Obama hesitates on backing gay marriage

JOHN OVERMYER
JOHN OVERMYER

The need for presidential leadership is critical.

Posted: July 01, 2011

"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."

- Martin Luther King

Or, we could quote Hamlet's soliloquy: "To be or not to be."

The latter seems an accurate depiction of President Obama's agonizing - his views are "evolving," he says - on whether to support marriage equality for gay men and lesbians. The former describes the way his hesitation is likely regarded by them and their allies.

The day before the New York legislature took the historic step of legalizing same-sex marriage in that state, the president, speaking at a gay and lesbian fund-raiser, asked for patience on the same issue. He offered platitudes about eventual equality, but could not bring himself to say the "M" word, allowing only that gay couples deserve the same rights as other couples. Otherwise, he held fast to the position he espoused during the 2008 campaign: support for civil unions - not same-sex marriage.

Which is a semantic con job that allows him to pretend he doesn't know marriage is a civil union. As a legal matter, after all, marriage is not defined by love and commitment, but by the same factors that define a so-called civil union: tax advantages, inheritability, and other, similar benefits.

It is as a cultural matter that love and commitment enter the definition, and those are things over which a president has no jurisdiction. So the argument is really about terminology. Obama draws a distinction without a difference because he apparently cannot bring himself to say the dangerous word: marriage.

And here, allow me a confession: I've been where Obama is. Back in 1996, I wrote in this space how I'd had no issue with gay adoption or military service, but gay marriage always stopped me. I struggled for months to justify it, to come up with a reason that satisfied my own conscience.

But logic always brought me back to the same conclusion: The distinction I sought to make was based less in reason than in fear, hidebound tradition, and an inability to accept that gays and lesbians bring the same depth of feeling to their relationships as their heterosexual counterparts. There is a dignity in telling those feelings to the judge, solemnizing them such that they are officially recognized by government and society. Gay men and lesbians are deserving of that dignity.

So one wishes Obama would think twice before counseling them to be patient. The historical parallels to Robert Kennedy's offering the same counsel in the years when buses and churches were being firebombed are too acute and renders King's rejoinder too on the nose.

Obama has been a good president where gay issues are concerned, has supported anti-hate crimes legislation and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." But marriage equality is the Rubicon he has not yet brought himself to cross. He should start crossing.

Not that doing the right thing should be a matter of public opinion, but support for marriage equality is climbing toward the majority. Voices of fear are being shouted down, winds of change are blowing, and we approach a crossroads of possibility where the need for leadership is critical.

Two words of advice, then, for President Obama:

Evolve faster.


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. E-mail him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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