Last month, The Y contacted some of our loyal friends and contributors about President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage. We called for an educated response to the developing news: what—historically, politically, personally—does Obama's statement mean to us? Here are five answers to that very question.
Queers, Are We Still Here?
Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage is, for me, an occasion to yawn. It was inevitable. Eventually the President, in his breathtaking and somewhat unsettling political suppleness, was going to realize that staying above the fray would not be a good look. The announcement I'm sure has conservative activists writhing with peptic displeasure, as much as it has given the LGBT community a moment, however brief, to smile.
But I'm still left feeling cold. His stamp of approval, and indeed the entire same-sex marriage project, is unimaginative. Here we are at a historical moment when for the first time, the discussion of rights of gays, lesbians, blacks, whites, blues, oranges, etc. etc. is casual, ubiquitous, and most importantly, persistent. We have computers and phones and live feeds and status updates, little whirring soapboxes in every pocket and on every bedstand. Queerness in politics is no longer an academic exercise in the postmodern age.
So where are all the alternatives to marriage? Where are the scores of non-profits flush with cash that advocate for the adoption rights of unmarried domestic partners, or the disincentivizing of marriage through irresponsible tax breaks, or health coverage for the lovers of people who don't want to get married ever, not in a million years?
I think a little bit of historicizing is in order here. A quick glance at a marriage's heritage reveals that encouraging marriage primarily for love is a fairly recent invention in the global North, and whether it is discussed as such in the global South is still an open question. Until the mid-20th Century, it was by and large a tool of political economy, used to consolidate power, transfer property, and formalize division of labor in gender relations.
Thus marriage was, and continues to be, an instrument of state. So why the fixation on this institution (an increasingly brittle one at that) and not on others, like housing, healthcare, and workers' rights for queers? Jasbir Puar calls it homonationalism: the gay rights movement transitioned into the mainstream so rapidly by pinning its 21st-century platform to discourses of reproduction and kinship, discourses that allow it to blend seamlessly with already standing notions of marriage as the basic constituent of a productive and healthy society. Marriage is, at its heart, the most intimate articulation of labor relations that suit the state's hard power, while carrying its soft power around with it at all times.
And the kicker is, the most vocal segments of the LGBT community are rolling with it. Somehow, inexplicably, we have moved past a politics of identity—we threw rocks and breathed fire and each of us lived our difference and loved it, too—into an identity of shared politics, an identity without any give, obsessed with geometric notions of belonging: centers, peripheries, sanded-down edges for enhanced portability. As a queer man, I often find myself being asked to speak for a multitude. My opinion on gay rights is the opinion of every gay man in America. That is not so. Yet the number of times my friends, gay or straight, have raised their hands in holy horror when I mention these idea to them leaves me feeling isolated, not independent or enfranchised.
Do I condemn same-sex marriage? Absolutely not. Each one, teach one. But I am here to tell you that a broad critique of same-sex marriage can arise from the Left, too.
Raillan Brooks is a contributing writer to The Y. He is the managing editor of The College Hill Independent and is currently an editorial intern at Next American City. He is a rising senior at Brown University.
Victory is Bittersweet
I should be up front here: Obama announcing his endorsement of marriage equality on national television is what a good friend of mine would call a BD—a big deal. Go, Barack, go—go Dems, go blue, go team. Seriously.
But it also is what my friend herself would call fucking depressing. Not his endorsement itself, of course, but the fact that it is, indeed, such a whopping BD. The president did not go on national television and demand legislation recognizing marriage as a fundamental right; he can hardly be said to have sounded a call to arms. No. Instead, Barack Obama, graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, former civil rights attorney, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, president of the free world, went on national television and told us about…the Golden Rule.
