The Interwebs and news outlets are aflame: the U.S. president has publicly expressed his personal support for gay marriage rights. In an election year. It’s undeniably a historic move, and certainly a very positive thing for human rights in the U.S. and around the world.
“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”. It seems like such a simple little sentence, doesn’t it? He speaks only for himself, personally, not for his administration as a whole — and it’s taken years for this sentence to be expressed, despite increasing public sentiment in favour of same-sex marriage and various moves by his administration that have indicated a pro-gay-rights stance.
The timing of this announcement is, undeniably, a carefully planned political move. With his country gearing up for what is sure to be a hard-fought election, in the wake of 4 years of a seriously struggling economy, there are a lot of issues to be hotly debated in the coming months. By finally, after years of avoiding the issue and claims that his views are “evolving” when pressed, coming down firmly on one side of this debate? He’s choosing his battleground, and simultaneously locking down a large portion of the queer vote (a vote he was likely to get anyways, because honestly, even without voicing his opinion like this? He was clearly the more queer-friendly candidate).
In fact, the real reasons behind this announcement likely have little to do with gay rights at all. A common criticism of Obama, throughout his term as president, has been that he is too indecisive, too willing to compromise and seek a mythical centrist “common ground”, rather than sticking to his guns and defending issues with passion (something that, for all I cannot stand Republican politics? They’ve got that whole “passion” thing locked down). This announcement takes some of the wind out of Republican sails — no longer can they accuse him of dithering and avoiding the issue — while not really giving them anything new to complain about. Obama’s administration has been taking queer-positive steps all along, from the striking down of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, to Hilary Clinton’s historic “gay rights are human rights” speech. Those who oppose those rights? Have plenty to complain about already, and have been doing so all along. Obama’s announcement gives them very little in the way of new material — especially as it was phrased as a personal statement, and not one of policy. In addition, this move draws greater attention to the important but ultimately sideline issue of gay rights, pulling criticism away from more difficult topics such as the economy and the Iraq war.
It remains to be seen whether the Democrats’ platform, when it is released, will contain any references to gay rights or gay marriage, although I’m honestly pretty hopeful that it will.
Cynicism about politics aside, the amount of attention that this announcement is drawing? Is such a good thing. In many parts of the world, we’re approaching a sort of “tipping point” when it comes to gay rights. Because for all the hard fighting that’s been done, for all the fights won and rights achieved, we’re still at a place where it’s socially acceptable, in many circles, to be against gay rights — or even against the very concept of being gay. People will speak openly, publicly, about their hatred and bigotry, and not be ostracized by society for doing so. So while killing someone for their gender orientation or beating a person half to death for their sexual orientation is now considered a hate crime and rightly deplored, expressing hatred through words or less brutally violent actions is still (somehow) okay.
Obviously this is a situation that isn’t going to last. A generation from now, we’ll look back on the hateful things that were said and done, and wonder how we ever tolerated such awfulness. But we haven’t quite tipped that balance, yet. The more virulently angry the bigots become, though? The more people are going to lose their taste for such dialogue, and the more people are going to start saying “shut up, that’s not acceptable”. By giving more prominence to gay marriage rights as an election issue, Obama is — intentionally or not — going to inflame the hate-spewers to a point that just might be far enough to tip things over and lead us into a future where saying “I’m against being gay” is no longer an acceptable statement to make.
I do fear the backlash from this, however. In stirring the pot, Obama is making life more dangerous and difficult for queer people everywhere, for a little while at least. It’s inevitable — it’s a step we must go through to get to where we need to go — but it’s still scary. I know I’ll be walking a little more carefully while the ensuing shitstorm blows up, and encouraging my queer friends to do the same: we haven’t seen the last of the hatred, and as the homophobes see their comfortable world disappearing, violence is likely to ensue.
On the upside, though, I can hope that this may be one of the final nails in the coffin of Canadian conservatives’ attempts to re-visit the gay marriage issue — Canadians have already fought this fight, and seeing it brought up again in this past year has been an emotional struggle for all of us.