President Obama has been called on the carpet yet again by some gay activists for not forcefully and unequivocally saying "I support gay marriage." This doesn't mean simply his backing full equality, civil rights, and civil unions for gays, or support for gays in the military, calls on UN to end discrimination against gays, making supportive speeches to gay rights groups, or strongly opposing the seemingly never-ending ballot initiatives and legislative efforts to outlaw gay marriage. He's done all of that. No, he must say the words, "I support gay marriage" to fully satisfy some gay rights activists. The "some" is a crucial qualifier. Many gay rights activists understand that a GOP White House would be beyond a horror. GOP Presidential contender Mitt Romney would subtly, and GOP Presidential contender Rick Santorum would openly, back any and every anti-gay rights initiative measure, and piece of legislation any and everywhere in the country. But the president is different. He is clearly a friend of the gay rights movement, and an African American so therefore more, much more, is expected of him.
However, the 2012 election will be, as it was in 2008, a numbers, not a percentage game. This means that Obama must not just get a majority of gay votes which he's assured of. It means he must stir passion, excitement, and enthusiasm among gay voters as he did in 2008. This translates directly into numbers, and in the key battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida with a large number of gay voters and an even larger number of conservative Christian evangelical voters, any slack off in the number of gay voters that turn out in November would be a hard blow to the president.
But President Obama would have to totally reverse his cautious approach to politically loaded issues to say once and for all: "I support gay marriage." It would also be the final test of his fundamental and personal beliefs. He's made those beliefs clear on several occasions when he flatly said he wouldn't sign on to same sex marriage because of his "understandings" of what traditional marriage should be. He later softened that to the equally cautious note that he's "evolving" on the issue.
Obama is no different than many other moderate, tolerant and broad minded African Americans on diversity issues. But he, like many others, still can draw the line on gay marriage and that's fueled by deeply ingrained notions of family, church, and community, and the need to defend the terribly frayed and fragmented black family structure. This mix of fear, belief, and traditional family protectionism has long been a staple among many blacks and virtually every time the issue of legalizing gay marriage has been put to the ballot, or initiative, or a legal challenge, or just simply the topic of public debate there has been no shortage of black ministers and public figures willing to rush to the defense of traditional marriage.
At the same time, polls have shown that anti-gay attitudes among blacks have softened at least publicly among many blacks. But the line continues to be just as firmly drawn among many blacks on same sex marriage. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (in polls in 2009 and 2010) found that blacks opposed same sex marriage by gaping margins over whites or Hispanics. The finding was even more striking in that Pew also found that for the first time in the decade and half that it had been polling Americans on attitudes toward gay rights, and that includes gay marriage, that less than half of Americans opposed same sex marriage.
The Pew poll is in line with other polls that show that the number of Americans that either outright back gay marriage, are or tolerant or indifferent toward it, is inching toward a majority nationally. The number that supports gay marriage has topped a majority in the states that have legalized it. But those states are still in the numbers minority, and the public acceptance of it is hardly evenly widespread. In the Deep South, parts of the West, and in the Midwest, gay marriage still stirs anger and loathing among many. Presidents, like other elected officials, take keen note of the polarizing impact of gay marriage.
President Obama, though, has not taken the final step and said, "I support gay marriage," solely because of narrow religious beliefs, conservative family upbringing, or a racial herd mentality that is unyielding on the traditional defense of family values. However, these are factors that have made for pause and caution by him. Still, Obama still has gotten it mostly right on gay rights, and given the grim GOP presidential alternative and the near certainty that he'll eventually get it right to the total satisfaction of gay activists in full support of gay marriage, to hold his refusal to utter the final words and endorse gay marriage now is worse than dumb and silly; it is politically suicidal.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.
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