An Historic Day for Gay Rights that Should Have Come Much Sooner

A truly significant cultural event occurred this week in America: our President declared his belief that homosexual couples should be allowed to marry. As Glenn Greenwald points out in an Op-Ed in the Guardian, this was unthinkable twenty or thirty years ago, when homosexuality was still punishable by death in some states. That the mainstream American position on gay rights has evolved so significantly is a genuine inspiration to those of us who sometimes despair at the seemingly impossible task of pushing America towards better ethical leadership and policy.

At the center of this historic event is our president, Barack Obama, who has benefitted from a maelstrom of positive press from the mainstream media. Barack Obama, who several years ago told us that his position on the issue was “evolving,” thus introducing a new level of insulting intellectual dishonesty. Few observers on either the left or the right could have failed to see what Obama was saying: he believed in gay marriage, but would wait to announce it until it was politically expedient. Now that he has capitalized on that moment, the press is falling right into the trap of letting him ride this wave of liberal exuberance, as if his cynical “evolution” had something to do with the truly inspiring evolution of the views of the American people.

That Obama gets to ride this wave of goodwill is made all the more frustrating due to the fact that he could have made this announcement months ago without suffering politically. In his characteristically sober style, Nate Silver points out that it is unusual for a party’s leader to be as far from the mainstream of his own party as Obama had been on this issue, concluding: “In many ways it is surprising that Mr. Obama did not adopt his new position sooner.” Even if you are the type to forgive political expedience, Obama would have done just fine if he had made this announcement several months or even a full year earlier.

By waiting an extra few months or a year to finally confess his transparent dissemblance on this issue, Obama may have gained a little extra political milage. The mainstream view today is slightly more in favor of gay marriage now than it was last year, so perhaps the celebratory atmosphere is a bit stronger on the left than it would have been last year and the backlash from the right may be weaker. Also, being an election year, Obama now has a better chance of gaining from the goodwill in the ballot box. However, those extra months were still damaging. They represent a few extra months that young gay people felt more isolated. They represent a few extra months that states like North Carolina could vote on anti-gay legislation without their voters being quite as conscious of the fact that their bigoted viewpoint is outdated. It represents, then, a few extra months that our glorious president was willing to sacrifice the well-being of Americans in favor of his own political fortunes.

The story here should be that the successful efforts of the gay rights movement to encourage millions Americans to shed a chauvinistic belief that had quite recently still been deeply entrenched has finally been embraced by the President, which represents a true watershed moment in our nation’s history. I’m fine with the headline “Obama Declares Support for Gay Marriage,” but the first lines should have read:

Supporters of the gay rights movement are celebrating a watershed moment in their history. American support for gay marriage is now so strong that President Obama, who previously indicated that he would wait until it was politically expedient, has dropped his charade of having an “evolving” position, stating in an interview that he does indeed support gay marriage.

Any secondary stories focusing on Obama (rather than the gay rights victory itself) should either be the one Nate Silver tells in his column (why didn’t Obama do this sooner?) or a reflection on Obama’s history of expedience on this and other issues. Instead, the secondary story seems to be that Obama has done a great thing. At least he grabbed the opportunity to embrace history when it was placed in his lap.

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6 Responses to An Historic Day for Gay Rights that Should Have Come Much Sooner

  1. esa says:

    hey Keith, i think this is really well written. i have a few counter points:

    1) RE: “Nate Silver points out that it is unusual for a party’s leader to be as far from the mainstream of his own party as Obama had been on this issue…”

    doesn’t this follow with obama’s general ruling philosophy: play to the middle. i think many “liberals” would say that his refusal to take a harder stance on similar issues like gun control and immigration have been frustrating or just outright disappointing as well. it seems he only veered from this strategy with gay marriage because it was in the spotlight and he was getting hurt by his noncommittal “i support civil unions” line from 2008. i doubt that were it not for Biden’s gaffe and the NC bill putting SSM in the spotlight this month that he would find it “politically expedient.” it seems your issue is with the timing of his announcement, but wouldn’t you agree that his hand was forced on the matter?

    2) i find the general “politically timed” argument confusing. it seems that this argument holds obama to different standards than other politicians. aren’t all actions and statements by politicians running for office politically orchestrated? why should he be held to a higher standard than anyone else? if right-leaning politicians can use inflammatory speech about abortion, immigration, etc. to rouse their base, why can’t obama do the left equivalent?

    now if your main point is that “obama is not a saint, he’s a politician,” then i agree with this. and sure, the general positive reception of his “speech” has been more effusive and glowing than maybe it should be, but i would argue that that is more a reflection of the audience than the candidate running for office.

    sidenote: are you a regular contributor to this blog?

  2. Keith says:

    Hey Esa, thanks for reading and commenting. This is my fourth post on this blog, and probably my most coherent. You bring up some great points, and our earlier twitter exchange helped form my ideas for this post.

    1. Yes, circumstances that were out of his control played a part in the timing, which suggests that he actually hoped to wait even longer. Or, maybe he was just waiting for the issue to come up and this was the first real opportunity. Conceivably, Biden purposely set this up for Obama by commenting on it first. (What a strange job Biden has: being honest about your opinion is viewed as a “gaffe” if it’s not the president’s official position!)

    2. I don’t hold most other politicians in higher esteem than Obama. My point is closer to the “Obama is not a saint, he’s a politician,” except I don’t think being a politician means your actions don’t deserve scrutiny. Quite the contrary. I certainly agree that the problem lies in the audience; if the audience wanted incisive reporting, then the sources who do that kind of reporting (eg Democracy Now) would be the mainstream. That still does not absolve Obama of his behavior nor the de facto mainstream media of tolerating it.

  3. Marc says:

    Hey Keith,

    Sorry for being late to comment. This is a great post man. Now I’m off to read the post you just posted, even though I have no kids nor ever plan on having any!

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