Obama, marriage, race, rights

I had brunch today with the kids who changed the President’s mind. If you’ll remember, when Barack Obama ten days ago declared his support for same-sex marriage, he cited “members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together.” There was one member of the White House staff during the presidential term who was both queer and a parent — she even took the bairns to meet the Leader of the Free World and get their pictures snapped — and this shining Sunday, she and her partner entertained. The twins in question are extremely self-possessed toddlers, who could probably persuade me of anything given the chance. I hope no one informs them of their role in history for some time yet. To have succeeded at so much at so young an age could drain them of the ambition to get through kindergarten.

Everything has already been said about what Obama said. Consider this:

President Barack Obama’s May 9 announcement that he favors same sex marriage led to a huge spike on YouTube … YouTube is owned by the online search giant Google, which [also] saw a 458 percent increase in national searches for “Obama” and “gay marriage” between 10 am and 6pm the day Obama disclosed his views …

Matthew Nisbit, a professor of communications at American University who studies the intersection of politics and social media, said online videos and an interest in gay rights were a natural pairing. “The heaviest users of video are people under the age of 25, and gay rights is one of the few political issues young people feel passionate about,” Nisbit said. “And the gay community was an early adopter of social networking—the technology was a good fit for people of minority status looking for like-minded others.”

Following Obama’s announcement, more videos with the key words “gay marriage” were uploaded on YouTube than ever before, drawing more than 3 million views and 100,000 comments.

Am I the only person who finds that terrifying?

Anyway, I can add nothing but point to a couple of interesting consistencies in all those images and words.

What am I pointing at? Huck and Jim on the raft, by Thomas Hart Benton

You might call one of them the Persistent Sexiness of Race, or Raciness of Sex. Put simply: sex and race are the two authentic American obsessions. But so close are they to every American’s pulsing heart that proximity induces blindness, and natives of these territories have considerable difficulty telling them apart, or deciphering where, when, or how they interrelate or -twine. On one day, your average white American will go from believing that sex was invented by non-white people — carried to this shore to sap the moral rigor of austere Puritans who reproduced by spores — to supposing that non-white people are fierce enemies of sex in general, paralyzed by their primitive inability to appreciate orgasms, orifices, or online porn. When it comes to homosexuality, there are thus two versions. Either black people are responsible for it, because they got the gender roles all wrong (“Come back to the raft ag’in, Huck honey!” cries Jim in the one true, classic narrative of the American Dream, and surely the white boy’s comparative health is figured in the fact that his name rhymes with “Fuck” as any proper man’s should); or black people are going, by their weird and regressive goetic magic at the ballot box, to forbid loving white people from enjoying the rightful dignity of gay marriages in jurisdictions from Palo Alto to High Point.

It’s inevitable, then, that the first African-American president’s support for LGBT people should be read through these antinomies. Even before Obama took the plunge, the Washington Post warned him:

African Americans, one of the main pillars of the President’s political coalition, remain decidedly skeptical about gay marriage. In the last year’s worth of Post-ABC [polling] data, just 42 percent said they support legalization while 55 percent oppose it. … Coming out in support of gay marriage … would clearly thrill a portion of his base (gays and lesbians) but it could alienate — at least in parts — another portion of his base (African Americans) that he desperately needs to win reelection this fall.

Now, there is plenty of counter-evidence of sympathy and support in black communities. Just yesterday the executive board of the N.A.A.C.P. — the country’s “most prominent civil rights group,” as the New York Times notes — overwhelmingly passed a resolution declaring that “We support marriage equality consistent with equal protection under the law provided under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.” The legendary African-American activist Julian Bond told the Times that the vote “proves that conventional wisdom” about black opposition to marriage equality “is not true.”

Still, where there are divisions, as many people have pointed out, the tenor of white LGBT activists’ advocacy bears a substantial share of the blame. Last week Andrew Sullivan (who wept when his “father figure” affirmed his marital authenticity) wrote a piece for Newsweek, speculatively borrowing Obama’s racial identity in service to Sullivan’s own gay one:

Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet. He had to discover his black identity and then reconcile it with his white family, just as gays discover their homosexual identity and then have to reconcile it with their heterosexual family.

