There have been many times over the past two years when I have whacked the Obama administration on their “fierce urgency of whenever” on gay equality. And I regret not a single one. The job of loyal opposition is to push and corral and complain and inveigh and pound the bloggy table a few times to get a point across. But look: it worked. Here’s what they have done, and it ain’t nothing.
They have removed the ban on openly gay servicemembers. Soooo yesterday, I know. But it is also so tomorrow. The emergence of openly gay soldiers – many of them heroes – will indelibly change the image and self-image of gays in America, in ways that expand the possibilities of being human and being noble. When the first military funeral takes place in which the folded flag is handed to the legal husband of a deceased male servicemember, the folds of the flag will reflect the folds of inclusion. It will be much harder to demonize gays when they are openly defending our country in uniform. The impact on the South in particular could be huge in the long run. Yes, Obama took his own sweet time; yes, it nearly slipped out of our grasp. But so did equality in New York State a few times. What matters is: he got it done.
They ended the HIV travel ban. I have a huge stake in this and the ban was repealed under Bush who admirably signed it into law. But Obama implemented it; and my trip home soon to see my family was made possible by that law. Yes, it was a long, long time coming. But what matters is: he got it done.
They withdrew legal support for DOMA. Again, a critical factor, along with moves in the states, to get the Supreme Court at some point to acknowledge that equal protection means equal protection; and that the logic of banning marriage for two percent of the population evaporates upon close rational inspection. Again, this was in the presidential bound of authority. And Obama did the right thing in the end.
Some now want this president to be Andrew Cuomo, a heroically gifted advocate of marriage equality who used all his skills to make it the law in his state. But the truth is that a governor is integral to this issue in a way a president can never be. Civil marriage has always been a state matter in the US. That tradition goes all the way back; it was how the country managed to have a patchwork of varying laws on miscegenation for a century before Loving vs Virginia. The attack on this legal regime was made by Republicans who violated every conservative principle in the book when they passed DOMA, and seized federal control over the subject by refusing for the first time ever not to recognize possible legal civil marriages in a state like Hawaii or Massachusetts. Defending this tradition is not, as some would have it, a kind of de facto nod to racial segregation; it is a defense of the norm in US history. And by defending that norm, the Obama administration has a much stronger and more coherent case in knocking down DOMA than if it had echoed Clinton in declaring that the feds could dictate a national marriage strategy.
More to the point, until very recently, if we had had to resolve this issue at a federal level, marriage equality would have failed. The genius of federalism is that it allowed us to prove that marriage equality would not lead to catastrophe, that it has in fact coincided with a strengthening of straight marriage, that in many states now, the sky has not fallen. That is why a man like David Frum has changed his mind – for the right conservative reason. Because there is evidence that this is not a big deal and yet unleashes a new universe of equality and dignity and integration for a once-despised minority. Obama’s defense of federalism in this instance is not a regressive throw-back; it is a pragmatic strategy.
The president has no actual political authority over this issue. He does have moral authority. But what close observers know about Obama is that he does not think of the presidency the way he thinks of a campaign. He knows he is president of all the people, including those who voted against him and those who conscientiously oppose marriage equality. He does not seek to divide as his predecessor did. By staying ever so slightly above on this issue, Obama is doing the right presidential thing – while presiding over what may well be the most seismic period for gay equality in history. I do not despise his restraint in his office. I wish more presidents exhibited it (and I wish he exhibited it a little more in cases like the Libya war).
One more thing. A civil rights movement does not get its legitimacy from any president. I repeat: he does not legitimize us; we legitimize him. As gays and lesbians, we should stop looking for saviors at the top and start looking for them within. We won this fight alongside our countless straight family members, friends, associates and fellow citizens. As long as Obama has done due diligence in the office he holds – and he has – he is not necessary to have as a Grand Marshall for our parade.
This is not about him. So instead of treating him with anger or disappointment, give him a little touch of his own trademarked mild condescension at the White House reception today.
And wink back.