Apparently, he and Michelle have figured out a way to be practicing Christians who also support same-sex marriage, because, as it turns out, Christianity is not just about “Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf”—it’s also about…say it with me…the Golden Rule. I realize, of course, that there’s something ingenious about using his Christianity as an argument for marriage equality, and that, strategically, the terms in which he made his announcement are wonderfully accessible and unscary to a lot of people in this country who aren’t me, but also aren’t totally crazy and completely opposed to same-sex marriage.
This is huge. I get that. I really do. And I know that it’s important to make sure people realize this is a big deal, to make sure that people our age living in collegiate bubbles of tolerance understand that we are nowhere near done with this fight. But as a non-religious American, who might very well want to marry a woman one day, who believes that gay rights are not just civil rights but human rights, who has a dorkily giant/giantly dorky framed Barack Obama “Hope” poster hanging in her room, who was born in the 20th century but came of age in the 21st, I see the tremendous response provoked by what, to my young and naïve self seems like such a remarkably untremendous statement—that we should treat other as we would like to be treated and therefore we should give same-sex couples the right to marry—and I can’t help but get very, very sad.
Emma Schindler is a contributing writer to The Y. She is a managing editor at The Yale Herald. She is currently a rising junior at Yale University.
Barack Obama. Illustration by Peter Falls
While Serving Up Justifications, A Lesson Is More Veiled
When I first watched the televised interview of President Obama ‘coming out’ for gay marriage, I was disappointed—it wasn’t a pretty sight. And not only because he seemed to be playing catch-up to a staff he wants to appear to command (as the announcement came off the heels of Biden’s “comfortable” position), or because he has felt more like a faithful lagger than an unabashed leader for marriage equality. It was uncomfortable to hear Obama explain himself.
Obama’s justifications about his positions both past and present seemed to fizzle a bit as he balanced both with almost equal weight. For instance, he noted that he had been sensitive that the word marriage evokes “powerful traditions”. Then, to counterbalance this, he explained that gay couples are fit to uphold these traditions as they too can commit themselves to monogamous relationships. Should the precondition for the right to marry really be evaluated on monogamy instead of this being a broader human right? While Hillary Clinton made a roaring speech about human rights being gay rights and being on the right side of history a few months earlier, by comparison Obama’s appeal was particularly unmoving.
Obama’s language was couched in how personal this decision was, “for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead…I think...” [italics mine], as if to repeatedly clarify, “not that anyone else should feel this way!” It felt too insecure for such a looming and polarizing issue and too self-effacing (as if to anticipate backlash) for being POTUS.
Obama’s brand of “evolution” has been so personal that it shies away from shaping policy. He has not proposed legislation for marriage equality, much less called for the repeal of DOMA, which he merely says he will not defend.
But despite all of this, something promising happened in Maryland (as pointed out by Rachel Maddow). A referendum on marriage equality will be voted on at the ballot box in November. Maryland voters had a twelve point swing in favor of same-sex marriage in only two months when polled between March and May. But even more shocking, black voters have made an unprecedented thirty-six point swing for gay rights. It’s as if it would take a black president coming out to a black reporter as taking a stance on a civil rights issue for something like this to happen.
Having this moment with Robin Roberts instead of with the women on The View—the original plan before Biden-gate—was well devised. While O seemed to be serving justifications catered to some groups, such as Catholics, gays, etc., his announcement also represented a crucial teaching moment about civil rights for others. Surprisingly, what he left in his wake was actually deeper than policy.
Jake Loeterman is a contributing writer to The Y. He is a recent graduate of Vassar College, where he majored in Art History. He is currently studying to take the MCAT in the fall.
Should Gay Rights Be Compared to Civil Rights?
President Obama “coming out” in support of gay marriage was an unnecessarily necessary act; everyone knew it, we were all just waiting for it to be said. Like many people, when I heard the news, my first reaction was, “finally,” followed by a twinge of fear at the thought of this costing him the election. I dealt with my apprehension though by trading it with utter denial: “Americans aren’t that prejudiced anymore…right?”
