By James Kirchick
Sunday, August 2, 2009; B02
Last month, former president Bill Clinton joined the increasing number of Democratic politicians who publicly back same-sex marriage. Granted, Clinton's endorsement -- offered in response to a questioner at a Washington conference for liberal college activists -- was heavily qualified: Clinton said he is "basically in support" of providing legal recognition to gay couples. This latter-day epiphany from the man who signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions, earned warm praise from gay activists. "I personally support people doing what they want to do," Clinton said, and people seemed to believe his apparent change of heart.
Others, however, claimed to know that he has been for gay marriage all along. Kerry Eleveld, Washington correspondent for the Advocate, wrote that "no one ever really believed [Clinton] opposed marriage equality. Call it craven politics, but everyone knows Clinton signed DOMA into law before the '96 election to avoid a potential GOP family-values offensive at the ballot box." Eleveld and others contend that support for same-sex marriage among liberal elected officials is a given. It's just that pesky political exigencies prevent them from publicly expressing their "real" beliefs.
There's no doubt that part of Clinton's motivation for signing DOMA was to prevent the Republican Party from using it as a wedge issue. But whether or not that law went against his actual convictions, it is part of Clinton's legacy to the gay community, along with "don't ask, don't tell." Repealing both is the most important task of the gay rights movement today.
When it comes to same-sex marriage, the movement can't count on support from the current president either. When White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about Clinton's comments, he told reporters that his boss "does not support" same-sex marriage. "He supports civil unions," Gibbs assured. And despite President Obama's statement that he opposes the ban on gays serving openly in the military, Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings (Fla.) last week said that the White House pressured him to withdraw an amendment that would have prohibited funds from being spent on investigating "don't ask, don't tell" violations.
Even if Obama does in fact believe in marriage equality, he hasn't done -- and is unlikely to do -- much to forward the cause. And apart from some toothless sniping from a handful of gay activists and donors, he seems to be getting away with it. In this way, the presumed (yet secret) good intentions of Democrats can wind up doing more harm than good: They tell the gay community that Democrats are at least better than the GOP, thus providing an excuse that can be employed endlessly while they stall.
This trust in covert backing from liberal elected officials is an article of faith among most supporters of same-sex marriage. In a recent interview with Newsweek, gay playwright Tony Kushner spoke of Obama's secret belief in the righteousness of same-sex marriage as if it were painfully obvious. "Pbbbht! Of course he's in favor of gay marriage!" Kushner exclaimed. His views were echoed by Steve Hildebrand, a gay political consultant who served as Obama's deputy national campaign director. "I do believe that in his heart he will fight his tail off until we've achieved full equality in the gay community," he told journalist Rex Wockner. I've lost track of the number of liberal friends and acquaintances, gay and straight alike, who assure me that Obama "really" supports same-sex marriage and, furthermore, that this point is obvious.
How can they be so sure? People want to like political leaders, and when someone as charismatic as Clinton or Obama comes along, it's easy to ignore the facts that get in the way of an idealized image. That liberal politicians are indifferent -- if not outright opposed -- to same-sex marriage stands at utter odds with liberals' notion of an enlightened community of like-minded progressives. "Does anybody actually believe that Barack Obama and Michelle Obama think that we shouldn't have -- that this man who is a constitutional-law scholar -- is it a complicated issue?" Kushner sputtered, as if anyone who disagreed were an imbecile.
Because people such as Kushner view political liberalism as a positive personality trait and not just a worldview, they assume that someone who opposed the Iraq war and sees himself as a "citizen of the world" would also believe in the right of gays to marry. People cannot conceive that such a cosmopolitan and eloquent man as Obama would disagree with them on an issue that they consider a no-brainer.
This is convenient for liberals because it allows them to deflect blame from politicians they like onto those they don't, namely conservatives, the sincerity of whose opposition to same-sex marriage they never challenge. If only Republicans desisted in their homophobia, this narrative goes, justifiably timid liberals would come out of their closets of prevarication, so to speak, and support gay marriage unambiguously.
Framing gay rights as a strictly partisan issue also allows liberals to obscure the awkward fact that while they are more likely than conservatives to support same-sex marriage, a key Democratic constituency, African Americans, overwhelmingly opposes it.
Obama's history on the issue does have a complicating twist. On a 1996 Illinois Senate race questionnaire, Obama (or more likely a staffer) wrote, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." Liberals take from this revelation the assumption that Obama's apparent flip was insincere.
But there is nothing in his record since he became a national political figure that should give them any reason to think he will revert to his supposedly pro-gay-marriage position. And if Obama actually does believe in same-sex marriage, that makes his public opposition to it worse than it would be if he were genuinely opposed. How is it in any way reassuring to liberals to suppose that a politician agrees with them while selling them down the river? Even if Obama's apparent flip isn't genuine, he nonetheless acts as if it were, rendering his supposedly silent support worthless in tangible political terms. Whatever he "really" thinks, Obama's stance on gay marriage is virtually indistinguishable from that of John McCain.
For some time, liberal politicians have taken a largely wink-and-nod approach to gay issues. They've done so with the excuse that the culture must catch up before any progress can be made (an excuse that conveniently doesn't apply to other liberal interest groups, such as unions and trial lawyers, that do very well when Democrats are in power). Obama paid tribute to this timeworn tactic recently when he told gay activists at the White House: "I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, but by the promises my administration keeps. By the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration."
Talking about "feelings" is a cuddly liberal pastime, and Obama's promise conjures up the phrase that Clinton famously entered into our political lexicon when he told an angry AIDS activist, "I feel your pain." Maybe now, when it comes to same-sex marriage, he finally does. But it would be nice to have a sitting president whose feelings translate into action.
James Kirchick is an assistant editor of the New Republic and a contributing writer to the Advocate.