Flash! Obama Evolves on Gay Marriage

By Emily Theroux

My best friend, Jim, is a Georgia native who escaped the backwaters of the Deep South after growing up there, just as I did. Since 1996, when I wandered one summer afternoon into his Middletown quilt shop, Jim and I have shared a multitude of interests. We’ve walked miles together to stay in shape, collaborated on making pillows and curtains for clients, ranted about the sorry state of American politics, watched Rachel Maddow eviscerate conservatives, traded good books, and gossiped about everything from obnoxious acquaintances to attractive men. Jim taught me how to make quilts, and I helped him figure out how to navigate Facebook. We spend a solid hour or more on Skype every few days, planted in front of our computer screens only blocks apart.

Both of us are married – me for 15 years; Jim, technically, for three-quarters of one. My spouse is a man, and so is his. Last fall, after same-sex marriage became legal in New York, Jim was finally able to wed Gary, his longtime partner, on the 35th anniversary of the day they met.

Jim is a singular individual, not a demographic statistic or a societal scapegoat to be trotted out any time a televangelist needs a reason why God hates hurricane victims, or an office-seeker wants to scare “values voters” for political gain. Jim did not “choose” to be gay (as the ignorant and the powerful alike insist), and his identity encompasses a great deal more than his sexual orientation. In a blog Jim recently began writing, he summed up his reaction to being objectified by politicians who revile him and religious proselytizers who think they can change him: “To put it simply, I am tired of  ‘sitting in the back of the bus.’ I am tired of being labeled. I am tired of being discriminated against. I am tired of religious nutbags calling me ‘evil’ and ‘degenerate’ and blaming me for natural disasters. I am tired of political candidates using me by declaring that I am ‘morally depraved’ and responsible for destroying the ‘sacred family unit,’ while, at the same time, these politicians hide behind Jesus (I was taught that Jesus was all about love, not hate) to justify their relentless prejudices and religious intolerance. To everyone who thinks they’re ‘normal’ and I’m not: How the hell does my being married have any effect on your life?”

Both parties ‘categorize’ voters, but for different reasons

My friend sees himself as a person who happens to have diverse connections to all kinds of other people, not a “gay man” – a distinction that evades those who marginalize other people by assigning them to groups identified by a common race, ethnicity, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. The resulting “demographics” have been used by members of both major political parties to make electoral calculations. Democrats tend to focus on “minority” social groups in order to help them succeed in a society steeped in exclusion of the powerless. While their motivations to help the less fortunate may indeed be genuine, Democratic politicians still hope to win the votes of members of the demographic groups they are assisting without losing those of “independents,” whom they cannot so readily categorize. Republicans often isolate targeted social groups in order to demonize them and thereby divide potential voters into “us” (primarily wealthy white businessmen, along with “low-information” voters who hope to emulate their success) versus “them” (Democrats, racial and ethnic minorities, feminists, gays and lesbians, and non-Christians).

A North Carolina amendment making same-sex marriage unconstitutional passed all too easily because it employed gay stereotypes to appeal to the ignorance and bigotry of the majority. Few who voted in favor of it knew that the amendment would also invalidate domestic unions between unmarried opposite-sex couples and dissolve domestic-violence protections. The Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said advocates of the law were asking the wrong question for a democracy – as often happens when civil rights issues are submitted to the popular vote of a poorly informed electorate that has already been brainwashed against the targeted group. “The question shouldn’t be, ‘How do you feel about same-sex marriage?’ but do you let the majority rule against the rights of the minority?”

The Democrats, although they don’t share the ruthless Republican agenda of targeting gays and lesbians to polarize the electorate, are not entirely blameless when it comes to politicizing them. In 1996, while running for the Illinois state senate, Barack Obama indicated on a survey that he favored legalizing gay marriage, but by the time he ran against black conservative Alan Keyes for the U.S. Senate in 2004, he began to voice “religious reservations.” Polls of churchgoing black voters revealed a general cultural disapproval of gay “sinners,” and Obama needed the vast majority of the black vote to win his Senate seat. When he announced his presidential bid in 2007, Obama said he opposed same-sex marriage but approved of civil unions. By 2011, a spokesman said Obama believed the issue was “best addressed by the states” (a loaded historical reference that angered even Obama’s gay campaign donors), while adding that committed same-sex couples should receive “equal protection under the law.”

