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Gay Marriage: From Stonewall to Albany
Posted on Jun 27, 2011
By Larry Gross
Since his election, Obama has played a game all too familiar to minorities dealing with the Democratic Party. Like Clinton before him, Obama claims to be a supporter of GLBT rights—a “fierce advocate” is the term he has used—especially when he is seeking to raise money from gay people, but he has offered platitudes rather than action on key issues. In some ways the Obama administration has done more than most for GLBT folks, but it has measured out its efforts in small doses, treated minor changes as major accomplishments and refused to confront the central moral issues head on.
The biggest achievement under this administration, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” was pushed through only after gay activists raised the ante by acts of widely publicized civil disobedience; and implementation of the repeal is still not under way.
Simply put, if one is committed to fundamental equality, and to the constitutional separation of church and state, then there is no basis for perpetuating inequality in marriage, military service or any other domain of the public sphere. Full legal equality should not require everyone to make the same choices—whether to marry, join the military, or any other life decision—but it does mean that everyone should be free to make such choices if they wish.
President Obama says that his position on marriage equality is “evolving”—although given his 1996 statement it might be said to have devolved—and it is not entirely cynical to imagine that this evolutionary process might reach a conclusion sometime after the 2012 election. After all, former President Clinton, whose wife may still harbor presidential ambitions, now says that he favors same-sex marriage.
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New York’s action last week is an important step in the struggle for marriage equality, as New York is by far the biggest and more important state to achieve this through legislative action, and it suggests that politicians are reading the tea leaves in a new light. Recent nationwide polls show a slender public majority now favoring marriage equality, and this may have contributed to the decision by a few Republicans to vote for the bill in Albany. But more important than the simple poll numbers are the demographic details. This is an issue whose outcome can be read in the breakdowns by age. According to a recent Pew Research study, voters who are 65 or older oppose gay marriage by a 58-24 margin, but voters who are between 18 and 29 support gay marriage by a 52-40 margin.
The next, and crucial, stage in the fight for marriage equality is the repeal of the odious Defense of Marriage Act, which stands as a barrier against the realization of the gains made so far in achieving marriage rights in a handful of states. The most important legal consequences—and benefits—conferred by marriage are those enshrined in federal law. The General Accounting Office issued a report in 1997 identifying 1,049 federal statutory provisions in which benefits, rights and privileges are contingent on marital status or in which marital status is a factor. The Obama administration has declared that DOMA is unconstitutional and that it will not defend the act in court; Republican Speaker John Boehner responded by saying the House would hire a lawyer to do so. However, Obama has not made repeal of DOMA a priority and there has been no coordinated effort to do so, even while the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
Marriage equality is only one of the important arenas in the fight for full equality. Despite years of effort, only 20 states and the District of Columbia offer legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation (or, in 12 of these states and D.C., gender identity). Various incarnations of federal non-discrimination legislation have been launched but none have yet succeeded in passing either house of Congress. The simplest and most effective step, of course, would be the simple addition of sexual orientation and gender identity to the protected categories listed under the U.S. Civil Rights Act, but neither party has advocated so obvious a measure.
The tide of history, and demography, is on the side of equality for gay folks. The Republican Party seems to be staking its strategy on intransigence and catering to the right.
Obama, here as elsewhere, is unwilling to demonstrate moral leadership. Speaking in New York at a GLBT fundraiser the day before the New York Legislature voted, he took a “states rights” position on this civil rights issue: “Traditionally marriage has been decided by the states and right now I understand there’s a little debate going on here in New York,” he said to laughter. New York’s lawmakers, he said, are “doing exactly what democracies are supposed to do.” The president, however, was not doing what leaders are supposed to do. Within 24 hours of the dinner at which Obama spoke, Albany legislators, including several Republicans, demonstrated more moral integrity than the president of the United States. The question remains whether, and when, he will catch up.
Larry Gross is the director of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, one of the founders of queer studies and a scholar of art, media, and the portrayal of minorities.
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