I’m not sure if you can really be late to a party that shows no sign of stopping, but even if it’s been three weeks since Barack Obama came out, as it were, in favor of marriage equality, I feel the need offer my thoughts on it anyway. My first thought remains a sincere congratulations to all activists all over the US who have shared their stories in order to bring positive attention to the existence of happy gay families and stable and loving gay relationships, and to those people who never let up the pressure on the President to stop with his preferred stalling tactic – the famed “evolving” shtick – and just speak his heart and mind.
Second, I feel the need to figth back against my inner cynic. He comes in several forms, from the one who says that what matters is not what you say but what you do, to the one who’d like to remind me that Obama still thinks the issue should be left to the states, where marriage rights have been explicitly banned in one state constitutional amendment after another, and that as such, nothing much has actually changed. The first cynical response is fairly easy to brush aside – this administration has presided over the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the extension of visitation rights, the end of the ban on HIV-positive people from entering the US, the appointment of two liberal Justices to the Supreme Court, supported hate crimes legislation and stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court – but the other has more to it.
It is true that Obama’s ‘leave it to the states’-strategy means the states will still be free to put minority rights to a popular vote, and thus pretty much ensuring it being denied to gay citizens in much of the country. But then my counter-cynicism filter kicks in, and I am reminded of something that might sound hopelessly naive, but that’s true, nonetheless: Words matter. The fact that the President is now on the side of marriage equality doesn’t just matter to gay people, it matters to people who maybe hadn’t thought much about it. It starts conversations, and it moves the national conversation. Polls already show that core Obama constituencies previously skeptical of gay marriage, now are moving in a positive direction at the state level, and fast. We can’t be sure just how much of this movement in the polls is attributable to Obama’s announcement, but he deserves a fair bit of credit.
The punditocracy, left, right and center, have been tempted to make this an issue of political calculations, but it’s important that this temptation be resisted. It’s just what the opponents of gay marriage want this issue to be about. The initial reaction from the Romney campaign – before he doubled down against not only marriage, but even ‘marriage-like’ civil unions, whatever that means – and his social conservative supporters, was to write this off as a distraction, and a sign that Obama wanted to take the spotlight away from the slowing economic recovery. But it’s much more important than the distraction narrative let’s on, not least for what it reveals about the Republican Party’s deep and instinctive insensitivity to the dreams and aspirations of gay people and their supporters. Every time a GOP official talks about marriage as a ‘distraction’ or as Obama ‘playing politics‘, what he’s really saying is that he can’t imagine, or even worse, doesn’t understand how this could of importance to anybody. Also, it’s a dog whistle to the part of the party base who harbor deep-seated prejudice against gays. Both signals are equal parts ignorant and deplorable.
Of course, this has gay Republicans in a bind. For years, they have been trying to move their party on LGBT issues, all the while insisting that there are other issues, such as indefinite wars and budget-busting tax cuts for the very wealthy that should tempt gay people to vote against their own rights. (The argument probably would have been easier to make if it hadn’t been so obvious that Romney’s foreign policy advisor Richard Grennell was recently thrown under the bus, not for being an insensitive jerk and neo-conservative war-monger, but for inciting an anti-gay backlash against his hiring in the first place.) And, true to form, GOProud used the occasion to blast Obama for being a late convert to the cause, while tip-toeing inelegantly around the fact that they would still campaign for a candidate who is on the record – as of the last couple of years, anyway – as being against the fundamental goals of their organization. It was quite embarrassing to witness, really.
I don’t know how many voters will decide their vote over this issue in November, and frankly, I don’t much care. The most important point stands. The president has finally taken a stand, and in the process he has moved the national conversation, the polls and drawn a sharp contrast with his rival. Such trifectas done come every day. And it’s not often the president can make them happen just by doing some soul-searching.