It’s not the same, you want to scream. Experience is not to be expropriated like that. Assimilating race to sexuality, as though both were purely defined by internal awareness and “discovered” the same way, is likely to put off plenty of non-gay African-Americans, and possibly some gay ones. Moreover, Sullivan has an unerring instinct for finding ways to be more alienating.  It’s an article of his faith that he invented the campaign for gay marriage, and that it’s a right-wing idea. (How Sullivan continues to call himself conservative, when he dissents from the right on every issue from Obamacare to Israel, is one of the present era’s greater mysteries. The only leftists he appears to dislike are the gay ones, perhaps more from sour memories than ideology.) “Marriage equality started out as a conservative revolt within the gay community,” he wrote: “Gay conservatives and Republicans helped pioneer gay marriage as an issue.” And in a rather pissy-sounding email to Gay City News (capable of making anyone pissy, to be sure), he added:

[I]t was a struggle to be heard above those on the left arguing for employment protection, hate crimes, and economic ‘justice’ as core priorities… Without the emergence of the gay right, I don’t think we would have come as far as we have.

Those quotes taloning “justice” are the giveaway. They show how little a perspective informed by Sullivan would make sense to many African-Americans, for whom material inequality and economic reality are the urgent facts of politics.

It’s true that “civil marriage is a civil right and a matter of civil law,” as the N.A.A.C.P’s president said; and as one former N.A.A.C.P. official informed the TImes, the resolution entailed “coming to a very civil rights understanding of marriage equality versus a theological understanding of marriage.” Does that make marriage “the new civil rights movement,” though? Does that make Obama’s embrace the equivalent (as Jonathan Rauch suggests) of LBJ adopting MLK’s language and intoning, “We shall overcome”? Uh, no. Marriage is a civil right, but not a political right. Being deprived of it marks out “impaired citizenship,” in Gayle Rubin’s phrase; but it doesn’t mark you as deprived of entry, respect, resources, or decision-making throughout the entire public realm.  The laws and prejudices that did isolate LGBT people in that way have, in the US, largely receded over forty or fifty years, thanks to the long labors of people living and dead; it’s only possible to talk about marriage because those more terrible impediments have eased.  Imagine living your lifetime without the right to marry, and then imagine living it without the right to vote. You’ll understand what I mean, and maybe see why the uncritical comparison to the civil rights movement is, for some African-Americans, annoying.

Huey P. Newton, 1942-1989

That said, African-American history has confronted the denial of both rights — slave marriages, of course, had no status in law, and African slaves were unable to make a legal contract. There are several things to draw from this, but one is that the “outreach” model — where white gay activists troop out to teach African-American communities why the marriage battle is important — is crazy. Too much experience and wisdom about having your rights curtailed lie on the other side. Listening and learning are a better stance for marriage activists than presumptuously leaping to the parallels. And a deep African-American engagement with the issues we would now call “sexual rights” goes back centuries –certainly way farther back than the movement activist Bayard Rustin, a true civil rights hero who seems, all the same, to be the only black gay man some people can name these days. (Obama has now put a tribute to him on his campaign website.) In my perverse way, I prefer to cite  Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, who on August 15, 1970 gave a speech on “The Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements”:

Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion. I say “whatever your insecurities are” because as we very well know, sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth, and want a woman to be quiet. We want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid that we might be homosexual; and we want to hit the women or shut her up because we are afraid that she might castrate us, or take the nuts that we might not have to start with.

We must gain security in ourselves and therefore have respect and feelings for all oppressed people. … Remember, we have not established a revolutionary value system; we are only in the process of establishing it.

Now, that’s honest.

The second consistent note of the Obama commentaries is what I would call the Politics of Premature Ejaculation. It consists of announcing, midway through any controversy,  that it’s over, all over — even though the fat lady has neither sung, nor shivered, nor even opened her mouth. Liberals, acolytes of Enlightenment and its pre-ordained triumphs, are particularly prone to this. Thus the American Prospect proclaimed the war over marriage equality “is over,” the opposition a “lost cause.” “Support for marriage equality has crossed the halfway point, and no one in their right mind could think there will be some reversal in that trend.” Yet conservative David Link also contended, “As a national matter, today we can envision as a reality the last days of government discrimination.”