In an attempt to both understand and put an end to marriage inequality, racial inequality, particularly towards African-Americans, is often invoked as a comparison. Some hopefuls see the civil rights movement as proof that with a good fight, American’s can enforce lasting change. In reality though, racism didn’t end when the civil rights movement did and homophobia won’t end because Obama finally endorsed gay marriage, or when it is wholly legalized.
“One day, not long from now,” writes Margaret Talbot for the New Yorker in response to Obama’s statement, “ it will be hard to remember what worried people so much about gay and lesbian couples committing themselves to marriage.”
It is a tempting sentiment, but also a controversial one, useful in drawing attention to the fact that inequality is “so last century” but also perhaps reductive to the plight of African Americans during the civil rights movement. Many people, both black and white, argue for example that the two movements are incomparable because unlike blacks – whose race for the most part is obviously visible – the gay community can “mask” their sexuality, making their struggle somehow “easier.” In the end, there is no argument to be had simply because gay rights are civil rights. Trying to decide who had or has it worse is unproductive and insulting to both groups. In theory, links should be made between the two movements, literally and figuratively, in order to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself. The problem is that it already has.
The notion that we have found a way to create inequalities from a movement for equal rights leads me to sadly doubt Talbot’s statement. Even with a pro-gay marriage, black president in the White House, America is far from being a land where all men and women are created equal. Rather than fostering hope for the future, the recent comparisons between civil rights and gay rights have instead reminded me that America was prejudiced before, is still prejudiced now, and will probably continue to be for a long, long time.
Emilia Petrarca is a contributing writer to The Y. She is currently an editorial intern at Lifestyle Mirror and Elizabeth Street. She was formerly head of editorial and blog content for Contrast Magazine and art editor for Helicon Magazine at Vassar College, where she is currently a junior.
Follow-Up Questions For Our President
What does Obama owe us, his constituents? What does he owe us, his queer constituents? What does Obama owe me, who at seventeen invested so much time, energy, hope, self—everything short of a vote—in his election?
What does Obama owe those queers who cannot or will not (yet) organize a constituency? Those very queers, I mean, who will not be getting married, who will not benefit from it, who are too busy (to quote Zoe Leonard) being "unemployed and laid off and sexually harassed and gaybashed and deported"? Though yes, of course, Obama has made statements in support of these, too.
And what about the young ones? The queers who in ten or twenty years might be of a marrying mind but right now are just tired, and scared; the ones who more than a marriage license want just to lay down that fear, that risk of being refused, negated, denied, rejected, kicked out, kicked, homeless, sick; the ones who are sick of it? Will Obama have their backs on the subway, in the schoolyard, down the back alley, at the home that doesn’t feel like one; when they’re taunted, will he holler back? If Obama promises me he will, or at least that he will try (has he already, in so many words?), will he have made good, will I be paid off?
And what obligation, what mutual back-scratching, what obscured arithmetic got us from Obama's thirty-second sound bite to his anointment by Andrew Sullivan as the “First Gay President”? Which equation proves the bold—more modifiers: presumptuous, reductionist, essentialist, exclusionary, offensive, not mine, not mine, not mine—conclusion, “This is the gay experience,” and does Obama know it as intimately as Sullivan needs him to? Obama, is Sullivan right, can we trust marriage to “heal, integrate, and rebuild a soul” (not mine, not mine, not mine)?
And what do we owe Obama? What do I, now-voting queer twenty-one-year-old with no marriage ambitions, no wedding tux, no broken soul to heal, no "gay experience" with which to dovetail, owe him? Patience, for one, and understanding. Optimism, perhaps, and—can I say it, still, without sounding seventeen years old?—hope. Good enough? Not quite. But good.
Samuel Huber is a contributing writer to The Y. His article "Marriage, Disavowed" appeared in Issue 2. He is executive editor at Broad Recognition, and an editorial assistant at The Yale Review. He has contributed to Bookforum. He is also currently an intern at The Feminist Press at CUNY. He is a rising senior at Yale University.