One of the truly wonderful things about earning a living as a historian is that I get to ponder what sorts of current events are genuinely "historic," and what seem to be, in historians' terms, just run-of-the-mill elections, disasters, scandals, athletic achievements, or social movements. Like my colleagues, I'm often slow to weigh in on the affirmative side of the scale. After all, by definition all of human history took place before what just happened, and it's likely that today's breaking news, however momentous, will end up, in 10 or 20 years, as just another version of yesterday's news.
I got it quickly in 1989 when millions of nonviolent protesters in Eastern Europe dismantled Communist regimes at a dizzying pace -- and since I was teaching a course on social movements, the front page of the New York Times became our new textbook. I may have overreacted the night of Barack Obama's election in 2008, as I watched him in Grant Park, with goose bumps all over my body, and felt the hope he had called for in the campaign.
But just now, with President Obama announcing his support for marriage equality, I think we're in "history-making" territory. Not because of his own "evolution," but because of what his announcement says about the organizing power of the LGBTQ community over the past 20 years. According to Gallup, just 27 percent of Americans backed same-sex marriage in 1996. (I'd like to think I was one of them, but the truth is I don't remember when I came around myself -- I certainly didn't start there!) Now more than 50 percent do. That's social change all by itself.
But opinion alone doesn't change politicians. Organizing, political pressure, and achieved political power change politicians, from mayors to senators and presidents. "Power concedes nothing without a demand," observed the escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. "It never did and it never will."
Obama's public change of heart came because LGBTQ folks organized and marched and organized and acted up and organized and danced and organized and sat in and organized and demonstrated and organized and wrote checks and organized and sacrificed and organized straight people and voted and organized and married and organized. And because Obama needs them to win this election.
Given this history they have to realize that they still have a long way to go, and that a presidential decision is not enough to guarantee marriage equality in a country where 30 states have banned it. It's still an astonishing achievement. Historic, even.
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more