As president, Barack Obama has supported repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate-crimes law, passing a federal law to ban anti-gay employment discrimination, and repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. Why does it matter so much, then, that on Wednesday he told ABC News that he supports the freedom of same-sex couples to marry? Why is this the all-important seal of approval gay people have been waiting for?
Obama’s previous demurral on whether marriage ought to encompass same-sex unions, as a moral proposition, was immaterial as a matter of policy. Marriage law is generally the province of the states, not Washington, and the president had already called his lawyers off defending DOMA. His personal beliefs about marriage did not directly affect the rights and lives of gay people wishing to marry.
But of course, in the end, this was all a giant technicality. The moral power of the presidency may be its most important dimension: What the president believes and says influences how ordinary Americans think and behave and what laws they are willing to pass. It was Obama’s few clear words today that prompted a number of LGBT advocates to announce they’d immediately max out their contributions to his re-election campaign. (My boyfriend and I chipped in a smaller but symbolically significant amount.) Maybe they’re pleased because they think Obama’s announcement will speed legal equality, but equally or more important, Obama’s announcement is a form of affirmation in and of itself. And perhaps to our own surprise, that’s become increasingly important to the LGBT community.
For decades, the gay rights movement fought to create and protect a zone of privacy, where the government would leave us alone to engage in behavior many despised. We asked only for tolerance. Who cared about the imprimatur of the state anyway? “Since When is Marriage a Path to Liberation?” was the title of an influential 1989 essay by the late lesbian lawyer Paula Ettelbrick. Scorned as immoral, shunned as infectious, dismissed as unserious, our legal claims to equality were called “facetious” by the Supreme Court as recently as 1986. It’s no wonder we set our sights on being simply left alone.
But the zone of privacy was never enough, and it was never going to be enough. Just as African-Americans boycotted buses to protest laws that spurned their dignity, LGBT Americans have come to see that anything that holds them apart from the space occupied by other Americans is a separation that is inherently unequal. That’s why the president’s evolution is important. Sharing the word marriage has sometimes been dismissed as symbolism, but it’s in fact about equality at its most basic. When Obama used to say he supported giving same-sex couples all the same rights as heterosexuals but not calling their unions “marriage,” the position was literally nonsensical. Sharing the word is the right. We cannot share in the benefits and responsibilities of marriage without occupying the same space as the rest of America.
We’ve been impatient for Obama to “evolve already,” but it’s worth remembering that the president’s evolution is in many ways an echo of the LGBT movement’s. And some of us are still moving, too: We’re not all clear on why we should be keen, in light of history, to value the moral approval of others.
But check it out: President Obama took a political risk. For us, and for what he thinks is right. He showed moral courage. Yes, he did it with plenty of calculation, at a time of his (or Joe Biden’s) choosing. And maybe he was thinking as much about helping himself with moderates who warm to the idea of standing up for principle as he was about doing the right thing. It will be easier for Obama to cast Mitt Romney as lacking a moral core when he’s not twisting in the wind himself. And embodying the future instead of the past is an asset in any campaign. All of a sudden, Mitt Romney’s support for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage seems Neanderthal.
How different it might have been had Obama started out where he ended up—a full supporter of genuine equality, affirming gays instead of merely tolerating them. Then again, the same goes for LGBT people themselves. Which might help explain why gay people care so much about the president’s approval—it mirrors our own. In him, we see ourselves.