’s recognized as a marriage? (Almost ten years between the instigating incident and a Supreme Court decision. Is that really what Obama wants to see repeated?)
I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Robin Roberts now, for having the backbone to break with the past decade of journalistic tradition by actually challenging a statement made by her interview subject, instead of letting it stand:
ROBIN ROBERTS: Well, Mr. President, it’s– it’s not being worked out on the state level. We saw that Tuesday in North Carolina, the 30th state to announce its ban on gay marriage.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well– well– well, what I’m saying is is that different states are coming to different conclusions. But this debate is taking place– at a local level. And I think the whole country is evolving and changing. And– you know, one of the things that I’d like to see is– that a conversation continue in a respectful way.
I think it’s important to recognize that– folks– who– feel very strongly that marriage should be defined narrowly as– between a man and a woman– many of them are not coming at it from a mean-spirited perspective. They’re coming at it because they care about families. And– they– they have a different understanding, in terms of– you know, what the word “marriage” should mean. And I– a bunch of ‘em are friends of mine– you know, pastors and– you know, people who– I deeply respect.
And as hard as I try, I absolutely cannot be convinced that a person’s basic right to equality is a topic on which reasonable people can disagree. Even people you respect can have opinions that are simply wrong.
I’ve been trying to explain the objection to calling it a “state’s rights” issue for years, but I couldn’t possibly do a better job of it than Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ did in less than five minutes:
“It’s ridiculous and offensive that we’re still having this debate.”
I’ve seen people claim that Obama’s statement is huge, no matter what the context was for his making it, because it’s the first time the active President of the United States has publicly stated his support for same-sex marriage. “Look how far we’ve come.” Well, this morning, I turned on one of the burners on my stove, and it lit. I didn’t marvel at how amazing an accomplishment it is that we’ve mastered fire. Later, I got in my car and started it up, and I wasn’t moved to tears at the wonder of the internal combustion engine. After that, I went into a store and while talking with the clerk, I mentioned having a boyfriend. And I didn’t drop to my knees and praise the heavens that nobody ejected me from the store, called me a faggot and started beating me up, or had me arrested for sodomy.
We’re human beings. We’re supposed to be advancing as a society because that’s pretty much our thing. The Stonewall riots were 43 years ago, two years before I was born. It took 21 years for the American Psychiatric Association to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental illness, and they did it 39 years ago. Harvey Milk took office 35 years ago and was assassinated 34 years ago. For more than my entire lifetime, people have been saying “this is bullshit,” and I’m not a young man. When anyone points out that this is a “process,” and uses the decades-long Civil Rights movement or the decades-long-and-still-ongoing Women’s Rights movement as examples, that’s not reassuring. It’s horrifying. It suggests that we’re incapable of learning from past experience. That we need to go through decades of violence and deliberation every time, before people will be able to differentiate right from wrong.
“Hooray! A stranger in Washington has said that after three and a half years sending gay people to fight for their country and having gay people work for him, he no longer believes that their relationships are inferior!” seems to me like a depressingly low bar to set for celebration.
I’ve seen people claim that Obama’s statement was bold and politically risky (including an implication from Obama himself). I don’t believe it was. First, because so many people already believed that he’d taken a stand in favor of gay rights from the start. As the New York Times Caucus blog was live-reporting reactions to the statement, and they quoted several respondents who were surprised that Obama speaking in favor of same-sex marriage was a new thing. I can’t figure out how to link to individual updates on that blog, but I don’t need to: I’ve been seeing it for years. For whatever reason, people have been talking up Obama as a champion of gay rights ever since he was elected.
The second reason I don’t see it as significantly risky is that the number of people who regard same-sex marriage as the defining issue of a Presidential campaign is vanishingly small. I’m as good an example of that as anyone: same-sex marriage is the only political issue I’ve written about at length. It’s an issue that could affect me directly. It’s an issue that could very well save lives, as more people realize they don’t have to commit suicide out of loneliness or because society treats them as inferior. And most significantly, it’s an issue to which there is absolutely no valid rational objection. And yet, in 2008 I voted for a candidate who explicitly said that he was against same-sex marriage.
Of course there’s no way I’d ever vote for Rick Santorum, and his ridiculously offensive statements on the topic are a big part of that. But if Mitt Romney flip-flopped (as if that were possible) and suddenly announced that he was in favor of it, there’s still no way in Hell I’d vote for him, either. And based on everything I’ve read about it, that’s pretty common: few of the people in support of it would change their vote based on that one issue, and few of the people against it were likely to vote for Obama anyway.
There’s been a good bit of comment, including from Roberts in the ABC interview, about how the black and latino population has traditionally been opposed to same-sex marriage and gay rights in general. I say as long as you’re reducing human beings to demographics, why not just come right out and say it: Obama’s no less black now than he was before he made the announcement. If the story you’re trying to tell is that Obama’s election was ensured by black and latino voters, then you’re saying that race was the most important factor for them. Not marriage equality. And if Obama really is courting pastors of predominantly black churches to influence his electorate, he’s given them ample material to frame the issue, since he’s qualified his statements over and over again, and hasn’t changed his actual practical position one bit.
Obama’s policies on gay rights have been at best an example of “Not My Problem.” Make no mistake: the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was absolutely, unquestionably a great thing. As he said in the interview, it’s unconscionable to expect men and women to sacrifice everything for their country while forcing them to hide or disguise their sexual orientation. It also has to be said, though, that it was a move that was long overdue, and that it already had the support of 70% of people in the service.
