Obama needs to move now on marriage equality

Almost exactly 42 years ago, the modern gay rights movement exploded in New York with the historic Stonewall riots. In 1969, homosexuality was still considered a psychiatric disorder, homosexual acts were illegal in 49 states and “gay bars,” like the Stonewall Inn, were often raided by police.

On one particular night in June 1969, the patrons at the Stonewall Inn refused to choose between leaving the bar or going to jail. Instead, when a contingency of police officers raided the Greenwich Village bar, they were taken aback by the uncharacteristic resistance that ensued. The raids lasted for five days, captivated a nation intent on protesting social inequities and sparked the formation of the first major national gay activist groups.

Now, the gay rights movement has come home. On June 24, the New York State Senate passed a law permitting all citizens in New York to marry, regardless of sexual orientation.

With the undeniable momentum behind marriage equality in the United States, now is the time for President Barak Obama to stop waffling on the issue. Now is the time for President Obama to take off the shades of political correctness and moral incertitude and come out in support of the major civil rights battle of his presidency.

If he doesn’t, if he continues to straddle the middle-ground where he uses the gay community for its fundraising potential while appeasing the parts of America where railing against marriage gets politicians votes, this will be an unforgivable blemish on his historical track-record.

It will serve as a question mark to future generations of Americans who will challenge why the nation’s first black president could not bring himself to support those fighting for their inalienable rights, just like African-Americans fought to fulfill America’s founding ideals during the 1950s and 60s.

Obama’s position on marriage equality is almost entirely rooted in the political calculation he promised he would avoid as president. Yet, the White House is looking at the numbers in a static way instead of with the dynamism they deserve.

Inevitably, public opinion is decidedly moving toward support for marriage equality. According to Nate Silver, political blogger and statistician, only one of the polls conducted in the last year showed opposition above 50 per cent.

While one can argue that support is soft, no one will be able to argue that in a few years. Not only is support increasing but it is trending upward at a rate political strategists weren’t predicting even months ago.

Silver notes that support for same-sex marriage was rising at about one percentage point a year between 2000 and 2008. In 2009 and 2010, however, support rose at a rate of four percentage points in each year – an increase from 42 per cent at the end of 2008 to 50 per cent now, nudging into majority territory.

Assuming that this rate of growth continues – which is not even a safe assumption since these numbers could suggest exponential growth in the coming years – 2012 could see decided majority support for marriage equality and the next presidential season in 2016 could see support plunging through the 60 per cent mark. It is not unforeseeable that two out of every three Americans could support marriage equality in just two election cycles.

What’s even more remarkable is the increase in support among Democrats. Between 2009 and 2011, support for marriage equality rose 13 per cent among those voters. Extrapolating that trend, the 70 per cent of Democrats that believe in marriage equality now could grow to over 90 per cent in 2016. If someone wants to be nominated in 2016, they better be decidedly pro-marriage.

There is no serious political analyst who doesn’t believe that President Obama, former constitutional lawyer, community organizer and former state senator who once even offered a tepid endorsement of same-sex marriage, does not in his heart of hearts believe in this cause. His refusal to jump on board wholeheartedly reeks of political calculation (more likely miscalculation) and is symptomatic of the weariness and political tiptoeing that has plagued this administration at legislative turning points.

One day soon, when the floodgates to same-sex marriage open with rapid fashion in America, President Obama need not be caught in the fray of a seemingly comfortable status-quo underestimating the power of resistance, much like the officers who expected to easily subdue the patrons at the Stonewall Inn in 1969.

This is an opportunity for him to
cement his legacy as a reformist
President instead of a tepid one. He
need not exist in the history books
alongside the Congressmen and Senators
who resisted civil rights legislation
in the 1960s. He need not resist a
policy which Americans are rapidly
embracing anyway.

If he does, he risks being overshadowed by a future generation of Americans who are unafraid of the political calculations, who are true opinion-leaders not just followers. The lesson of courage lies in that type of leadership – the risky kind that doesn’t stop to consider every minute detail of the political fallout. The Stonewall riots weren’t endlessly calculated or carefully planned and yet they were the single most defining moment in the gay rights struggle, responsible for causing an outcry from Americans of different backgrounds and beliefs who had been previously complacent with the status quo. Obama must want a place in the history books alongside civil rights crusaders like them.

He should go earn it.

Comments are closed.