Obama’s views on marriage equality ‘evolved’ at a snail’s pace

Critics roundly lambasted Obama for dragging his feet on the issue of marriage equality. There was no question that he had done more for LGBT Americans than any president ever had. Yet Obama continued to claim, with increasingly less credibility, that his position on same-sex marriage was “evolving.” Then Joe Biden opened his big mouth once again and told David Gregory on Meet the Press that he was “entirely comfortable” with same-sex marriage. The following day, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan echoed Biden’s endorsement of marriage equality. By that time, the president’s hesitation to follow the lead of his own administration had begun to look like “vacillation” or worse, “poor leadership.” Once the North Carolina ban passed, the pressure became overwhelming for Obama to make his position on marriage equality clear.

It was taking too long to “build a more perfect union,” as the president had promised in October 2010. So President Obama changed course rather abruptly by declaring during an interview that his evolution on the issue was complete, and that he was now in favor of full marriage equality.

Hostilities commence after president ‘declares war on marriage’

Now that the president has uttered the historic words, what happens next? The fear of alienating black voters must have long appeared well-founded to a man living in a virtual bubble. Yet one conservative blogger opined that, given the wretched state of the economy, open support for same-sex marriage probably wouldn’t cost Obama very many black votes. A surprising 60 percent of the vote in North Carolina counties with black majorities was cast in favor of banning same-sex marriage, but Barack Obama’s name was nowhere on the ballot.

Reaction from the right was fast and furious, though predictable. “Obama Flip Flops, Declares War on Marriage” shrieked Fox News Nation’s headline. Eric Cantor triumphantly tweeted, “With the economy in stagnation and crippling amounts of debt, the President seeks to further divide America by launching in [sic] a culture war.” The Log Cabin Republicans condemned Obama for being “a day late and a dollar short” by waiting to speak out until the day after LGBT activists lost the North Carolina vote.

My friend Jim, however, wasn’t so quick to condemn the president, even after waiting such an interminable length of time before at last seeing his position vindicated. “Finally!” Jim said. “Needless to say, I’m very happy that he has chosen to stand up for our civil rights, which is what it’s all about for me. I will certainly vote for him for president now.

“This issue was seriously affecting his presidency, and I think he just had to come to terms with it,” observed Jim, whose final assessment was blunt and to the point. The president’s choice, in the end, Jim said, “was to s**t or get off the pot, and he finally s**t.”

Stand fast, compatriots! The onslaught from the other side, an entire raft of it, has only just begun to fly.

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4 Responses to “Flash! Obama Evolves on Gay Marriage”

  1. James Prather Says:

    Thanks, Emily…I am very flattered and proud to be your friend…jim

  2. Jeffrey Says:

    Emily, You said it all. I wish my friends Allan and Wayne were around now, and Barbara and Jane. You didn’t know them, but your article reads like a tribute to these four good people, and I thank you for that. One of these days, people are going to get it right and, to paraphrase Phil Ochs, North Carolina will have to find another country to be part of.

  3. Emily Theroux Says:

    Thank you, Jeff. I wish I could have met your friends, too.

    The side of the story that I didn’t tell was about the whole range of financial and social effects that being unable to marry can have on people (from property and inheritance issues to not being allowed to visit a seriously ill loved one in the hospital). What if you were married in one state but later retire in another – a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage? What if the probate court refuses to honor your will and instead awards your property to a relative instead of honoring your wishes?

    These questions need to be answered, and states like North Carolina – and 28 others – aren’t about to even consider the real issues. The New Yorker noted today that Obama “was careful not to call for any federal action on this issue.” I don’t see how same-sex marriage equality can move forward without the same kind of Supreme Court ruling that unanimously overturned a state statute banning interracial marriages in 1967 and declared such laws unconstitutional. The issue certainly isn’t going be resolved by individual states, as Obama has suggested, as long as states are able to continue putting civil-rights issues up for a popular vote.

  4. Emily Theroux Says:

    Thank you for being my friend, too, Jim – and for both your courage and your inspiration!

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