NEWS / CONTEXT

President Obama’s Profile in Courage Affirming Marriage Equality
Karen Ocamb
5/10/2012

Mark the date: May 9, 2012—the day President Barack Obama announced to the world that he believes same-sex couples deserve the freedom to marry. If there is a heaven, Obama’s mentor, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, was no doubt watching with pride, for surely this announcement in a close election year was a profile in courage, an action worthy of the Kennedy mantle conferred on Obama by the personification of the advancement of civil rights. 

“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,” Obama told ABC’s Robin Roberts. “I had hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient. I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word ‘marriage’ was something that invokes very powerful traditions and religious beliefs.”

Obama said there are gay couples in his administration and his daughters have friends with gay parents, and they don’t understand why there is a distinction. Obama also referred to his Christian faith. “The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule—you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated,” he said. “And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as president.”

As the story emerged from the White House, it seemed that Obama was prepared to come out in support of marriage equality sometime before the Democratic Convention in September to avoid a fight over whether to put a marriage plank in the party platform. The plank effort had been proposed by Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson, who’s been advocating for marriage rights since he served as co-counsel in the first big marriage battle in Hawaii in the early 1990s. The movement had been picking up steam, especially after it was endorsed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a marriage advocate since 1994.

And then Vice President Joe Biden appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage. The next day, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he, too, agreed with marriage equality—setting off a frenzy among White House reporters who pummeled press secretary Jay Carney on whether Obama had finally “evolved,” as everyone suspected he had. LGBT politicos chimed in, some urging activists to back off, saying the issue of gay marriage would only hurt the re-election of the most pro-equality president in history, while others were furious thinking of the craven political disregard for the harm done to real LGBT people. After all, his administration was blithely chanting “We Can’t Wait” for jobs and fairness, while telling the LGBT community Obama wouldn’t sign an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in federal contracts.

Clearly the issue of LGBT rights was not going away, and Obama and some of his key advisors decided to move up the timetable. When word first leaked on Twitter, the LGBT world held its breath—would he equivocate again, or would he be forthright, bold and courageous? In a very casual manner, he deftly came out for same-sex marriage, though he promised nothing specifically substantive. The Justice Department is not defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court, and Obama has expressed support for repeal, but DOMA is still law and is considered the province of Congress, in much the same way as the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was handled.

Public support for same-sex marriage has grown considerably over the past several years, with a Gallup poll now showing 50 percent of support and a Pew Poll showing support even higher. As Obama indicated in reference to his daughters, this is largely considered a generational issue, and Obama’s announcement is expected to help energize a youth vote more lackluster than in 2008.

“This country is moving, and what’s interesting is every time somebody does something that’s supportive of our rights, it turns out to be (a) popular and (b) not very controversial,” openly gay Rep. Barney Frank told the Washington Post. “Politically, it’s kind of a non-event.” Frank is getting married shortly.

Though the impact is still unclear and developing—apart from new enthusiasm in the LGBT community and a surge in donations—the pronouncement now establishes a very clear contrast with Obama’s presidential rival, Republican Mitt Romney. In response to Obama’s position, the conservative former Massachusetts governor, who has signed the National Organization for Marriage pledge to push for a federal constitutional amendment banning marriage equality, said he believes marriage is between a man and a woman, doesn’t believe in civil unions but accepts domestic partnerships. As Frontiers goes to press, Romney has not clarified in detail precisely which civil rights should be given to straight couples, which to gay couples and why.  

Indeed, the emergence of the story in the Washington Post May 10 has caused some alarm. According to some of his friends, while in high school Romney attacked a nonconformist young boy suspected of being gay, held him on the ground and cut his hair with a pair of scissors. Questions have now been raised about Romney’s character—whether that privileged bully grew into the venture capitalist who chuckles about liking to fire people, promises the Log Cabin Republicans that he would be “better than Ted Kennedy” when he was campaigning for Kennedy’s Senate seat and now sides with NOM. Romney apologized for the incident: “Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that,” the Post reported Romney telling a Fox radio host. Romney added, “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize.”

