Why what the President said yesterday matters to this gay man
Barack Obama is a calculating individual with a thorough training in the machine politics of my beloved hometown (Chicago). The President is not big on accidents.
I have no doubt that his decision to come out in favor of gay marriage yesterday was preceded by plenty of thought, polling, and political calculation. Whether or not Biden had anything to do with the timing of that decision is of only passing importance: we know that Obama was planning on revealing this policy shift at some point.
It's also worthwhile to note that, policy-wise, his TV interview (and the various follow-up press releases) contain no additional prescriptions beyond what he's already done, which is to refuse to defend DOMA. By stating that gay marriage will continue to be decided on a state-by-state basis, Obama is basically committing himself to nothing more than his existing agenda.
I woke up in California today still unable to marry my partner of 5 years, and nothing the President said yesterday will have any direct impact on that very painful and frustrating fact.
All that being said, Obama's public statement of support for gay marriage will prove to have been a ballsy, principled, and important move. Here's why:
By making support for gay marriage a position in his upcoming campaign, Obama will ensure that the issue finally gets the nationwide hearing it deserves. I'm not talking about the legislative hearings it deserves, or the judicial hearings it deserves... I speak specifically of the conversation it deserves. We now have an election where one candidate is in favor of gay marriage and the other adamantly against it. It will figure into both parties' talking points and campaign. This is a wonderful and promising development.
In 2004, Ken Mehlman architected a particularly cynical component of Bush's reelection strategy, which was to put anti-gay marriage measures on the ballot in 11 states. The idea was to increase conservative turnout. Whether this had a discernible effect on the election outcome is debateable.
It had a harmful effect on gays and lesbians, however. Few things are more painful than knowing that your neighbors are heading to the polls to vote against your very civil rights. It hurts. It hurts on a deep level waking up the next day and wondering which of the people you interact with every day exercised their animus at a polling station. It also hurts because when gay rights are up for a vote, attacks on gays increase, both in speech and with violence. Witness the awful, ignorant things said about gays whenever there's a gay marriage amendment on the ballot. Witness the signs that get torn down and the people that get harrassed and beaten up.
An election where nobody's willing to advocate the pro-gay position resembles a bunch of one-way bullying, and little else. That's what the recent election in North Carolina looked like. Much like the campaign against Prop 8, the anti-Amendment 1 forces simply couldn't bring themselves to actually make an affirmative defense of the gay citizen's right to a marriage, or even a civil union (the amendment banned both). Instead, the usual empty paeans were made to "fairness", or "harmful effects"... extra emphasis was placed on the possibility that unmarried partners (presumably heterosexual) could lose domestic violence protections. With nobody willing to actually make a pro-gay argument (lest we rankle the feathers of voters who genuinely don't like gay people), the amendment won overwhelmingly.
We finally have the possibility of gay marriage getting a fair hearing this November. And mark my words, it will. And with a President finally willing to make a principled argument for extending a basic civil right to a suspect minority, we'll no longer be sitting in our basements waiting for the proverbial tornado to pass over our homes. We'll no longer be simply wishing we could be left alone. We'll have an advocate, and one with the best bully pulpit around: the Presidency. What Obama did yesterday changes nothing, and everything.
Thank you Mr. President