President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
When President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage, he did more than just “evolve” into a new position. He lent his moral authority to the century-long struggle for gay rights.
Since the “homosexual” became a distinct and recognizable category in the late nineteenth century, almost every institution of Western society has sought to eradicate, punish, repress and exclude those men and women who fell under that name. Science deployed its arsenal of clinical instruments—medical experimentation, electroshock therapy, psychoanalysis and the jailhouse of the asylum—to “cure” individuals, and society, of this so-called affliction. From the bully pulpit of the church came down the scarlet letters of sin and shame and, with them, the status of moral pariah. The modern state made homosexuals a criminal class of people—the sex they had punishable as a felony; the signs of their existence subject to censorship; their attempts to gather in public the target of raids, beatings and mass arrests. In Nazi Germany, this state-sponsored pogrom reached murderous heights when, along with millions of Jews, thousands of suspected homosexuals were exterminated in concentration camps. Here in America at around the same time, homosexuals were also considered enemies of the state, lavender menaces spied on by the FBI, blackmailed and charged with sedition. Employers—from corporations to small businesses to schools—considered even the whiff of homosexuality sufficient cause to fire workers. And all of this sent a powerful message to society at large—that it was OK for family members, neighbors, colleagues and strangers to shun homosexuals and, sometimes, to commit acts of violence against them (see Mitt Romney, age 18).
In the face of this almost total injunction rose one of the most remarkable social movements of the twentieth century—the struggle for gay and lesbian liberation and equality. Displaying unimaginable courage, gays and lesbians reclaimed their lives from the doctors, priests, cops and judges who would have kept them unseen and unheard. They came out of the closet, renouncing shame and secrecy. They chose their own names, made their own vibrant culture, formed their own political organizations and, when a plague struck their community, took care of their own while those in power would not even admit that AIDS existed. They forced AIDS onto the national agenda and, along with it, the demand for an end to the criminalization of gay sex and a call for full citizenship, for a place at the table.
With his declaration in support of same-sex marriage, perhaps at some risk to his political fortunes, President Obama threw in his lot with this minority, still despised by many, not so long ago despised by almost all. It was a brave act, yes, but the moral epiphany he reached that day was made possible not just by conversations with gay staffers and his wife and daughters, as the president said in his interview, but by generations of gay and lesbian activists and allies. It was born of a courage nurtured in common—until it was just safe enough for the most powerful man in the world to join the cause.
The reverberations of Obama’s declaration will be felt for decades, but it has already had immediate payoffs. Several prominent Democrats—including Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer, Jack Reed and James Clyburn—have come out in favor of same-sex marriage since Obama’s announcement. Support for same-sex marriage will almost assuredly become a plank in the Democratic Party platform, and it is impossible to imagine that future Democratic presidential candidates will be anything but enthusiastic advocates for gay rights. By making his announcement before the November election, Obama has in effect declared that at least on this front of the culture war, Democrats will no longer cower in fear. They have chosen sides—emphatically so. And if polls are any indication, it’s the Republicans who ought to cower in fear.
In response to Obama’s announcement, Romney tepidly described his anti-gay agenda as also just a “personal position,” and then sought to change the subject. For the record, he supports a position to the right of George W. Bush; they both favor a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, but Romney also opposes civil unions. There’s no doubt that Obama’s declaration will stoke the far right’s visceral hatred of him, but with support for same-sex marriage rapidly growing, especially among young voters and independents, it is no longer the wedge issue it once was. Indeed, if anything, the differences between the two parties has been crystallized, as the adult bullies of the Republican Party seem dead set on not just discriminating against gays and lesbians but also using the invasive powers of the state to control women’s reproductive lives. Got sex? The Republicans are against that.
Of course, there’s still a long, tough slog ahead: to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, to undo the thirty state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, to pass the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, among other legislation. Obama’s personal position favoring same-sex marriage was tempered by his claim that he still thinks states should figure the issue out for themselves. But his administration knows that full marriage equality for gays and lesbians can happen only at the federal level. It has supported Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Respect for Marriage Act, which would strike down DOMA; and quietly, behind the scenes, Eric Holder’s Justice Department has laid down the legal brief that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation should be subject to a heightened level of scrutiny, an argument that will come into play if and when the Supreme Court settles the matter.
For gays and lesbians, who sits on the Court when those arguments are heard will matter a great deal—just as it mattered a great deal that Barack Obama—and not John McCain—sat in the White House for his historic interview. But even as the media scurry to calculate the odds and piece together the advisers, donors and politicians who will continue to push gay rights forward, let’s not forget the real heroes of this moment: those millions of everyday gays and lesbians whose personal acts of defiance against the established social order were no less earthshaking than what just happened in Washington.