Not everyone is pleased with Obama’s statements—or rather the timing, coming the day after such a tremendous defeat in North Carolina with the passage of Amendment One. And many were concerned the announcement would hurt Obama with key demographics of African-Americans and Latinos in this difficult election year. But the NAACP worked hard in coalition with LGBT groups fighting Amendment One in North Carolina, and such national leaders as NAACP President Ben Jealous and rising political star California Attorney General Kamala Harris are staunchly pro-equality. And a poll commission by the National Council of La Raza shows that 54 percent support marriage equality.

Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa, who is also chair of the DNC Convention, issued this statement about Obama: “Only a day after the disheartening passage of Amendment One in North Carolina, the supporters of marriage equality now have a reason to celebrate. With his inspired declaration of support for same-sex marriage, President Obama has significantly advanced the cause of human rights and equality in the United States. We look forward to the day when all Americans—gay and straight—are free to follow their hearts and marry the person they love. If we truly believe in family values, we should value all families.”

Independent Republican New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said this: “This is a major turning point in the history of American civil rights. No American president has ever supported a major expansion of civil rights that has not ultimately been adopted by the American people—and I have no doubt this will be no exception. The march of freedom that has sustained our country since the Revolution of 1776 continues, and no matter what setbacks may occur in a given state, freedom will triumph over fear, and equality will prevail over exclusion. Today’s announcement is a testament to the president’s convictions, and it builds on the courageous stands that so many Americans have taken over the years on behalf of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans, stretching back to the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.”

“The president’s support marks a historic turning point for the ‘freedom to marry’ movement. Yet there is much left to be done,” Evan Wolfson said. “Forty-four states continue to exclude same-sex couples from marriage, and because of the federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA, the civil marriages of thousands of same-sex couples are not respected by the federal government, thus depriving families of a crucial safety net of federal protections and responsibilities. It is time to repeal discriminatory laws that hurt families and help no one and speed passage of ‘freedom to marry’ laws throughout the country. Government has no business putting obstacles in the path of loving and committed couples and their families, who simply seek to care for one another and for whom marriage matters. We call on the president, members of Congress and state legislators from both sides of the aisle to act together to bring an end to marriage discrimination and put government at every level on the side of families, fairness and freedom.”

But for many, the moment was emotional, as it was for conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, who has also been advocating for marriage equality (as a Catholic!) for a very long time.

“I do not know how orchestrated this was; and I do not know how calculated it is. What I know is that, absorbing the news, I was uncharacteristically at a loss for words for a while, didn’t know what to write and, like many Dish readers, there are tears in my eyes,” Sullivan wrote in his blog The Dish. “So let me simply say, I think of all the gay kids out there who now know they have their president on their side. I think of Maurice Sendak, who just died, whose decades-long relationship was never given the respect it deserved. I think of the centuries and decades in which gay people found it impossible to believe that marriage and inclusion in their own families was possible for them, so crushed were they by the weight of social and religious pressure. I think of all those in the plague years shut out of hospital rooms, thrown out of apartments, written out of wills, treated like human garbage because they loved another human being. I think of Frank Kameny. I think of the gay parents who now feel their president is behind their sacrifices and their love for their children.

“The interview changes no laws; it has no tangible effect. But it reaffirms for me the integrity of this man we are immensely lucky to have in the White House. Obama’s journey on this has been like that of many other Americans, when faced with the actual reality of gay lives and gay relationships. Yes, there was politics in a lot of it. But not all of it. I was in the room long before the 2008 primaries when Obama spoke to the mother of a gay son about marriage equality. He said he was for equality, but not marriage. Five years later, he sees—as we all see—that you cannot have one without the other. But even then, you knew he saw that woman’s son as his equal as a citizen. It was a moment—way off the record at the time—that clinched my support for him.”

The election will still be about the economy, through anti-gay Republicans promise to make it about marriage equality, too. The polls say it will be close. The Democrats say the choice is clear: go backward with Romney, go forward with Obama. Which shows the most courage?


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