Obama's Stonewall

In 1996, when Barack Obama was running for the Illinois Senate, he was
asked in a survey by Outlines, a gay community newspaper in
Chicago, if he supported same-sex marriage. Unlike most candidates, who
merely indicated yes or no, Obama took the unusual step of typing in his
response, to which he affixed his signature. Back then not a single
state permitted same-sex marriage, and sodomy was a crime. Nonetheless,
Obama took a position on the progressive edge of the Democratic Party,
and he did so with unmistakable clarity: "I favor legalizing same-sex
marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."

Since then, as Obama traced his dazzling arc to the presidency, his
stance on gay rights has become murkier, wordier, less courageous, more
Clintonian. During his 2004 US Senate bid, he stated that he supports
domestic partnerships and civil unions instead of same-sex marriage.
When speaking to gay audiences, he explained his new position as
"primarily just...a strategic issue." But on bigger stages he cited his
Christian faith as grounds for his belief that marriage is between a man
and a woman, a view he reiterated during the 2008 presidential election
even while he also asserted, inconsistently, that religion should not
dictate a state's approach to gay rights.

As president, Obama has made similar equivocations on gay rights. As a
senator and as a candidate, he won the vocal support of the vast
majority of gays and lesbians by calling for the repeal of both the
Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the miserable failure that is "don't
ask, don't tell," and by supporting full federal partnership rights (but
not same-sex marriage) and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA),
which would make it illegal to fire someone because of his or her sexual
orientation. But he has so far spent no political capital to turn these
promises into reality. Quite to the contrary, Obama's slide hit what one
hopes will be a nadir on June 12 when his administration filed a brief
defending the legality of DOMA by comparing same-sex marriage to incest
and pedophilia.

It is impossible to accept that a president who owes so much to
movements for civil rights and social justice, never mind the Obama of
1996, believes in such right-wing bigotry; the only plausible
explanation can be one of political calculation. The memory of Bill
Clinton's early failure to integrate the military, as well as the
aftermath of the 2004 election, when same-sex marriage was blamed for
John Kerry's loss, looms large in the minds of top Democratic
strategists. Guided by veterans of the Clinton-era culture wars like
chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, the prevailing wisdom in the White House
seems to be that a forward push on gay rights can only endanger what the
Democratic Party hopes will be a lasting majority and would squander
precious political capital better used on issues like healthcare and
economic reform.

Such logic, however, is quickly becoming obsolete. Six states have
legalized gay marriage. Democrats like Connecticut Senator Christopher
Dodd and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine have renounced support for
civil unions and embraced same-sex marriage, with Corzine having done so
as a centerpiece of his re-election bid. Gen. John Shalikashvili,
Clinton's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a cadre of military
leaders have publicly called for an end to "don't ask, don't tell." Huge
majorities of Americans, 89 percent in a 2008 Gallup poll, support
workplace rights for gays and lesbians. Steve Schmidt, John McCain's
campaign manager, and former Vice President Cheney have announced their
support for same-sex marriage; and Utah's Republican governor, Jon
Huntsman, came out in favor of civil unions, a switch that has not
eroded his popularity in Mormon country one bit. At this rate, Obama is
in danger of being outpaced on gay rights not just by the American
people but by the nonsuicidal wing of the Republican Party.

There is still time for a course correction. In the wake of an uproar
from gay activists and progressives, Obama signed a memo extending
limited benefits to partners of gay federal employees (but not
healthcare or inheritance rights); reiterated his intent to repeal DOMA;
and voiced support for legislation that would, in the interim, give
healthcare to same-sex partners of federal workers. But words are no
longer enough. Now is the time for Obama to act with the full authority
of his office and his character to pass a gay rights agenda that, in the
end, will be seen as neither particularly radical nor particularly
partisan but as a simple matter of fairness under the law.

A promising first step would be to fast-track passage of ENDA. A
previous version passed the House by a vote of 235 to 184 in 2007, with
thirty-five Republicans in favor, before dying under the threat of a
Bush veto. Congressman Barney Frank introduced a stronger version that
includes protections for transgender people on June 24, just before the
fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, which
ignited the modern gay rights movement.

In those forty years, and especially in the past decade, the arc of the
moral universe, as Obama is fond of saying on other matters, has bent
toward justice. So much so that the question is no longer, Can the Obama
administration afford to support gay rights with full-throated
passion--but rather, Can it afford not to?

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