Frederick Douglass? James Baldwin? The two towering historical civil rights and literary icons are spinning wildly and angrily in their graves at the mere mention and use of their names by some gay rights activists to bash President Obama. Their beef against Obama is, of course, that he's back pedaled on his pledge to be a forceful advocate for gay rights, and more particularly to back gay marriage. More on that in a second.
First Baldwin and Douglass. Baldwin did suffer in silence at the many digs, slights and put downs he got for being gay. But Baldwin, and certainly Douglass, waged their tireless battle against racial discrimination and for full black equality and rights. Douglass even drew heat from the top women's rights advocates of his day for vigorously pushing for ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment which explicitly gave the newly freed slaves the right to vote, even though it did not give women that right. Douglass and Baldwin understood one thing and that was that African-Americans languished at the absolute bottom of America's political, economic and social scale, and that blacks as no other group in the nation were subjected to decades of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and massive and relentless terror and violence based solely on their skin color. No other group in America has faced that monstrous obstacle. To them, the black freedom struggle had to take precedence over every other group's struggle. The most cursory comb of Baldwin and Douglass's voluminous writings amply prove that.
Obama is not a hypocrite or betrayer on gay rights simply because he does not back gay marriage. Whenever he's been asked he's made it clear that he strongly believes that the only marriage that can be called marriage is between a man and a woman. This has absolutely nothing to do with his solid, and at times outspoken, support of anti-discrimination, civility, and just plain human respect for gay rights. This has nothing to do with politics either. The belief in marriage between a man and a woman is layered over with a tinge of religious interpretation, since he's cited conflicted passages from the Bible to square his support of gay rights with his opposition to legalizing same sex marriage.
Obama backed gay rights in speeches and legislation 18 times before he grabbed the White House. He has shown the same support and sensitivity in his appointments, including the appointment of David Heubner, the first openly gay person as amabassador to New Zealand. He's only the second president to speak at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign. The fact is that the group thought enough of his gay rights advocacy to invite him. Yet, nothing short of a full-throated endorsement of gay marriage will cease the carping of the hard core gay rights advocates against Obama.
There's one other stumbling block that the gay rights activists that pound Obama must come to grips with and that is that a majority of blacks still bristle at the notion that the fight to legalize gay marriage is in any way comparable to the fight that Douglass and Baldwin waged for black rights. Polls show that more Americans than ever say that they support civil rights for gays, and a torrent of gay themed TV shows present non-stereotypical depictions of gays. However, this increased tolerance has not dissipated the hostility that far too many blacks feel toward gay marriage. Gay rights activists badly missed this when they blew off black civil rights and community activists in their battle against California's anti gay initiative, Proposition 8. They then compounded their flub by threatening to picket Obama for his silence when the state supreme court backed the measure. What a way to win friends and influence black voters, especially the very voters (and president) that will be needed when the much discussed pro gay rights initiative will be plopped back on California's ballot in another year or so!
The other big knock against Obama is that he didn't have to do anything on the DOMA; that he could have easily kept the White House's nose out of it by letting the legal challenge to it run its course. Other presidents have done that when they thought a law was unconstitutional or unjust. This argument is blind eye to what Obama has said and feels about traditional marriage too, not to mention that he made it plain that he wants the law repealed -- but repealed through legislation and that he would push for that.
Obama is the best friend that gays have had in the White House -- ever. To say otherwise is short sighted, insulting and just plain dumb.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January, 2010.