Once President Obama's most appealing asset was his grasp of nuance. Now he often feels like a prisoner of it. He has directed his Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court. But the White House also clarified he is still opposed to same-sex marriage and supports civil unions. His views on same-sex marriage are apparently still "evolving". Perhaps the president needs some cover before he does a u-turn from his campaign trail stance on the issue. Or perhaps it's really about nuance. But sometimes you have to be red or blue, not just an evolving shade of mauve. Sometimes you lead by example, not by nuance.
I longed for more nuance during the you-are-for-us-or-against-us Bush years. But Obama's predilection for nuance often leaves me grasping for a leader. He likes to listen to all sides on every issue. That's great except in practice it has meant a health care reform bill that pleases no one. It's made him the Great Balancer rather than the Great Unifier. That was evident on Day One, when anti-gay evangelist Rick Warren was invited to speak at the inauguration. Don't worry, the gays were assured, the gay and lesbian marching band will also be there.
This is not to deny Obama credit where credit is due. He fulfilled his promise to end Don't Ask Don't Tell. But it's also obvious that Obama, hailed around the world as a change-maker because of his meteoric rise, is really much more comfortable being the consensus follower. He doesn't make change. He signs it into law.
The New York Times pointed out that support for gay rights is growing. Nearly 90 percent of Americans support equality in the workplace. 60 percent favored overturning Don't Ask Don't Tell. Marriage is further down the list, with the public evenly split. A 2010 Field Poll showed that despite the passage of Prop 8, Californian voters were still favoring same sex marriage by 51 percent to 42 percent margin. In 1979 almost 60 percent of registered voters had opposed giving gays the right to wed.
Obama's slow-motion u-turn on same-sex marriage might give social conservatives a new rallying cry in the culture wars. But if polls are to be believed it will be short-lived. Mark diCamillo of the Field Poll has long maintained that gay rights advocates have the demographic advantage. Ethnic voters, he says, might in general be more conservative on social issues but still "the voter under 40 is siding more with their own generational colleagues, their own cohort, rather than their parents and the cultures in which they have been raised."
But the problem of waiting for society to change is that there is always a gap between laws and society. This was driven home to me while watching the news unfold halfway across the world from Washington DC. A television station in Hyderabad in southern India decided to do an exposé of the "drastically increasing" gay culture in the city. The reporter announced that the gays go to clubs once every week or ten days and "drink and dance with whomever they want." That would have been funny had the intrepid station not set up sting operations through personal ads on a gay website. It trapped gay men in conversations where the reporter asked them leading questions about there sexual preferences.
So you are a top. What do you like?
Even I am also versatile. What do you like on bed?
And then the reporter asked them what they did, where they lived. He pretended not to be able to hear them and asked them to repeat it louder.
They played the interviews on the air with the men's pictures on the television screen.
In a letter to TV9, Aditya Bondyopadhyay, a lawyer with the gay rights NGO Adhikaar, points out that TV9 violated several codes and fundamental principles of the broadcasting standards of the News Broadcasters Association.
"Your prodding and intrusive sex chats with individuals under mistaken belief of genuine gay social callers is clearly to aid and abet salacious interest and titillate your general viewers," writes Bondyopadhyay. He goes on to say, "Your intrusion of privacy of individuals does not serve any meaningful public interest, nor was it warranted in the public interest."
Interestingly all of this is happening even as the Delhi High Court struck down Sec. 377 of the Indian Penal Code, India's British-era anti-sodomy law, as unconstitutional and the Indian government decided not to defend it in court.
Obviously TV9 felt differently. Their reporter lamented that white-collar workers and highly qualified students were becoming "slaves to a lifestyle which is against the 'natural way.'"
In a shocking way it is a repeat of what happened in Uganda and earlier in Egypt where after the raids on a gay party in Queen Boat, the names and addresses of the men were splashed across newspapers as "agents against the State."
But what it demonstrates most clearly is when it comes to laws and society, there's always a huge gap. Changing laws does not mean social stigma ends. While LGBT activists are up in arms, the hapless targets of TV9's sting probably don't want even more publicity.
That doesn't mean laws should not change.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important."
The question becomes does a law wait for society to change or should it be the other way around?
President Obama needs to mull that question.
And while he does that, he should consider 19 parents in India who are not waiting. They just petitioned India's Supreme Court on behalf of their LGBT children, demanding that the state not criminalize them. One of them is a filmmaker, one is an academic, one a postal worker.
Countering arguments that repealing Sec. 377 would destroy family values, the petitioners wrote "It is Section 377 which is a threat to family values, as it directly affects the rights of the applicants (parents) to safeguard their families from illegal and arbitrary intrusion from the state authorities."
The language might be shorn of nuance and rhetorical flourish. But President Obama would do well to consider the courage of these parents. They outed themselves and their children in the hopes of closing that gap between laws and society.