With Wednesdayâ€™s announcement by President Obama, marriage equality has gone mainstream. No longer an issue for the left side of the Democratic party, equality is now the party line. In his interview with ABCâ€™s Robin Roberts, Obama confirmed that his â€śpersonalâ€ť view is that same-sex couples should be able to marry under the law.
For years, progressive politicians have had the leeway to have their cake and eat it too, advocating for equality through civil unions but drawing the line at the word â€śmarriage,â€ť as if the core problem for gay couples was access to insurance benefits or hospital visitation.
But the broad balance beam of â€ścivil unionsâ€ť has narrowed over the last few years into an impossible tightrope. After all the court cases, all the campaigns and all the public debate, no one can seriously deny that the word â€śmarriageâ€ť is part and parcel of the institution of marriage.
You canâ€™t have one without the other. The idea of â€śequalityâ€ť for gay couples outside the institution and the word is an oxymoron.
Ironically, Obama was already on record in support of marriage equality through his Justice Department. Administration lawyers have vehemently argued on behalf of same-sex couples in numerous legal briefs that carry the Presidentâ€™s implicit stamp of approval. It has long been obvious to everyone on both sides that Obama was merely trying to waffle for political purposes, not to win over anyone on the far right, but to avoid alienating a subset of the electorate in the middle ground, including socially conservative minorities. In a close election, those voters might make the difference in a swing state or two. Now, thanks to Joe Bidenâ€™s comments on Meet the Press, along with the 61-39 North Carolina vote in favor of the antigay Amendment One on Tuesday, Obama has been forced to take a clear position. The pressure to do so from the gay community and the mainstream media would have remained relentless. And instead of appearing sympathetically vague, the President was at risk of looking disingenuous and crafty. The better strategy appeared to be to embrace the issue and focus attention on GOP prejudice.
Obamaâ€™s decision could act as a sort of release mechanism, giving the green light to other moderate Democrats on the teetering tightrope to move to solid ground. Former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, for example, was asked about marriage equality earlier on Wednesday morning.
â€śThe underlying issue,â€ť said Kaine, â€śis should committed couples have the same legal rights and responsibilities? And the answer to that is an unequivocal yes.â€ť Much as I like Tim Kaine, the underlying issue is whether gay couples should be treated equally under the law, period.
Kaineâ€™s answer is itself an equivocation, and one which may be more difficult to get away with in the future, thanks to Obama. What Now? The question we face now is whether, or to what extent, the 2012 campaigns will deploy this issue. The country is split down the middle on marriage equality. But a sizeable majority supports gay couplesâ€™ rights through marriage or civil unions.
Will the Democrats now starting making the case that civil unions are not enough? And what will the Republicans do? They canâ€™t really afford to denigrate gay couples in general, a stance that would only play to their base while alienating many in the middle. Iâ€™m guessing that itâ€™s the Republicans who must now duck the issue with vague comments about tradition while trying desperately to change the subject.
Some GOP strategists will no doubt be encouraged by the vote in North Carolina on Tuesday. But the dynamics of gay rights politics are complex, while gay ballot measures are frustratingly simple. Ballot measures force people who havenâ€™t really thought about gay rights to take a yes or no vote on a gut level question: â€śDo you support marriage?â€ť Who doesnâ€™t?!
A sizeable chunk of the electorate, including many voters who donâ€™t â€śhate gays,â€ť instinctively vote for the status quo. Itâ€™s the default vote on gay marriage, which is why we lose by larger margins that one would expect.
But will these voters mass against Obama based on this issue next fall? Not necessarily. Many of these voters are torn on the subject as well, and while they may have voted for â€śtraditionâ€ť last Tuesday, that doesnâ€™t mean that theyâ€™ll vote for overt bigotry if thatâ€™s what Republicans offer them next fall. Told You So Okay. We could talk about this for the whole column, but we have to cover the North Carolina vote.
The 22-point lead for the Tarheel antigay marriage amendment looked to be between five and ten points higher than pre-election surveys suggested, mirroring the poll bias weâ€™ve seen in past gay rights contests. A certain percentage of antigay voters lie to pollsters, presumably out of some kind of shame, so keep that in mind this November when predicting the outcome of marriage votes in Minnesota, Maine and (we assume) Maryland and Washington.
But honestly, this was not a surprise. Iâ€™ve read some talk in the press about how Gay Inc. dropped the ball by not pouring more cash and effort into the North Carolina fight. Then again, with limited resources, perhaps itâ€™s strategically wiser to focus on states where we have a better chance to win. In theory, I agree with the Courage Campaign that we should â€śleave no state behind.â€ť Thinking pragmatically, however, we have to pick our battles.
Because of the scope of the amendment, North Carolinaâ€™s municipal governments and state institutions will likely face the choice of dropping all forms of gay couplesâ€™ recognition or going to court.