This contention is a bit weird, since national polls don’t decide the issue. In 31 states, it’s already decided. That’s the number that have added amendments to their constitutions banning recognition of same-sex marriages, all since the marriage wars began.  North Carolina passed the latest, the day before the President’s announcement. Unless a certain four justices of the US Supreme Court all perish of salmonella from eating Nino Scalia’s calamari, and Obama gets to replace them, most of these bans will take decades to reverse, either by votes or courts.

everything that rises must converge

Nonetheless, two successive Gallup soundings have now shown a thin majority in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, a far cry from the nearly two-thirds opposed a decade and a half ago. This is neither final victory nor the tidal inevitability of Progress, but it is no negligible fact, either. The commentariat is busy trying to explain the sea-change: is is the neighbors? is it the TV?

Did popular culture bring us here –  … Ellen Degeneres and popular sitcoms like ABC’s “Modern Family”? Or is our liberalized attitude just a cumulative effect of the straight community having more contact with “out” gay couples who, like them, just strive to form loving families and raise well-adjusted kids?

I have a different take. Opinions changed on marriage because marriage didn’t change anything.

the weather in Sodom: maybe we should move the wedding inside

For all the apocalypse predicted when Massachusetts went off the deep end into Gomorrah in 2004, the impact of eight states opening civil marriage to same-sex couples has been pretty much nonexistent. For the couples themselves — those who availed themselves of the opportunity — it’s been nice enough, primarily in terms of symbolic recognition (all at the local level; federal rights, which include immigration and income-tax benefits, of course are still debarred.) But nobody else has been inconvenienced in the slightest. Nobody else’s marriage was devalued or changed in any way. Most people didn’t even notice. Of course, Pat Robertson and preacherdom can fulminate that brimstone impends: “In history there’s never been a civilization ever in history [sic] that has embraced homosexuality and turned away from traditional fidelity, traditional marriage, traditional child-rearing, and has survived.”  But eight years after avenging fires should have crisped us, the polity continues as if nothing had happened at all.

If you believe, as many people now do, that marriage is the end point and goal of LGBT people’s liberation struggles, this is all remarkable. How many revolutions have succeeded by changing nothing? When in history has a people been granted rights long denied them, and left everybody else completely undisturbed? America is still grappling with the massive consequences and implications of African-Americans’ sixty year-old civil rights movement, even if it remained unfinished. Europe’s emancipation of the Jews in the nineteenth century still has echoes, heard alike in debates about the conduct of Israel and the identity of France. Most contemporary social movements — the ones the French call the révolution des sans — are defined by people wanting something others have. The sans papiers, the immigrants, want to break the borders; the sans emploi want jobs and benefits; the sans abri, housing. The enthusiasm and the resistance they rouse both reside in the struggle to wrest those things away from their accumulators, to redistribute possessions and prepositions, to turn “without” into a “with.” Is the movement of the sans épouses distinctive in that it doesn’t ask anybody to bother?

really a very simple request

You could argue that this means the gay movement’s inner meaning really is conservative, as Sullivan argues. If marriage is its core issue, then the movement has no positive demands to make on government, for benefits or protections. It just wants a little recognition; then leave it alone. It’s a very good movement, modest in its aspirations and quiet in its manner, leaving the peace unbreached and the indifferent untroubled. David Link writes, “However we get to marriage equality, I’m going to view that as the end of the line.  I don’t want the government discriminating against me, and once it doesn’t, my activist days will be over.” But he adds:

The left expects more of government.  In addition to not discriminating itself, the left believes government should also act to prohibit others from discriminating, and should do a lot more as well.

And beyond that, there was an old left dream of social transformation as well: an idea, often slipping toward the Utopian, that individual lives and their interconnections could be radically renewed. And should be. Changez la vie! Sous les pavés, la plage. And more.

I don’t think Link quite gets what the movement has really done.

