(Image: Benjamin Wheelock, Salon.com)
On May 9, 2012, President Obama, who has for years said that his view of marriage equality is still “evolving,” told ABC news in an unanticipated move, “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that, for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married” (video may not stream for a few days, due to server-overload on their end).
Reactions, of course, vary.
Republicans and the religious right have taken a predictable stance on the issue. Romney’s senior advisor, Ed Gillespie, spoke on MSNBC, detailing the position of the Romney campaign. In short, they are still of the opinion that marriage is between “one man and one woman,” and Romney has gone so far as to threaten a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage for all states (which, it should be said, goes against their stated “states'-rights” agenda, wherein the government is supposed to not make decisions for individual states…see the short video linked at the end of this article). Their conservative base is naturally behind their stance.
One thing that stands out from that interview is the clear message that the Romney campaign wants to bring every question back to the issue of jobs, job creation, and the economy. Their campaign, however, espouses the kind of austerity measures that, from my position across the Atlantic, are hurting European countries and have contributed to the UK’s recent double dip into recession. That the Romney campaign still believes it’s a good idea for them to talk about their economic ideals—instead of staying on the message that they believe marriage equality is immoral—suggests an awareness of the weakness of their social agenda.
Less predictable than the reaction of outspoken evangelicals has been the reaction of atheist, secular, and other pro-marriage-equality groups. Many on the progressive side are understandably ecstatic for this conclusion to Obama’s “evolution” of thought. Others of the LGBT community, however, feel used, and worry that Obama waited to make the announcement until it was politically expedient; Obama’s announcement has followed a round of primary-voting that saw North Carolina becoming the 30th state wherein the citizens voted to ban marriage equality, and has come at a time when his base is less-than-enthusiastic about his job to date. They feel—with at least some justification—that this is a ploy to bring his base in-line, and to get the young people who helped him win his first presidential election to vote come November. (While North Carolina’s vote looks like a win for the Republican social agenda, it should be noted that it took place during a Republican primary, when the Republican base was more incentivized to turn out to select their presidential nominee than the Democrats, who in large part did not vote.)
Some in the free-thought community, including noteworthy biologist, lecturer, freethinker, and much-read blogger PZ Myers, for example, excoriates Obama for his weak language. Dr. Myers, among others, asks for “political,” as opposed to “personal,” support for marriage equality. Then too, people are concerned about Obama’s states’ rights stance on the issue. In the interview, Obama said, “I continue to believe that this is an issue that is going to be worked out at the local level because, historically, this has not been a federal issue.” This can be seen as both hypocritical (on other issues, he has been in favor of decisions being made at the federal level and, generally speaking, “states’ rights” is a Republican talking point) and defensive—a way to further distance his politics from his personal views. For most progressives in the US, marriage equality is a civil right and should be constitutionally protected, not left subject to the whims of individual states.
Regardless of Obama’s reason — whether it was an act of conscience or political expediency — the truth is that it’s the right thing to do for human rights and equality. It’s also true that, while polls show the country is moving towards acceptance of marriage equality, the US is divided on this issue. It isn’t just or fair, but coming out (so to speak) too strongly on this issue could cost Obama what looks to be — with exactly 180 days to go — a close election. No matter our suspicions of Obama’s motives, there can be no doubt that a Romney administration would do more to hurt the LGBT community than this slow-to-evolve revelation of Obama’s.
To my mind, though, the most insightful and forward-looking opinion has come from Rachel Maddow. Where others in the pro-marriage-equality camp suspect Obama’s motives, worry that he didn’t speak strongly enough, or waited for a politically advantageous moment, Maddow (and her staff) points out that his re-election campaign is getting behind the idea as though they both fully support it and also believe it’s an asset to their re-election. They have, for example, already posted a video that simultaneously “energizes” progressive Democrats while at the same time pro-actively targets the religious fundamentalists for their “backward” views.
And that, I think, is the right way to look at this. Not to question why it took so long, but to look for evidence of how he’s going to act on the issue moving forward.