President Barack Obama thundered to the throngs at the recent LGBT Leadership Council fundraising bash in New York. “I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every couple in the country,” he said.
This was not hyperbole that he had to shout to one of the country’s most prominent and influential gay rights groups to get gay activists off his back about his opposition to gay marriage.
Despite the withering heat he has taken for that opposition, Obama has been the best friend that gays have ever had in the White House.
He backed gay rights in speeches and legislation more than a dozen times as an Illinois state legislator and U.S. senator. The record number of gay appointments, and the speed with which he’s made them, were just the extension of his personal and political conviction that discrimination against gays is every bit the civil rights issue that discrimination against women and minorities is.
He issued executive orders mandating that hospitals treat gay and lesbian couples the same as heterosexual ones, and at the same time expanded rights for gay couples who work in the federal government. He vigorously opposed Proposition 8, the California initiative that would have effectively banned gay marriage. He reversed his position on the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and calls it abhorrent.
But he won’t take the final step and directly say, “I support gay marriage and will back every effort in every state to pass a gay marriage law.” This refusal mystifies, rankles and angers gay rights organizations and is the single biggest stumbling block to them giving Obama their full-throated, all-out backing.
Obama may in time back gay marriage — he’s said his position is “evolving” — but it’s not going to happen just yet.
This would require Obama to reverse not his political thinking, but his fundamental and personal beliefs. He made that perfectly clear in a blog talk last October when he flatly said he wouldn’t sign on to same sex marriage because of his “understandings” of what traditional marriage should be. That’s the decades-old unambiguous and universally consecrated notion that marriage is and should only be between a man and a woman. It’s not just an antiquated, bigoted and rapidly discredited understanding that Obama refers to, and that he’s still stuck on.
Obama is no different from many other fiercely liberal, tolerant and broad-minded African Americans when it comes to diversity issues. But he, like many others, still can draw the line on gay marriage and that’s fueled by deeply ingrained notions of family, church and community, and the need to defend the terribly frayed and fragmented black family structure.
This mix of fear, belief and traditional family protectionism has long been a staple among many blacks and virtually every time the issue of legalizing gay marriage has been put to the ballot, or initiative, or a legal challenge, or just simply the topic of public debate, there has been no shortage of black ministers and public figures willing to rush to the defense of traditional marriage.
The warning signs that many blacks were susceptible to religious and conservative pitches to oppose gay marriage lit up in 1997. Then the late Green Bay Packers perennial all-pro defensive end Reggie White, an ordained fundamentalist minister, stirred a firestorm when he took a huge swipe at gay rights and gay marriage in a speech to the Wisconsin State Legislature.
White became the first celebrity black evangelical to say publicly what many black religious leaders said and believed privately about gay issues. Few blacks joined in the loud chorus that condemned his remarks.
A year before White’s outburst, a Pew Poll measured black attitudes toward gay marriage and found that blacks opposed it by an overwhelming margin. A CNN poll eight years later showed that anti-gay attitudes among blacks had softened at least publicly. But the line continued to be just as firmly drawn on same-sex marriage.
The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in polls in 2009 and 2010 found that blacks opposed same-sex marriage by gaping margins over whites or Hispanics. The finding was even more striking in that Pew also found that for the first time in the decade and a half that it had been polling Americans on attitudes toward gay rights (and that includes gay marriage) less than half of Americans opposed same-sex marriage.
It’s wrong-headed and wildly inaccurate to think that President Obama opposes same-sex marriage out of narrow religious belief, conservative family upbringing or a racial herd mentality that is unyielding on the traditional defense of family values. But it’s just as wrongheaded to say that none of these things have weighed and do weigh in the president’s unwillingness to take the final step and say yes to gay marriage.
Time will tell when he will finally change, but that time hasn’t come yet and there are reasons why.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a nationally syndicated columnist and an editor at New America Media.