My belief is: the sheer innocuousness of the success of marriage doesn’t mean the LGBT movement itself is innocuous. It means that the historic meaning, the larger impact, of the LGBT movement lies quite elsewhere. There is a radical change, partly accomplished and partly still to be fulfilled, that marriage misses. It’s not that marriage is an unimportant goal; but it is only achievable when the deeper, the more lasting and far-reaching challenges to reality as it was given us have been launched and felt. Some historian a century from now, I’d guess, would see the real effects of the movement not in wedding vows but in the widespread acceptance of a radical claim to everybody’s sexual freedom and bodily autonomy; the insistent assertion that customarily “private” acts have public and political relevance; the tectonic shifts in gender roles and the way they’re understood. When we — by we I meant the movement, or the movements — talk about marriage as our political terminus ad quem, we are a bit like Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities, contemplating courses that are perfectly plausible but somehow not quite authentic, not his life’s meaning, not himself. “But whatever destiny awaited him, he knew it must be something entirely different.”

N.B. For a collection of skeptical writings about same-sex marriage and US politics, see the resources here. 

3 thoughts on “Obama, marriage, race, rights

  1. You are on an arrogant high horse and should go make a study of the fact that in most public school jurisdictions in the U.S. today, most LGBT students’ rights to a fear-free, harassment-free education are not being protected.

  2. Scott,

    You’ve stated quite clearly why marriage should not be the “end goal,” but why marriage should be a goal at all you haven’t defended. Moreover, it seems you don’t buy the argument that marriage is a “right-wing” idea (it may not have been invented by Sullivan, but it certainly has its roots in a conservative and reactionary brand of gay politics).

    I’m curious what you find worthwhile about marriage equality at all. Sure, you could say it’s a barometer of the progress that gay liberation activists have made, but the cost and energy that has gone behind the marriage battle (arguably at the expense of more basic and necessary struggles) seems a little excessive for a mere metric.

    For me, Nancy Polikoff’s book (Beyond Same Sex Marriage) summed up pretty well not only why marriage is not the battle worth fighting, but why winning marriage equality in the US, ahead of winning more basic rights, has actually had *detrimental* effects for queer (and other) people. In the states where marriage equality exists, she notes, the opportunity for declaring someone a “domestic partner” in order to share benefits (within both the public and private sector) has nearly disappeared — and in some cases “domestic partnership” even *extended* to straight people. Now the rule is either get married or go home. Meanwhile, in Colorado, where same-sex marriage is banned under the state’s constitution, unmarried couples are offered the somewhat ingenuous option of “designated beneficiary agreements,” which allows them to choose the precise benefits and legal obligations they do or do not want to share.

  3. This article is full of illogical half-baked arguments. One, Sullivan is hardly the only or even the best advocate for marriage. Debunking his arguments therefore proves nothing. Why not engage with a more serious thinker like Evan Wolfson or Martha Nussbaum? Second, no issue is simply “conservative” or “radical.” Those are simplistic labels that may be useful in polemics but not in serious thought. Third, the struggles of LGBT people are indeed comparable to those of African-Americans; no analogy is ever exact because every analogy compares two things that are both similar and different. LGBT people are being legally thrown out of their jobs and homes, denied custody of their children, denied the right to inherit, denied promotion (heard of the recent case of a man being refused a judgeship just because he is gay?), separated from their spouses due to unequal immigration laws, routinely defamed and bullied, and illegally murdered every day in the US. In other parts of the world, they are being legally imprisoned, persecuted and executed. More importantly, all of this has been going on for centuries in Europe and America. Homosexuals were executed and publicly tortured in Europe till the 19th century; they were incarcerated in concentration camps in Nazi Germany. In other words, there is a long history of persecution that is definitely comparable to that of African-Americans. Thirdly, because some people characterize marriage as the end of the movement, that does not mean that serious thinkers ever imagine that to be the case. And I don’t know what innocuous “success of marriage” you are talking about because it certainly has not succeeded . Therefore it makes no sense to say that it has succeeded and left everything unchanged. When full marriage equality arrives (if it does in our lifetimes) throughout the world, examine the situation then and decide whether everything is unchanged. A major flaw throughout the article is that it treats the US as insulated from the rest of the world. And this is one important way the LGBT struggle is indeed different from that of African-Americans; we (like women) exist everywhere in the world and therefore our struggle is not, especially in today’s world, understandable in the context of just one nation, however powerful. It can only be understood in an international context.

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