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In an interview with ABC news, President Barack Obama today announced that he now supports gay marriage. That this position will likely play a key role in his upcoming re-election campaign seems pretty clear, and I seriously doubt that the timing of the revelation is any kind of coincidence.
Now, in practical terms I want to state from the beginning that, since marriage is a state-sanctioned social institution in this country, I support opening the institution of marriage to any two adults who want to enter into that relationship across the United States. For the government to allow certain adult couples to marry but not others is transparently state discrimination.
There have been numerous, thoughtful critiques of the role gay marriage has taken on in the last decade as the single, primary goal of the mainstream gay rights movement (often called the LGBTI movement these days, however let’s be clear where the focus is when it comes to this issue). For example, Sarah Schulman wrote today that the narrow focus on marriage issues represents a type of assimilationist trend in gay politics that has emerged in the wake of the AIDS crisis. She writes
In its origins, the Gay Liberation movement arose to change society, to expand rigid gender roles, to break down confining social mores of privatized families and to defy the consumerism that accompanies monogamy and nuclear family lifestyle in the United States. It stood for sexual expression based on consensual desires, and community based relationships in tandem with monogamous and non-monogamous couples.
However, the assimilation trend has rather resulted that
…instead of changing society, society changed us – and – on the surface- we now have lost a great deal of our specificity and are so recognizable to straight people that even the most powerful heterosexual in the world, Barack Obama is confidently unthreatened enough to endorse equal marriage rights.
I think these are really compelling considerations when it comes to this issue. However, there are also those that have pointed to the fact that marriage is a religious institution in the first place in which the state should play no role. Hence, the state institution we call ‘marriage’ should simply be removed and replaced with civil partnership, which of course should be open to whichever individuals want to enter into that. Personally, that makes sense to me.
So while I do in fact support gay marriage, as it is presently the only ‘game in town’ so to speak, I have reservations about that state endorsing what really is in fact a religious institution. For one thing, it seems clear to me that state marriage itself represents a violation of separation of church and state, and I think when you open the door on that one issue, it’s easy for other religious influence to enter into our political system.
But what bugs me more about this than anything though is how transparent it is in this moment that Obama has little of substance to offer to people who invested their hopes in him, and to the people across the U.S. who are struggling to get by. To me, the timing of this announcement makes clear this is little more than a re-election gimmick. And because Obama has the “courage” to say something he could have been saying all along (setting aside for the moment concerns about the institution of marriage itself) many so-called progressives will cheer him along, even as his campaign team reportedly considers launching his re-election campaign from Bank of America stadium in my birth state of North Carolina.
More than anything, this `evolution’ represents a failure to adequately deal with the gradually worsening health care problems the nation faces, a failure to evolve the nation’s foreign policy in a significantly different direction than his predecessor, a failure to reign in the military-industrial complex money hole, and a failure to reform the tax code so that the wealthiest Americans actually have to pay their share.
In the grand scheme of things, all of those issues affect queers and trans people more significantly than the gay marriage issue. And if Obama really gives in to the austerity measures that the Republicans are demanding, that will affect many far more so than the question of marriage, particularly queers and trans people of color.
And if Obama had succeeded on even one of those issues that I mentioned above, this gimmick of an evolution would be unnecessary for his campaign to have a chance in November.