In a recent TV interview that seems to have flown under the national media radar, President Obama announced publicly that he supports the rights of gay and lesbian Americans to legally marry their same-sex partners. The President was immediately criticized by many in his own party for being a political coward who had not "evolved" far enough fast enough from support for civil unions to support for full marriage equality. The President also took political fire from Republicans who predictably claimed that the President was cravenly pandering to wealthy donors and liberal base voters by publicly admitting to his support for marriage equality. Frankly, both sets of critics are correct. But President Obama's statement on marriage equality fits quite comfortably in the context of gay rights issues in modern American politics.
Let's begin in 1980, the first presidential election I can remember (I was in fourth grade). The 1980 election was probably the defining moment in American politics in my lifetime, when Ronald Reagan finally mastered the dark art of fusing socially conservative voters to the traditional Republican base of financial conservatives and foreign policy hawks. Reagan's views on gay issues "devolved" quickly from his opposition as a former governor to a California initiative to ban gays from teaching in public schools to a presidential campaign where he courted social conservative voters and donors with campaign statements condemning gays as engaged in an immoral "alternative lifestyle". Reagan's administration kowtowed to the newly influential religious right on the paramount gay issue of the decade—the AIDS crisis. Reagan never even acknowledged the existence of the AIDS epidemic publicly until near the end of his second term in 1987, while his administration shamefully delayed taking any public policy position because many of his top advisers viewed AIDS as a gay disease where the victims "are only getting what they justly deserve." Reagan's loathsome communications director, Pat Buchanan, even authored a New York Post op-ed piece in which he declared, "The poor homosexuals—they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution."
Reagan's presidency also coincided with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Bowers v. Hardwick. The Supreme Court—the ultimate protector of justice and equality—declared in rather harsh language that if states wanted to make being gay a criminal offense, well that was perfectly OK under the Constitution. This decision and the vestigial anti-sodomy laws it endorsed were used over the next two decades by many conservative states to justify refusing to permit gays to adopt children. After all, gays were criminals by law.
Pandering on gay rights issues reached its zenith in the 1990s when Congressional Republicans whipped their social conservative base into a frenzy on the twin issues of patriotic support for military service and strengthening families by working to ban gays from serving their country in the military or creating families by getting married. The equally loathsome "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) and "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA) were enacted with ease, thanks to hordes of Congressional Democrats falling all over themselves in a mad rush to reassure voters that, although they liked gays more than the Republicans and welcomed their votes and donations, they certainly weren't going to, you know, actually vote to support any recognition of gays as deserving of equality. Of course, Senate Republicans had to put a pickle on the shit sandwich of DOMA by voting down a proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would have given federal protection to gays against employment discrimination (a law that has yet to be passed even today).
The 1990s also saw the genesis of the Republican tactic of using ballot measures to enshrine anti-gay bigotry into various state constitutions. Colorado voters bought into Republican rhetoric that gays should not be given "special rights" and passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting any state or local law or ordinance granting gays protection from discrimination in any form (targeted at local ordinances barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment or housing). Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually invalidated the amendment in Romer v. Evans, but Republicans still use the "special rights" dog whistle to this day.
Moving into the current century (even if the Republican party would prefer not to do so), President George W. Bush campaigned on a "compassionate conservatism" platform. Apparently the "compassion" part was optional, as Bush (with the tacit support of the Gay Quisling) based his reelection strategy in 2004 in part by pandering to social conservatives in key swing states by instigating votes on state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, not to mention openly endorsing the idea of a federal constitutional amendment also banning gay marriage.
Which brings us to the era of President Obama. Obama campaigned on the promise of repealing DADT, which had broad bipartisan public support. Yet Republicans led by supposed-moderate John McCain fought tooth and nail to preserve DADT and deny gay Americans the right to openly serve their country. My cynical view is that the Republican resistance was less about military service than it was about marriage equality. After all, if the public ever saw a gay soldier or sailor return from active duty to the embrace or even marriage proposal of a same-sex partner, the social conservative case against marriage equality would suffer a serious public relations blow. Also, gays serving in the military would be particularly vulnerable to the whims of the patchwork of state laws governing marriage equality, and a gay military couple would make a compelling example of the indignities imposed by DOMA and state anti-gay marriage laws.
