I had hesitated on gay marriage – in part, because I thought civil unions would be sufficient. . . . But I have to tell you that over the course of several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors; when I think about members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together; when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is gone, because they’re not able to commit themselves in a marriage. At a certain point . . . it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married. – President Barack Obama, May 9, 2012.
In openly affirming his support for gay marriage, President Obama has put the prestige of the White House behind marriage equality as a fundamental human right. It is a watershed moment in American history, a symbolically important statement by the leader of the free world. It is the first time in American history when a president of the United States has looked into a camera and declared that gays and lesbians should be treated equally under the law. Although nothing the President said during his interview with Robin Roberts of ABC News has any legal effect, the significance of his statement should not be underestimated. For many young people who are struggling with their sexual identity, or gays and lesbians in life-long committed relationships who want the same rights taken for granted by the rest of us, it is no small moment when the President of the United States expressly declares his support for equality and fairness.
Some have criticized President Obama for taking so long to evolve on this issue, suggesting that perhaps his conversion is now politically calculated or that his prior hesitations to support gay marriage indicates a lack of courage or moral strength. I disagree. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is an issue of civil and human rights, of basic fairness, and concerns how our society lives up to its founding ideals. Just as it took political courage for Harry Truman to desegregate the armed forces in 1948, and for Lyndon Johnson to risk his presidency on a historic civil rights bill in 1964, so too it took courage for President Obama to declare his support for marriage equality. There are times when it is simply necessary to do what is right and just.
It is far from certain that the president’s expressions of support for gay marriage will help him in the coming election. North Carolina, a key swing state, just became the 30th state in the country to ban gay marriage as a matter of law. Nationally, polls show the country evenly split over the right of gays and lesbians to marry, although the trend is clearly in favor as young people overwhelmingly favor gay marriage; as the president said of Malia and Sasha, to them “it’s no big deal”. But we remain years away from a solid majority of the voting public to unequivocally embrace the right of gays and lesbians to marry. The impact of the issue in November is anybody’s guess, especially in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, each of which have strong conservative elements that will mobilize their forces on this issue.
I do not doubt the president’s sincerity in describing his change of position as a “personal journey.” It requires insight and maturity to recognize that we do not always have immediate answers on matters as personal and intimate as love, faith, and sexuality. When I first entered college in 1977, I knew nothing of the concept of gay rights and had no idea what emotional and personal conflicts that gays and lesbians experienced as a result of societal taboos on homosexuality. Having never had to struggle with my own sexual identity, it simply did not occur to me that there were those who suffered in silence as they confronted a collective lack of acceptance and understanding, and society’s belief that they were abnormal, social deviants, and needed to be “cured” or “fixed”.
During the spring of my freshman year, my sociology professor invited four openly gay students to speak to our class about what it was like for them to be gay. They discussed how it was they discovered and came to accept their sexuality, the prejudice they confronted on a daily basis, and their hopes for a world that could accept them as they are and allow them to lead lives of honesty and integrity. Wittenberg was a socially conservative campus with a strong emphasis on sports and Greek life, Midwestern values and conventional views of sexuality. To be openly gay at Wittenberg in the 1970’s meant that one was automatically on the fringes of campus life. I was immediately impressed with the courage of these students, how comfortable they were with their own identities, and how non-threatening they were to my own identity as a straight male.
I grew personally that day into a better, more informed member of the human race. I could no longer ignore the hurtfulness and bigotry that gays and lesbians confront every day, the personal conflicts they each wrestle with in reconciling their sexual identity with society’s expectations, their desire not to disappoint family members, and their fear of how friends and family members may react to their coming out.
I admit that I was not sensitive to this issue when I first attended Wittenberg, for it was not “my issue”. Like the president, I required personal growth, education, and an “evolution” of my own. But personal growth inspires us to look beyond ourselves and deal compassionately with those who are different from us, to provide a supportive and nurturing environment for all of our brothers and sisters, including those who happen to be gay or lesbian.
That the president has evolved, and is continuing to evolve as a conscious, thoughtful human being, is something for which we should all be grateful. It can only benefit the country. All of us are, or should be, evolving on the issues confronting gays and lesbians in American society, as we should be on many other issues. As a society, we should do everything to applaud and support those who choose to live openly and honestly in committed relationships, who seek the support of their family, friends, and the communities in which they live.
Much of the opposition to gay marriage, of course, stems from the religious right, which continues to believe that homosexuality violates God’s will. Franklin Graham went so far as to say that God is weeping because of the president’s statements. This simply makes no sense. To commit a sin requires an affirmative, voluntary act that is contrary to God’s desires for us as human beings. Choosing to pollute the air or water, being mean-spirited and self-centered, doing harm to others – this is sinful behavior. We do not choose our sexual orientation, a matter that for most people is biologically and genetically predetermined. I did not choose to be heterosexual – I just am. It is how I was born. That most of us were created by God to be heterosexual, however, does not mean that God erred when he created five to ten percent of his children as gay or lesbian.
I simply cannot believe that God weeps when two people choose to love each other and commit to a life together. God weeps when innocent people are killed in unjust wars, when oil companies destroy our oceans, and when rich and powerful nations show indifference to the plight of the poor and the hungry. God rejoices when people show love for one another. Perhaps Franklin Graham and his ilk need a refresher course in their own religion. The president recognized that, as a Christian, the imperative of his faith is to embrace the golden rule, to treat others as you would want to be treated, and that the love of Christ overpowers the forces of intolerance and hate. His simple words in support of gay marriage recognized that, as a society, we should affirm and uplift everyone, and that to be intolerant of anyone, male or female, black or white, gay or straight, is to reject the life-affirming beauty of God.
In 1967, the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia said that no state could prohibit mixed-race marriages because “marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man.’” The ruling came at a time when many states and large numbers of Americans believed that blacks should not be allowed to marry whites, that it somehow violated God’s will and was a crime against nature. Fortunately, the nation evolved and today most Americans accept without question the right of people to marry the person of their choice, regardless of race. Recently, a federal judge in California held that a ban on same-sex marriage violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the legal battles are likely to rage for many years to come, I believe it only a matter of time that the nation evolves on this matter as well.
In the meantime, the president has moved the country a step closer to the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence, recognizing that in a fair and just society, the rights of some are the rights of all, that the nation is stronger when all are treated with equal dignity and respect. It is time for the United States as a symbol of freedom and liberty to recognize that our civil and human rights are too precious and fragile to be torn asunder by the winds of partisan politics. The President’s words have allowed us to stand a little taller as a nation and have affirmed the principles upon which our constitution is founded. I am proud of our president for his willingness to openly and honestly discuss the evolution of his thinking. If all of us can do the same, we will be that much closer to becoming a nation that truly embraces liberty and justice for all.