by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
On May 9, President Obama startled the nation when he gave an interview to ABC-TV stating in no uncertain terms that his long period of “evolution” over whether he was willing to support marriage equality for same-sex couples was over. Obama said, “Over the course of several years, as I talked to friends and families and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous … 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 … because they’re not able to commit themselves in a marriage; at a certain point I’ve just concluded that … it’s important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
It may not have been that big a revelation to long-time Obama-watchers. Shortly after his announcement a quote surfaced from a questionnaire from the Chicago Queer paper Outlines he’d filled out during his first Illinois State Senate campaign in 1996, in which he’d said, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” But it’s one thing to say that as an obscure candidate for the back bench of a state legislature, and quite another to say it as a sitting President facing a tough re-election campaign. It was a stunning act of political courage, especially from a chronically cautious, risk-averse politician like Obama.
Though polls taken since his announcement have indicated that 67 percent of respondents think Obama came out for marriage equality “mostly for political reasons,” versus only 24 percent who say it was “mostly because he thinks it is right,” it’s hard to see much potential gain for Obama and easy to see substantial risk. The same polling indicated that, though most voters said Obama’s support for marriage equality wouldn’t affect their vote in November either way, 26 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for Obama and only 16 percent said it would make it more likely.
The Los Angeles Times reported on May 22 that Gallup’s tracking polls for May 1-7, just before Obama’s announcement showed Mitt Romney leading Obama 47 to 44 percent — essentially a statistical tie — and the same polls for May 15-21 showed an identical 47-44 percent margin for Romney. Times reporter David Lauter concluded that the issue had had “zero” impact on Obama’s chances for re-election, but even that is deceptive.
As we all remember from the 2000 election, you don’t win the presidency by getting more popular votes than anyone else. You win it by getting more Electoral College votes than anyone else, and since they are awarded state-by-state, that means you have to get more votes than anyone else in enough states to give you at least 270 electoral votes. Same-sex marriage is relevant to this equation because Obama’s support for marriage equality is likely to help him in cosmopolitan states like New York, Massachusetts and California — places he was likely to carry anyway and additional votes aren’t going to do him a damned bit of good.
It’s going to hurt him — perhaps even kill him — in the so-called “battleground states,” particularly in the South. Obama made his announcement just one day after North Carolina voters passed a sweeping anti-marriage amendment by a 22-point margin. (Need I remind my readers that every state whose voters have had a chance to vote on marriage equality — including California, twice — has rejected it?) This bill not only banned legal recognition of same-sex marriages, it also forbade domestic partnerships, civil unions and any acknowledgment of legal rights between unmarried partners, straight or Queer. North Carolina was one of the three former Confederate states Obama picked off from the Republicans in 2008 — the others were Virginia and Florida — and it’s where he chose to hold the 2012 Democratic National Convention. His pro-marriage stance is likely to send the entire South back into the solidly Republican column where it was (with the arguable exception of Florida in 2000) in both of George W. Bush’s elections.
I’m sure Obama is a savvy enough politician to realize that a stand for marriage equality is going to cost him more than it gains him in the electoral arena. About the only good it’s done him so far is shaken a little more money from wealthy Queer donors — and even that’s probably not going to do much to change the financial equation of the 2012 election. Obama’s campaign is still going to have scads of money in direct donations, and Romney will still have the aid of secret multi-millionaire donations to the supposedly “independent” super-PAC’s which crushed his Republican opponents and will more than neutralize Obama’s advantage in candidate-controlled campaign funding. Obama’s stance will also hurt him among homophobic African-American ministers who supported him enthusiastically in 2008 but who this time around, though they’re hardly likely to back Romney, may well either sit out the election (and encourage their congregations to do so) or give Obama a tepid endorsement at best.
So if Obama didn’t come out for marriage equality in 2012 for politically opportunistic reasons, why did he? I think he finally reached his “aha” moment, in which — like other prominent politicians, including San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders — he realized he simply couldn’t go on saying that one group of people in one sort of family were “better” than other people in other families and therefore entitled to greater legal rights. And, by his own account, he reached that moment because he was surrounded by a lot of Queer people in loving, committed relationships that clearly meant as much to them as his own relationship does to him. (In Mayor Sanders’ case, it was his own Lesbian daughter who brought him to that awareness.) If nothing else, this underscores the importance of Queer people being as “out” as possible to their families, friends and employers; as we’ve known for decades, the more Queer people someone knows, the less likely they are to hate and fear us as somehow “other” than them.
I can identify with Obama’s “evolution” on marriage equality because I’ve gone through something like it myself. By coincidence, around the time of his announcement I was looking at my journal notes on a December 2004 screening of a film called Freedom to Marry, and I was stunned that even though I’d been with my current partner (now my lawfully wedded husband!) for nearly a decade, I wrote after that movie that “I don’t feel particularly invested (in either sense of the word — philosophical or financial) in the same-sex marriage issue,” and added that even before the November 2004 election, in which Bush’s victory was often attributed to the religious Right’s use of anti-marriage initiatives to mobilize conservative voters, “I had a weird ambivalence towards the speed with which [marriage equality] had become the defining feature of Queer liberation.”
Yet when the California Supreme Court opened the window for Charles and I to get married in 2008, we both leaped through it — and now I’m a member of the steering committee of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) and, to paraphrase the National Rifle Association’s famous rallying cry, they can pry Charles’ and my marriage license from our cold, dead hands. And I would hope that Obama’s marriage equality announcement will put an end once and for all to the delusion of many of my Leftist friends (including some of my colleagues in S.A.M.E.) that there’s “no difference” between Democrats and Republicans and therefore it doesn’t matter who wins this year’s election. The choice is clear: Barack Obama, who says, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married” — or Mitt Romney, who says, “I will fight for an amendment to our Constitution that defines marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman.”