In other recent political pandering, after years of Republican calls for marriage equality issues to be decided by legislatures not courts, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—his eyes firmly on social conservative support for a presidential campaign in 2016—vetoed a marriage equality bill and moved the equality goalposts back even further, demanding a statewide vote on a marriage equality constitutional amendment. Republican legislators in Louisiana voted to maintain laws that prohibit gays from adopting children under any circumstances, while Republican legislators in Virginia passed a law making it significantly more difficult for gays to adopt. Republican legislators in Missouri and Tennessee proposed laws to prevent public school teachers from even discussing gays. North Carolina Republicans pushed through a state constitutional amendment barring gays from marrying, even though state law already prohibited gays from marrying, and the Republican Speaker of the House admitted that the amendment would likely be overturned in a few years. And the leading Republican candidates for President fell over each other in declaring their anti-gay bona fides, with presumptive nominee Mitt Romney "evolving" from declaring his strong support for gay rights in the 1990s to pandering to social conservatives with a strongly anti-gay platform in the current presidential race. And just to drive the anti-gay point home, Romney recently hired then fired an openly gay adviser to placate the religious right.
Whew! That's a lot of political pandering on gay rights issues. President Obama's pandering fits right in ....
That being said, there is some merit to President Obama's critics on the left who note that Obama's "evolution" on marriage equality was a cynical and cowardly ploy calculated to ensure his election in 2008. Those critics are correct—President Obama is hardly leading the charge for marriage equality. Compared to many marriage equality proponents—Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, New Hampshire legislators, prominent Republican attorney Ted Olson, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, and former Iowa supreme court justices Marsha Ternus, Michael Streit, and David Baker, just to name a few—President Obama is downright cowardly in his evolution from supporting civil unions to his recent support for full marriage equality (qualified by pushing the issue off to the states).
Still, as a matter of pragmatism, it is rather politically unrealistic for gay rights proponents to expect politicians to openly endorse gay rights issues if doing so results in political suicide. After all, what good are politicians who support gay rights if their gay-favorable stances make them unelectable? In President Obama's case, it is arguable that a pro-marriage equality position in 2008 might have resulted in the election of John McCain. It seems obvious that gays are far better off with Obama as President than they would have been with McCain in the White House. In fact, President Obama has done far more to advance gay rights in three years—repealing DADT, rescinding the HIV travel ban, taking the position that DOMA is unconstitutional, publicly supporting marriage equality, nominating gays to positions as judges or significant administration posts—than all his predecessors have accomplished in over two centuries. Gays could use more cowards like President Obama fighting on their side.
In the long run, President Obama's public support for marriage equality both reflects and pushes the increasing public support for the right of gays to marry. But President Obama's support for marriage equality is not just merely a symbolic political position, it is a powerful statement of inclusion and equality for gays, serving as a beacon of hope to gays that they too can live the American dream of marriage, family, and a house with white picket fence (or tasteful shrubbery).
Just this spring, a teenage boy had the courage to come out as gay in his small rural high school in deeply conservative northwest Iowa. Kenneth Weishuhn, Jr. was by all accounts a happy and well-liked 14 year old. He created a Pinterest page— "When I get married. (: " —to share his plans for his wedding to the man of his dreams he had yet to meet. Yes, a 14 year year old gay Iowa boy was dreaming of his happily-ever-after wedding day. How much more traditional, more sappy, can any teen get?
A mere month after coming out, Kenneth committed suicide. Traumatized by the jeers and taunts of his classmates, Kenneth could no longer hide the emotional hurt behind his outward smile. Kenneth's death brought outrage, sympathy, and reflection. Hopefully Kenneth's death will be a catalyst for meaningful changes in attitudes towards gays in general and towards bullied teens in particular.
But no matter what happens, Kenneth will never meet the man of his dreams. He'll never fall in love. He'll never get to enjoy his perfect wedding day.
For the President of the United States to tell gay folks that their relationships are just as important as opposite-sex relationships, that gay people should be free to marry the person they love, is not just a merely symbolic political act, it is an important act of personal affirmation and support. President Obama's declaration of support for marriage equality, regardless of its political motivations, is a courageous and historical milestone in the struggle for gay rights. I don't give a flying pig how or why he arrived at this spot at this time; at the end of the day President Obama has chosen to stand with gay Americans in their quest for equality.
For the first President to show his support for gays as fully equal Americans, I can forgive a slow "evolution" of his views, and can overlook a reluctance to get too far ahead of public opinion. President Obama has made a historical choice on a major, controversial issue of his day, while in the midst of a heated campaign for reelection. Whether that announcement proves to be shrewd or foolhardy as a political decision remains to be seen, but it is undeniably courageous.