Commentary 17 May 2012 05:35 pm
Regarding President Obama’s recent support of gay marriage, a first for a sitting president: It’s about time.
His critics, however, say it’s less about time and more about timing. Obama’s declaration that same-sex couples deserve the right to marry comes as his opponent, Mitt Romney, finds himself mired in a bullying scandal from his prep-school days when he and some fellow thugs hunted, held down and cut the hair of a gay student. Discerning citizens might call Romney’s unprovoked assault a hate crime, but his supporters just wink, elbow one another and invoke the age-old mantra of schoolyard oppression, “Boys will be boys.” The president’s overdue announcement makes him look positively progressive next to this Neanderthal.
Obama’s “evolution” also comes at a convenient time to distract voters from substantive issues of the economy, which after three years of his shepherding is still ugly. If the employment rate were a hospital patient, it would be on life support, its pulse described as thready, and doctors would be telling nurses to round up the family for a tearful bedside farewell. But Obama’s same-sex marriage announcement guaranteed that press coverage this week and last focused less on the moribund economy and more on the kinda-sorta-but-not-really hot-button issue (as far as November is concerned) of gay marriage, one that won’t necessarily gain or lose the president very many votes.
So, yes, Obama’s pronouncement could be chalked up to political expediency. But you know what? Call me naïve or Pollyannaish or a bleeding heart liberal or whatever, but I prefer to take his supposed flip-flop at face value: He’s a good man who’s been unsure of where he stands until recently and now has decided unequivocally that gays deserve the same marriage rights afforded heterosexual couples.
And hooray for him for saying it.
For the last few weeks, my freshman classes have been reading Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and it’s almost impossible not to draw comparisons between the novel’s theme of universal rights for all people and the uphill battle fought by gays and lesbians for equality under the law.
In “Mockingbird,” blacks are the mistreated minority, unable to get a fair shake and considered less respectable than even the trashiest whites in Lee’s fictional town of Maycomb. In one scene, 8-year-old Scout recognizes the hypocrisy of her third-grade teacher, incensed by Hitler’s mistreatment of the Jews but simultaneously of the opinion that blacks in Maycomb are “gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us,” with the “us” meaning white people.
Miscegenation was at the heart of many Americans’ distrust and fear of blacks, and a similar anxiety seems to motivate our feelings toward gays and lesbians today. Once you get past the biblical injunctions — and remember that for generations the Bible and religion were used to justify slavery, the most egregious denial of universal rights and respect — a baseline fear is that allowing gays to marry will somehow “legitimize” homosexuality, which could creep into our own neighborhoods like weeds into an unwatched garden.
But just as in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where children see injustice more clearly than their elders, it is the younger generation that will put to right our foolishness. The vast majority of my students demonstrate an acceptance of same-sex relationships that would likely scandalize the good voters of North Carolina, who struck such a decisive blow against equality last week by enshrining a prohibition against gay marriage in that state’s constitution. It is our children who will one day strike down all such laws and guarantee that, just as we no longer judge people by skin color, we no longer deny them rights (and rites) of marriage based on gender preference.
When that day comes, those of us privileged enough to witness it will look back in wonder at how bitter the fight has been to reach such an obvious and foregone conclusion, and we will be collectively ashamed of how long it took for common sense to trump bigotry, fear and hatred.
No matter if President Obama’s declaration is political stunt or deeply held conviction, if it hastens that day, then it’s more than welcome.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published May 17, 2012, in The Alliance Review