Even though it was expected, it was depressing nonetheless. Once again, the media jumped to speculation about whether the African American community voted heavily for the marriage ban. Whatever the actual numbers, itâ€™s clear that the predominately white mainstream gay groups must do more to reach out to minorities.
I saw one African American leader on TV asking where the Human Rights Campaign was during the rallies for Trayvon Martin. But, hello? If HRC could wave a wand and mobilize a bunch of gay people with rainbow signs, they would. They donâ€™t have that kind of power, and Iâ€™m guessing a lot of gay men and women were in those crowds on their own volition anyway.
What do we do about it? I donâ€™t know. I do know that the racial divide on same-sex marriage is less about race and more about religion. I also know that the public face of the fight for gay rights is most often a successful white male, so maybe that contributes to our lack of minority appeal.
Holder On the Spot Before I continue, I read on Lisa Keenâ€™s news service that Attorney General Eric Holder will be called up for Congressional hearings next month to explain, among other things, the Justice Departmentâ€™s stance on the Defense of Marriage Act.
For all the hoopla surrounding marriage equality, few people seem to have noticed that Holder and company arenâ€™t simply â€śrefusing to defend DOMA.â€ť They are actively arguing against it.
Indeed, even when the Justice Department announced its new gay rights jurisprudence in February of 2011, most reporters focused on their decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act. But what Holder (and Obama) actually said at the time went far beyond the fate of a single statute. They said that sexual orientation discrimination should be held to heightened legal scrutiny, a standard that assumes that gay bias is unconstitutional and forces a defendant to prove that prejudice was not the motive behind a law or policy.
This far-reaching position effectively puts the Justice Department on the side of gay rights plaintiffs in any federal case against the United States. And because itâ€™s just administration policy, it will simply vanish if Obama is defeated.
This is one reason why our calls for Obama to come out plainly in support of marriage equality appeared to lack context. It seemed as if many gay activists hadnâ€™t really recognized what our constitutional lawyer President has done on our behalf. Heâ€™s done it below the radar. But it shouldnâ€™t be below our radar as well. Obama should get credit, not just for his words this week, but for his actions last year. Thereâ€™s Something About Connecticut I seem to have written well over half this column without a trace of levity or any amusing asides. And I was just about to launch into a ruling from the Connecticut Supreme Court that illustrates the hazards of having separate laws for gay people rather than adding â€śsexual orientationâ€ť to the existing statutes that cover everyone else.
Obviously that discussion would have given me a launching pad for another rant against the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, and I would have filled paragraph after paragraph with yet another turgid polemic on the subject. I will spare you! So, I put the top down on my old convertible the other day and it jammed in the down position after I forced a box of wine bottles into a little space in the trunk. Fast forward to one oâ€™clock in the morning, and I awoke to the sound of distant thunder.
I went out and fooled with the car for about ten minutes as the storm approached, and then Mel came out and told me to drive to the abandoned gas station down the block and park under a roof. To make a long story shorter, we sat there for two hours in the middle of the most terrifying thunder storm Iâ€™ve every encountered. Huge bolts of lighting. Shockingly loud claps of thunder. Driving rain. A nearby transformer exploded. Hail clattered. Wind roared. We were cold and soaked, and I came close to bursting into tears. I was convinced weâ€™d be hit by lightening or killed by a tornado. It was God awful.
Mel and I donâ€™t have particular gender roles, but I felt like the â€ślittle womanâ€ť who had to be repeatedly reassured. It seems that Kansas girls like Mel are not afraid of violent weather. Normally Iâ€™m not either, but this was ridiculous.
She could have just told me to come back inside. But thatâ€™s what marriage is all about. Getting up in the middle of the night to save your partnerâ€™s car from permanent damage by sharing two hours of abject misery. Sitting by a bedside. Going to a boring work party. Killing a spider. Remembering where she put her keys. And our opponents are still speculating about gay men and women marrying farm animals.
Obamaâ€™s decision to back equality was reportedly based in part on knowing gay couples. Certainly, the fast-moving American shift in favor of marriage equality is based on exactly the same thing, the realization that gay couples are no different than straight couples. There might be something â€śimmoralâ€ť about two guys hooking up for anonymous sex in an alley (depending on your point of view). But that gay paradigm is a thing of the past. There are battles left to be fought, but the war is over and Republicans will promote homophobia at their peril.
Lastly, I have to think that Obamaâ€™s announcement played into his image as a strong leader, unafraid to take a controversial stand or make a tough decision. Never mind that the President ducked the issue in the past. When push came to shove, he pushed, or shoved if you will, and took a stand. Mitt Romneyâ€™s stand? Heâ€™s in favor of hospital visitations.
Will marriage equality become a significant 2012 campaign issue? Will it lead to reelection? Will it cost Obama the election? I understand that Obama once wrote that he worried about whether he would be on the wrong side of history in the marriage debate. Thatâ€™s a question he settled this week. -A new version of Annâ€™s column is available every week at sfbaytime.com. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.