Even watered down, Obama’s support for gay marriage is worth applauding

May 10, 2012

President Obama finally came out yesterday.

Whether he actually "evolved" is still a question for some, but his pronouncement in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage is without a doubt a historic moment.

It changes nothing as far actual civil rights are concerned. There are still 44 U.S. states in which same-sex marriage isn’t legal. There are a whole swath of southern states where queer people are actually in peril. (The Guardian in the UK did an amazing chart breaking down gay rights in the U.S. which you can see here.)

Think I’m kidding? Consider this: Though Illinois happily put me -- the non-gestational mom -- on my son’s birth certificate along with my birthing spouse, the state of Florida, where most of my family resides, wouldn’t have recognized us as equal parents without us also adopting him (which we have done).

Think this is a technicality? Consider that, without the adoption, if my son and I were hanging out with his very proud Cuban grandmother and something happened to him, neither she nor I would have the right in Florida to so much as a hospital visit, never mind the right to make medical decisions.

That’s peril.

Obama’s new position doesn’t change that. But when the most powerful man in the world takes a moral stand and declares it to the world, it comforts those of us who share it and gives pause, at least, to some of those who don’t. I’ll take that pause and welcome the conversation, if nothing else, this has wrought.

There’s still plenty to talk about, including what the president actually meant. You see, his position isn’t as clear as it seems. Look at his actual words:

At a certain point, I've just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.

Personally – in other words, there’s still a hedge, even though later on he says that if he’d been a state legislator in New York during the marriage equality debate, he would have voted for it.

And then there’s this, which is much more significant:
 

And what you're seeing is, I think, states working through this issue in fits and starts, all across the country. Different communities are arriving at different conclusions, at different times. And I think that's a healthy process and a healthy debate. And I continue to believe that this is an issue that is gonna be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what's recognized as a marriage try to make what has traditionally been a state issue into a national issue.


In other words, Obama here implicitly supports the North Carolina process if not it’s conclusion. Which, among other things, glosses over all federal marriage rights – including those of binational same sex couples. And that’s not small change: There are more than 1,000 rights and benefits associated with marriage, including taxation, Social Security and a whole mess of housing and healthcare issues.

More significantly, state-by-state cases on civil rights issues – as happened with slavery, voting rights, abortion rights and, of all things, interracial marriage – end up getting settled at the Supreme Court eventually because of their inherent federal interest.

In fact, as I write this, the California marriage equality case known as Prop 8 is heading straight to the Supreme Court, aiming to disrupt those state-by-state decisions by creating a federal mandate.

So: Should Obama’s sudden declaration of support even be applauded, given his own birth in a interrracial marriage that, at the time he was born, would have been illegal in most states?

Lord, yes. I’ll take enlightenment, however weak the light, whenever and wherever it comes.

I’ll have more tomorrow on this.