The story of the day is President Obama finally saying out loud that he supports marriage equality. It is, as countless pundits and commentators have said, a breakthrough for civil and gay rights in America. And it is; a sitting American president has finally said he supports the right of same-sex couples to get married and share in the benefits and responsibilities of that state and contract.
And a lot of people — including myself — have said that it’s about time. It is nice to hear it. But it also should not obscure the fact that compared to his predecessors — and those who would wish to replace him — the Obama administration has done more for LGBTQ rights than all the previous presidents put together, and it is the actions, not the words, that really matter. And there have been a lot of actions.
There’s another level to this. It is more than just the actions and the policies that matter. It is the simple assurance that we Americans who happen to be members of the LGBTQ community take from the fact that the President of the United States is with us. In this cynical age (and trust me, I know from cynicism), where politics and partisanship and campaigning are paramount considerations, it is still important for us to hear it.
It may not matter as much to a middle-aged guy like me who has been comfortable with being out of the closet since the Ford administration, but I know that there are a lot of people who are still struggling with it because of family or faith or social pressure to conform with the straight configuration of boys liking girls leading to marriage and kids and minivans. (By the way, a lot of same-sex couples have kids and minivans.) There are kids who are too young to understand why they are more interested in being with someone of their own gender and wonder when they will grow out of it and know instinctively that they can’t talk about it for fear of schoolyard taunts and being “different” at a stage when conformity is the lifeblood of social interaction. They hear the voices on TV railing against the radical homosexuals and their tawdry life of debauchery, but do not understand why they feel like they’re the target, and they feel apart from their faith and practice because they know, deep in their heart, that they do not measure up to the expectations of the church. And while the preachers and scolds are obsessed with sex, kids and adults who don’t care one bit about what goes on in the bedroom cannot understand why they should be made to feel ashamed of what is for them a perfectly natural attraction in both a physical and intellectual way to someone who is plumbed and wired the same way they are.
For the President of the United States — the most powerful man in the world — to calmly tell a TV interviewer in a casual conversation on a sunny May afternoon that he believes that same-sex couples should be able to get married just like everyone else may be a very big deal in the gay rights movement. It may be a big deal in the political arena as that president stands for re-election, and it will certainly bring the issue to the forefront for the next couple of news cycles, as it has since the vice president got out in front of it last Sunday. It is certainly a distraction from the issue of the economy and the lagging recovery, and if the cynics and the skeptics want to point out that Mr. Obama has provided an “oh look at the kitty” moment for his campaign, they are welcome to say so.
But I have to say that regardless of whatever the motive may be, it is still a gift of comfort and assurance to the millions of us who have waited to hear this simple statement. He didn’t have to do it, and there is nothing he can do in terms of the power of his office to make the bans on same-sex marriage that have been embedded in federal law and various state constitutions go away. He is simply giving voice to the one thing that ties all of the issues of life as a gay man or lesbian in America together: the simple but profound meaning of “I now pronounce you….”
This doesn’t change things overnight. Today there will still be people fired from their job or denied a place to live or a couples-only vacation because they are gay. The schoolyard bullies will still be there with their taunts, the preachers will still be there with their obsessive and all-too-enthusiastic talk about sodomy, and teenaged boys and girls will still be thrown into the streets by parents who tell them that no kid of theirs will be queer. But there is no doubt that a cog has shifted in the universe, and no matter what happens in an election in November, the simple fact is that we among you who happen to be gay have been given the gift of encouragement to become part of us.