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David Kaufman

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President Obama and Marriage Equality: Move On Already!

Posted: 03/12/2012 6:51 pm

Like a pesky hurricane season or annual allergy affliction, self-appointed marriage-equality machers are once again commanding our commander-in-chief to "evolve already" in his support for same-sex marriage. This time it's Joe Sudbay, the AMERICAblog editor who originally elicited President Obama's now famous "attitudes evolve, including mine" retort just over 500 days ago. Writing for this site, Sudbay scolds the president for holding tight on the marriage question while issuing a litany of doomsy prognostics if he fails to evolve immediately.

Trading original thinking for boilerplate bombast, Sudbay regurgitates the same-same set of facts, stats, and figures employed by his boredom-inducing brethren in the quest to attack Obama's inaction: that the president is behind popular "progressive" sentiment; that he risks alienating his LGBT/leftist base; and that anti-equality types will vote against him regardless of how he evolves. As Sudbay sees it, with marriage equality a likely anchor of this summer's Democratic Party platform and a given in 2016's election cycle, the president's evolution is essential for party cohesion, effective media messaging, and all-around progressive good cheer.

The problem with Sudbay's calculus, beyond its painful banality, is that it's all theory and little action. Deadened by demands and laden with soulless simplicity, Sudbay's self-serving missive fails to account for the very real, and still very uncertain, political pathway ahead. Sure, he acknowledges that "rhetorical gay-bashing will be a regular element of [the GOP] nominee's campaign." But his lack of critical, and certainly intellectual, analysis renders this statement both hollow and hapless. By minimizing the Republican threat, Sudbay hopes to maximize the president's own personal shortcomings while insinuating the (false) existence of political parity on the marriage debate.

Sudbay's game of disinformation is as dangerous as it is disingenuous, threatening to confuse a still uncertain electorate in a year when every vote has never been more valuable. More frustratingly, Sudbay's stance does little to progress the very issue he claims to care so passionately about. While I, too, would welcome the chance to marry one day, we live in a republic, not a monarchy, and President Obama simply cannot make that happen. At least not on his own. And by binding the fate of marriage equality solely with the White House, Sudbay obscures this battle's far larger truths while doing little to prep "the community" for the long war still to come, most notably the arduous and very necessary journey to overturn DOMA in either the Senate or Supreme Court.

Sudbay's actions are easy and childish, reckless and irresponsible, and reflect the entitlement and myopia that have plagued the national LGBT movement for the past half-decade. Indeed, without his request, and certainly without his responsibility, folks like Sudbay have effectively handed Obama ownership of the LGBT movement and retired to a life of cozy laptop complaining. Along the way, they have crafted an imaginary political universe where the president, and the president alone, can determine the fate of marriage equality while recusing the LGBT masses from becoming masters of their own fates. It's a "civil rights" movement without the "civil," a "social justice" crusade without the "social." Sudbay demands that Obama "make it better" without demanding that his own gente make it better for themselves. Nice shout-out, Sudbay, for victimhood and powerlessness, particularly as GOP super-PACs work overtime to ensure that they come true.

The truth is that LGBTs are hardly victims or powerless. As recent state-level campaigns in New York, Maryland, and Washington confirm, the marriage battle, when conducted intelligently and proactively, can have a happy ending. And one need only look at 40-plus years of vocal, vigorous activism to see the movement's impact on everything from health care to global human rights. Sudbay's stance, however, suggests a newer, "back-seat" approach to activism that shares little of the "by-any-means-necessary" spirit of Stonewall or ACT UP, Harvey Milk or Larry Kramer.

Along with fellow "Obama-firsters" like Jon Aravosis, Kelley Eleveld, Dan Savage, and Pam Spaulding, Subday inhabits a reactionary realm of command and demand rather than get-up/stand-up. But if only those demands were focused elsewhere. I'd start with the infamous (and highly influential) cohort of homo 1-percenters, names like Apple CEO Tim Cook, White Collar actor Matt Bomer, and perhaps fashion designers like Marc Jacobs -- gay pop- and consumer-culture presences who personally profit from LGBT patronage but do little to propel LBGT progress. I, for one, have had enough of straight celebrity "allies" touting the necessity of LGBT equality or promising vulnerable teens that "it gets better"; now is the time for LGBT celebs to do it themselves. Exiting the closet would be a welcome first step!

Meanwhile, back along the Beltway, Sudbay's anti-Obamaism raises a host of additional questions and concerns, particularly with the looming threat of a marriage-equality recall on Maryland's fall ballot. Even the most clichéd kumbaya-ers would have to concede that race and class have emerged as an unwelcome and unexpected cofactor in the marriage-equality movement. Ever since Dan Savage, er, savagely bashed black voters in the wake of Proposition 8's results, black culture, black churches, and literally black people themselves have borne the brunt of LGBT ire.

And no black person more so than Barack Obama.

While it would be easy to dismiss these accusations as hysteria, or even a logical reaction to an admittedly conservative African-American church culture, one only need to look at Aravosis himself for a far more troublesome explanation. As Aravosis personally told me during a 2010 interview for theroot.com, "Well-educated minorities [like Obama] -- one would hope they would be more sensitive to other minorities. ... That is the expectation: He should be trying harder because he is a minority." Put in more blatant terms, Obama should be held to a higher, or at least separate, standard, because of his race.

Whites, even the most well-meaning, "progressive" whites, are likely to find little fault with this thinking upon initial inspection. After all, there is a certain, albeit false, "logic" to the oppressed empathizing with the oppressed. But as I wrote back in 2010:

Aravosis may merely be expressing a popular (yet unspoken) sentiment, but the notion that African Americans should be held to a higher standard than their white counterparts is the very definition of racism itself. What's more, like most race- (or racist-) based ideologies, it places the president in a position where even his greatest pro-gay achievements will -- like the repeal of DADT -- never fully satisfy his critics. At best, Obama's victories will be rendered Pyrrhic; at worst, they will be repackaged as an act of generosity by his (mostly white) naysayers.

Which leads us back to Sudbay and marriage equality. Unlike during the DADT debate, President Obama has little if any power to overturn DOMA and federally legalize same-sex marriages. Yes, it's important that the president take an active stance on state-level marriage-equality ballots this November to ensure that LGBT victories are not rendered defeats. But it's equally important that folks like Sudbay begin to rally LGBTs themselves rather than rely on Obama to do their work for them. Most crucially, with issues of race and class certain to craft marriage-equality battles in states like Maryland, LGBT talking heads must abandon the undeniable race-based rhetoric that has defined their anti-Obama attacks. It's divisive, conservative, and a total turn-off.

While I'm personally in no rush to the altar, I respect and understand that many LGBTs are, especially those with foreign-born partners. Call me naïve, but I suspect that comprehensive marriage equality will be a legacy of an Obama presidency, though it cannot be a legacy of Obama himself. In the meantime, for this to happen, I don't need President Obama to "evolve"; I need him to get reelected!

 

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