Marriage Equality, Obama, Jurisdiction
Jul 16, 2011

Marriage Equality, Obama, Jurisdiction

Which of these sounds like a true leader, a president one can get behind: the man who strongly and emphatically declares what he thinks is morally right and acts accordingly, or the man who tries to make enough small improvements in the right direction to appease his supporters but not state his "evolving" belief clearly for fear of angering the opposition? I will let the reader decide which best characterizes Obama's position on marriage equality, but to me it feels like I am being dangled carrots and not given the full declaration of the need for marriage equality out of a political sense of appeasing the rightwing base which, newsflash, has already successfully painted Obama as an out of control liberal and nothing is going to change that.

To be sure, there have been many important steps in the right direction including making sexual orientation have protection from discrimination, repealing the extremely bigoted policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the military, speaking for the It Gets Better campaign, and dropping the administrations legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act. He deserves applause for this, but it simply does not go far enough. The time has come to say the four little words: I support marriage equality. Sorry, Mr. President, but anything short of this is insufficient.

Take Obama's justification to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act. It wasn't because he feels the act is morally wrong. It was allegedly because of a technical quirk of the constitution: the finicky issue of jurisdiction. The claim is that marriage equality ought to be left up to the states and not the federal government (because Obama is obviously a huge advocate of minimal federal powers and states responsibility, groan). What this does is take the morality out of the issue. That said, this move by Obama is widely interpreted as being a big victory for the gay rights movement and everyone talks as if he is doing this because he feels the act is morally wrong, not because the fundamental problem is one of jurisdiction.

To me, moral issues cannot be determined by questions of jurisdiction. It doesn't matter to me whether gay marriage is approved at the federal or state level, as long as it is approved. It is fine to use jurisdictional differences as a strategy; one might say letting the states deal with the issue is the most effective level to expect change or that constitutional challenges make states the better place to fight the battle. Without the declaration of being pro marriage equality, however, Obama deserves zero credit on the moral issue. Let us take his words at face value which means that for now dropping the legal defense for DOMA only scores him points on supporting states rights and leaving moral decisions to the jurisdiction of states, not points for marriage equality.

To balance this discussion about gay marriage, it is worth noting that there are many other gay rights issues quite far removed from this. Take, for example, the fact that perhaps 40% of homeless youth self identify as LGBT. As important as marriage equality is, the often unilateral focus it gets as the major gay rights issue results in a distraction form some of these other issues like LGBT youth and the very serious and widespread suffering that they experience. As important as Obama's speaking for the It Gets Better campaign was, policy debate on the issue of LGBT youth is effectively nonexistent.

It is possible that Obama will be a one term presidency. If so, he has to wonder about his legacy. Does he really want to be the first black president, trumpeting and symbolizing equality, yet unable or unwilling for political reasons to come to the correct side of history and take a stand for marriage equality? If he genuinely does not think it is morally right, shame on him. But if he is doing it as a product of a political calculus, I simply ask that he remembers to factor in his legacy.

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