Thursday, May 10, 2012

It Bends Towards Justice

Hours after the super-swing state of North Carolina voted for a state constitutional amendment that stripped all legal rights from same sex relationships, President Barack Obama became the first President of the United States to state his support for marriage equality. 

He did so in an interview with ABC reporter Robin Roberts (photo.)Contrary to the Fox drone, he had previously stated his belief that the North Carolina proposition should be defeated, his administration had stopped legally defending the anti-same sex marriage federal law, and he had from the beginning of his term set in motion the procedures that culminated in the end of discrimination in the military against gay and Lesbian participants.  So there was no clear political need to state his support for same sex marriage.  He framed it in the context of conscience.

In an email sent to his supporters later on Wednesday, he said:  "I've always believed that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally. I was reluctant to use the term marriage because of the very powerful traditions it evokes. And I thought civil union laws that conferred legal rights upon gay and lesbian couples were a solution.  But over the course of several years I've talked to friends and family about this. I've thought about members of my staff in long-term, committed, same-sex relationships who are raising kids together. Through our efforts to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, I've gotten to know some of the gay and lesbian troops who are serving our country with honor and distinction.

What I've come to realize is that for loving, same-sex couples, the denial of marriage equality means that, in their eyes and the eyes of their children, they are still considered less than full citizens. Even at my own dinner table, when I look at Sasha and Malia, who have friends whose parents are same-sex couples, I know it wouldn't dawn on them that their friends' parents should be treated differently.  So I decided it was time to affirm my personal belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry."

He added: "I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines. But I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them."  This 'states rights' aspect of his position on a matter of civil rights remains troublesome, but it is for now a practical compromise.  For as many commentators pointed out, this position is on the right side of history. The arc of the moral universe is bending. Younger generations support it overwhelmingly.  It's going to happen.

But it has an effect now.  Its effect on the gay community I leave to Andrew Sullivan and others to describe.  But empathy suggests the good it will do.

Its political effect on this year's election is more ambiguous at present.  Remember--President Obama did this in an election year, without clear indication that it will be to his political benefit.  It could energize the Rabid Right, not terribly in love with Romney.  Rachel Maddow showed just how extreme GOPers have become in trying to deny rights and oppress gay people, especially on the state level.  

 It may have consequences in swing states like Ohio, Virginia and particularly North Carolina, where the Democratic convention will be held.  It is not supported by many in the African American and Latino communities. 

But this is not the first time that Barack Obama has defied conventional wisdom. There were those who said candidate Obama should not touch the subject of race in his campaign, before he gave the speech on race in Philadelphia that elevated his candidacy.  He was urged to repudiate his Chicago pastor and he didn't do it, he only repudiated some of his pastor's statements.  Then when his pastor continued down that road, he did cut off all ties, and the issue disappeared.  When John McCain said he was suspending his campaign because of the financial crisis and Obama's advisors wanted him to do the same, he refused, saying a President has to do more than one thing at a time (you know, like tell jokes at the Correspondents Dinner while going after bin Laden.)

Now he has done this, and we'll see if the doomsayers are right about the political costs.  Right now the effect is electric.  A huge surge of energy is moving through the Obama campaign.  One of the first statements in praise of his stand came from independent New York Mayor Bloomberg, who had previously said he didn't yet know which candidate he would endorse. Other Democrats who had been circumspect on the issue were free to speak their mind.  Even some non-Democrats, including the Romney foreign policy advisor who became former because he's gay. Even a Fox commentator. 

For those who fear the response from the black community, I'd like to think this is a moment of moral leadership that the black community will follow.  For those who were afraid that the enthusiasm and idealism of 2008 wasn't going to be repeated, well--don't be so sure.  Sometimes it takes a lightning bolt to start a fire.

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