It is easy to be cynical about politics, particularly in the media age where substance counts for little and image is everything. But on Wednesday, President Obama did something that rose above the usual games and gave hope to millions of people around the world. Obama came out in support of gay marriage, something no sitting U.S. President has ever done. He originally refused to do so when seeking office back in 2008. While endorsing civil unions and pledging to extend the same civil rights to gay couples as heterosexual couples, Obama iterated his belief that marriage was "between a man and a woman." Last week, however, the President told ABC News' Robin Roberts that his views have 'evolved' to the point where he can no longer justify opposing the marriage between members of the same sex. The President said:
I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together; when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that 'don't ask, don't tell' is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, 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 is a politician, and like all politicians, he has risen to power by playing the game. He has triangulated, distorted and obfuscated in order to get to where he is, and despite his likeability, he is as ruthless as anyone else in Washington. There could well be a political calculation to his announcement as he must court the LGBT community this election season, and he will no doubt try to get as much mileage out of it as possible.
But looking at the overall picture, it's hard to see how his motivations were purely out of self interest.
As Bob Cesca outlined in a great piece at The Daily Banter, the Obama Administration has done more to better the lives of gay people than any administration in history. While the Bush administration actively went out of its way to harm the gay community, Obama has actively done the opposite. The LGBT community knows this, and given Mitt Romney's appalling rhetoric on repealing or preventing gay rights at every given opportunity, there is little doubt that Obama would have had their support this election year. The Republicans are looking to use the topic much in the same way that Bush did against John Kerry in 2004 -- they hope to drive out the base by creating the artificial culture war that has enabled the GOP to keep getting poor white people to vote out of their own interest. It's a cynical ploy and one proven to work.
By personally endorsing gay marriage, Obama is planting himself firmly on one side of the Republican invented battle ground -- and he may not do well out of it. Romney is weak with the Republican base, and this gives him an issue for them to rally around going forward.
I believe Obama has taken a genuine political risk on this issue, and he should be given a lot of credit for it.
For too long, gay rights in America (and around the world) have taken a back seat for the sake of political expediency. It has never been 'the right time' to fully endorse gay marriage, or further the rights of gay couples. It has never really been treated as a civil rights issue in the same way that women's rights and black rights have been, even though homosexuality is as natural to human society as skin color or gender. We know that homosexuality is not a choice or a lifestyle, so denying same-sex couples basic civil rights is just as bad as denying a woman the right to vote or an African American the right to go to university. Until society accepts this truth, the gay community will continue to struggle for the rights the rest of us enjoy without thought.
The LGBT community has fought hard to improve their status in society, but they haven't had a huge amount of support within the political system due to the stigma attached to being gay. America is a deeply religious society and advocating homosexuality has been about as politically viable as Dennis Kucinich's run at the Presidency. Obama's announcement was an attempt to change this dynamic, and it could well mark the beginning of a much more aggressive attempt to extend full marriage rights to gay couples.
For now, Obama's support for gay marriage does not translate into anything in reality. Until he legislates it into federal law, his support is merely in spirit. But his willingness to say what no other president in history has ever said can help tremendously. I'll leave it to gay blogger Andrew Sullivan to sum up exactly how:
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.
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.
Ben Cohen is the editor of the recently relaunched TheDailyBanter.com