Saying that it’s not politically risky doesn’t automatically mean that it was politically advantageous. It’s damage control. It’d become necessary for the Obama campaign to claim that he’d taken a firm stand on the issue, and to claim that it was consistent with what he’d been doing throughout his administration. Otherwise, they’d lose their opportunity to take advantage of the “flip-flop” perception of Romney. (Notice that Obama does exactly that in his ABC interview).
The Obama administration has also been getting praise for the decision to no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act. The decision is, of course, a good thing. The praise isn’t. It strikes me as if I took credit for the Grand Canyon because the last time I was in Nevada, I did nothing to stop the Colorado River.
This post on the “Poliglot” blog of MetroWeekly.com says that I’m wrong, and it chastises other blogs for dismissing Obama’s statement as ineffectual. It attempts to explain that leaving the issue to the states to decide isn’t half-assed capitulation, but is actually part of a three-pronged master plan to ensure equality for everyone:
Obama’s position now is three-fold: (1) he personally supports same-sex marriage; (2) he believes as a policy matter that state, and not federal, law should define marriages, as it always has been in this country; and (3) he believes that there are federal constitutional limitations on those state decisions.
The writer fails to mention that (4) He understands that by the time any of these state decisions are challenged by a suit at the state level, appealed, raised to the federal level, appealed, stayed, and then finally advance to the position where those supposed federal constitutional limitations actually take effect, he’ll already have finished his second term, and it will no longer have to be his problem. Remember that Proposition 8 was voted into effect four years ago along with Obama, and it’s still nowhere near making it to the Supreme Court. Maybe if we wait long enough, all the gay people will just naturally die off, and it won’t be an issue anymore!
The best part of that post is the first comment (at the time I’m writing this), from a writer named Darren Hutchinson. “Anyone with a knowledge of US history, however, should know how harmful and dangerous the words ‘states’ rights’ are to civil rights.” Leaving the equality of millions of Americans to the states to decide individually is simply not a “moderate” position. It’s time we started calling it what it is: inaction.
So that’s why, when I say I’m in favor of marriage equality, I’m not going to say “I Stand With Obama.” (And I’m going to continue to be annoyed at those who do). I don’t see how anyone living in California, North Carolina, or any of the other 30 states that have redefined marriage to discriminate against homosexuals, can say that leaving the rights of a minority up to the states to decide is a strong, positive decision.
But while Obama was condescendingly scolding Biden for expressing a genuine sentiment, he made one thing absolutely clear: it’s a personal decision. He doesn’t want to see it politicized, or exploited, and he would’ve preferred to do it “without there being a lot of notice to anybody.”
Of course, his take is better than the alternative. That should go without saying. But here’s the thing: I don’t give a rat’s ass what Romney thinks. I actually care what Obama thinks. Not to decide my vote; of course I’m going to vote for Obama again, just like I did in 2008. And once again it’s not going to matter, since my state has basically already guaranteed all of its electoral votes to the Democratic candidate. My vote is almost completely symbolic, which is convenient because Obama’s campaign was almost completely symbolic. It got us excited about the idea that we’re actually living in a meritocracy — the smartest and most well-spoken candidate could rise above any trivialities like his race, or his unusual name, and become President of the United States simply on the strength of his ideas.
You could say that it’s hypocritical of me to judge Obama for taking so long to come around, when it took me at least 20 years to get comfortable with it. But the difference there is that Obama is a lot smarter than me. That’s why I voted for him. And it just seems like he should’ve known better all along.
So forgetting all the political motivation, campaign-year spin, backpedalling, exploitation, and speculation of what the practical effects will be, what did he actually say?
But– I think it’s important for me– to say to [opponents of same-sex marriage] that as much as I respect ‘em, as much as I understand where they’re coming from– when I meet gay and lesbian couples, when I meet same-sex couples, and I see how caring they are, how much love they have in their hearts, how they’re taking care of their kids. When I hear from them the pain they feel that somehow they are still considered– less than full citizens when it comes to their legal rights– then for me, I think it just has tipped the scales in that direction.
They’re respectful of religious liberty, that– you know, churches and other faith institutions– are still gonna be able to make determinations about what their sacraments are– what they recognize. But from the perspective of the law and perspective of the state– I think it’s important to say that in this country we’ve always been about fairness. And treating everybody as equals. Or at least that’s been our aspiration.
It would have been hard for me, knowing– all the friends and family that are gays or lesbians, that for me to say to them, you know, “I voted to oppose you having the same kind of rights and responsibilities that I have.”
And you’d be a fool to argue with any of that.
Biden’s comments seemed genuine to me, and he actually gave credit to Will & Grace for educating Americans on what gay people are really like. I’m not aware of anyone crediting minstrel shows and Amos & Andy for sparking the Civil Rights movement; I’m guessing Biden didn’t watch enough Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to recognize that as a more accurate, positive, portrayal.
But that’s what it eventually comes down to: if I can respect Biden’s statement as genuine even knowing that something so awful helped motivate it, why shouldn’t I be able to ignore political spin and motivation and just accept Obama’s statement as a useful and valid sentiment, delivered to a huge audience, with the weight of the Presidency of the United States? A symbolic message that we’re all equal, from a presidency that derives so much of its strength from symbolism.
If it actually motivates people to evolve enough of a backbone to do something about it, all the better.