Marc Fisher: Practical Politicians Obama, Barry Draw Line at Gay Marriage

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By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When the history of this country's journey toward acceptance of same-sex marriage is written, much will be made of the startling swiftness with which one state after another embraced gay marriage in 2008 and 2009. A huge shift in popular attitudes toward homosexuality has happened in what history will eventually see as a blink of an eye.

But those same historians will find a dissonant note in this social revolution: What will they make of prominent leaders who rose to power as early advocates of gay rights but then tempered their views or reversed course just as the country was heading the other way? What's behind the strange turns in the public attitudes of D.C. Council member (and former mayor) Marion Barry and President Obama?

Barry was first elected mayor in 1978, in good part because he won the support of Washington's growing and vocal gay community. As then-city hall reporter Juan Williams wrote in The Washington Post, "Gay Washington's political clout was certified in 1978 when gays contributed money and volunteer campaign staff to help Marion Barry win a narrow victory in the Democratic primary for mayor."

In 1979, as The Post's Milton Coleman reported, even when 40 ministers crowded into Barry's office to complain that his presence at gay-sponsored events was encouraging homosexuality, the mayor insisted that the gay rights battle was "similar to the civil rights that blacks fought for in the 1950s and 1960s."

But last week, Barry cast the lone vote against a bill to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere and then stood in Freedom Plaza leading protesters in a chant of "Say no to same-sex marriage in D.C.!" He continued: "You can't just talk about it, brothers. You got to work for it. You got to go across the street and walk the halls of the city council. Confront all 12 of them, eye to eye -- eye to eye! Morality against immorality.''

In 1996, Barack Obama responded to a Chicago newspaper's questions about the issue with these words: "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."

Yet during his presidential campaign and on to today, the president has said his religious faith leads him to oppose same-sex marriage (he favors civil unions for homosexual couples).

Obama has characteristically reached out to the center, writing in his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope": "It is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided . . . and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history."

Here are two otherwise dependably liberal politicians retreating from positions that seemed bold and even fringy when they took their initial stands years ago. Do Barry and Obama really have deep religious qualms about same-sex marriage, or are they merely seeking a middle path on an issue that cleaves the nation? How much of a factor in their decisions is race -- especially after some gay rights advocates blamed black and Hispanic voters for last fall's vote in California to create a constitutional bar against marriage for same-sex couples? (Exit polling data indicates that the divide may have been more generational than ethnic or racial.)

In both Barry's and Obama's cases, the primary motive for their positions appears to be political.

Barry's claim to be "a moral politician" was catnip to the late-night TV comics. But he has positioned himself of late as the voice of pre-gentrification D.C. -- older black residents who feel that their city has been taken over by newcomers, especially affluent young whites. Add the faceoff between Barry and Mayor Adrian Fenty -- whose deepest support comes from exactly those newcomers -- and you have a compelling political rationale for Barry's flip.

The president's position is also rooted in electoral concerns, including the simple desire to be true to a campaign stance that helped him demonstrate that he is not a knee-jerk liberal. Just as Obama's selection of evangelical minister Rick Warren to deliver the prayer at his inauguration raised the hackles of many liberal and gay supporters, the president's stand on same-sex marriage sends a message of moderation to religious voters, even as he assures gays that he supports them on civil unions and repealing the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Despite the rhetoric of campaigns, change rarely begins in Washington; it bubbles up from below. Politicians such as Obama and Barry won't hesitate to go where the people are when the time is right. But on difficult and divisive issues, they're happier to hold back until the people have spoken. Call it timidity, call it craven, but it's how things work.

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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