Archive for May 13th, 2012

The Politics of Gay Marriage

An historic moment

The last decade has seen support for gay rights and same sex marriage increase dramatically.    With the President coming out in favor of same sex marriage (though recognizing that states makes laws on marriage) the debate has shifted.   Before the onus was on proponents of same sex marriage to prove why it was desirable.   Now opponents have to demonstrate what is gained by denying homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals.   The culture is shifting, and there is no turning back.

But was this a good move for President Obama now, in 2012?   Many people claim he was pushed into it by Vice President Biden’s comments saying he was “comfortable” with gay marriage when he appeared on “Meet the Press.”

Some in the GOP are claiming that Obama did this for political gain along — pandering to win votes or gain money.   That is an amazing claim.  If true, that would be a huge victory for those who support gay marriage.   Once poison, apparently now it is a popular thing to do!    Alas, I don’t think the GOP is sincere in those claims.   More likely it’s designed to convince their base that Obama is pandering to a mass army of gays and their fellow travelers, and thus they must support Romney and give to the Republicans to counter that.

Others like Rush Limbaugh claim that Obama is engaged in a “war on marriage,” and appeals to those who think that the culture shift we’re experiencing is the loss of core American values and ideals.   These people are shocked and scared of what’s been happening, ranging from the election of someone like Obama, who seems to them “un” or “anti-” American, to the acceptance of homosexuality as normal.

Within Democratic circles the reaction is mixed.   Almost everyone thinks Obama did the right thing morally, but was it the right thing politically?   I think it is, and will be seen as a very positive aspect of Obama’s legacy.

Barack Obama is 51 years old.  People of his generation (which is also mine) grew up at a time when gays were only starting to be open and argue for equal rights.    The idea of same sex marriage was theoretical only, raised by libertarians and other radicals.   In practice over 90% would have opposed it.  OK, maybe it’s wrong to mistreat gays, we should tolerate them…but marriage?  Guffaw!  Civil unions?   Not possible.

Even if Obama didn’t have that view point, his “evolution” reflects a journey many of his generation are taking.    The push for accepting gay marriage comes from the youth — young people overwhelmingly favor it, often young conservatives think it odd to oppose what seems like an obvious expansion of liberty.    They’ve grown up in a culture where the message has been the importance of equality and acceptance of alternative lifestyles.

To older folk, there is fear that this somehow harms the culture, that it goes too far in changing how we look at sex and marriage.   Civil unions maintain a distinction, many believe they’d be a better choice.   The rapidity of cultural change — around 2003 or 2004 it reached a tipping point — has taken the older generations by surprise.    It’s forced them to reconsider.    People around Obama’s age used to think support for civil unions was a bold move.   Now it’s seen as not only inadequate but often the choice of conservatives.

When President Obama was born to a black man and white woman his parents’ interracial marriage was still illegal in 23 states.    Over 90% of the country opposed interracial marriage, it was seen as perverse, against God’s will, and abnormal.  In 1967 the Supreme Court overruled those prohibitions and now the child of such an “unholy” union is President.

Mississippi Republicans won’t support same sex marriage – but they’re still not on board with interracial marriage!

While this will garner energy among Obama’s base and may help influence people on the fence to support same sex marriage, it could damage his quest for re-election.  States like North Carolina, once within reach, may sip away.   However, it’s not 2000 any more, or even 2008.   The culture is changing.   The deep south won’t be on board but Obama won’t win there anyway.   And given high divorce rates and the ease in which people drop their ’till death do us part’ partners when the excitement declines and tough times start, same sex marriage is arguably not the most dangerous threat to “traditional” marriage.

Marriage is a social construct.   It reflects cultural views of the times.   It was very different in Biblical times than it is now (there are lots of things floating around the internet about what ‘traditional’ marriage used to be – some of it very bizarre).  Mitt Romney’s great great grandfather could have 12 wives.   In much of the world polygamy is the norm, in the Islamic world its four wives.

President Obama’s parents – a rarity in 1961

At one point marriage in the US was for a lifetime, with divorce exceedingly rare and looked down upon.   As bigotry against gays declines and homosexuality is increasingly accepted as “normal,” it is inevitable that the institution of marriage will change as well.   President Obama’s ‘evolution’ on the issue symbolizes the path of the nation on this question.   Moreover, who he is — the son of parents whose marriage was similarly rejected as perverse a half century ago — is a poignant reminder that he is on the right side of history.